During the 1942 Quit India movement, a 16-year-old sang ‘Agnijugor firingoti moi’ (I’m a spark in the age of fire) determined to build a new Bharat. The fires — in India and beyond, World War 2 included — never ceased to singe Bhupen Hazarika since.
Some draw a parallel between balladeer Hazarika and troubadour Bob Dylan. But Hazarika went beyond singing the times they are achangin’. He lyrically documented the changing times, moved by mutinies, hoping every fire would generate enough warmth to erase physical and psychological barriers.
So when Hazarika fought the 2004 Lok Sabha election on a BJP ticket, many thought the ‘Right’ turn had gobbled up the fire within him. Those who knew him well neutralised the last Leftist cell that might have survived in Hazarika’s psyche after the disillusionment with China in 1962.
In 1953, Hazarika was influenced by mahaan Mao (Zedong) to compose ‘Pratidhhwani’ (echo), celebrating the birth of a ‘new China across the mountains on India’s border’. Reporting for an Assamese magazine from the Kameng (Arunachal Pradesh) frontier in 1962, he was pained by shatrur pashuttwa (enemy’s barbarism) to sing ‘Kato jowanor mrityu hol’ (So many soldiers have died).
The Chinese aggression that year made him tweak ‘Pratidhhwani’ to echo the screams of Indians ‘across the mountains bordering my village (Sadiya, his birthplace on Assam’s easternmost tip)’ victimised by ‘nation (Tibet)-grabbing bastards sired by a hitherto civilised China’.
That song dripping with hatred for the Chinese was an aberration, though. Hazarika chose to be PB Shelley’s idea of an ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’, moving across the globe with a sack full of sonorous songs on peaceful coexistence and the futility of bloodshed.
For instance, the Assamese-Bengali riots of 1960 pained Hazarika to sing ‘Maanuhe maanuhor baabey’ (If man cannot feel for man, who will?), which was inspired by Kingston Trio’s ‘Hang down your head Tom Dooley’. The bridge-building went global with ‘Moi eti jajabor’ (I am a nomad), ‘O Ganga baheti ho kyun’ and ‘Aami ekekhon nawore jatri’ (based on Paul Robeson’s ‘We are in the same boat brother’).
If the 1965 Indo-Pak war made him ask between Ayub Khan and Bhutto jaan who was the kshiyaal (fox) and who was the kshingho (lion), the cooperative movement of the 1970s made him tell ‘Emuthi chaulor kahini’ (Story of a fistful of rice). He also documented the change of mood during movements such as the anti-foreigners’ Assam agitation from ‘Meghe girgir kore’ (The clouds are rumbling) to ‘Mahabahu Brahmaputra’ espousing assimilation of people from across the Indian subcontinent.
Likewise, ‘Saraipungor kopou sorai’ (Doves of Saraipung, a jungle in eastern Assam where United Liberation Front of Asom had its headquarters in 1991) led to ‘Suryoday jodi lakhya amaar, suryastor piney dhaboman kiyo’ (Why are we racing toward sunset if sunrise — allusion to Ulfa’s rising sun symbol — is what we seek?).
The sun of Hazarika’s life has set. But for his fans — in India, Bangladesh and beyond — he will shine forever.