Bhupen Hazarika’s work inspired Assam’s sub-nationalism
Civilian honours have long been a political project of the government in power. Of the three awardees, Bhupen Hazarika’s may seem the least political in terms of the contemporary contours of electoral politics, but examine his work as a lyricist, singer, composer, writer and you find that many of his songs were highly political.Updated: Jan 29, 2019, 07:47 IST
The announcement of the Bharat Ratna has expectedly raised questions about awarding India’s highest civilian honours to Pranab Mukherjee and Nanaji Deshmukh due to their past and present politics, but there is hardly a murmur of criticism about awarding it to the third individual: the much-celebrated Bhupen Hazarika. The only criticism so far has been that it was long overdue and that he should have been so honoured during his lifetime (he passed away in 2011). The largely enthusiastic and non-political reaction to Hazarika masks his brief dalliance with the BJP, when he contested and lost from Guwahati in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, but a closer look at his life’s work reveals that it was anything but non-political.
Civilian honours have long been a political project of the government in power. Of the three awardees, Hazarika’s may seem the least political in terms of the contemporary contours of electoral politics, but examine his work as a lyricist, singer, composer, writer and you find that many of his songs were highly political. Art and politics often influenced each other as several of his songs stand out not only because they bridged the regional divide in the north-east but also inspired nationalism as well as sub-nationalism.
The timing of the award to Hazarika is also significant. Assam and the north-east have been in the throes of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, with scenes reminiscent of the days of the Assam agitation in the mid-1980s. In some ways, not much has changed on the key issues that have long engaged and influenced politics in the area. In a state where “Centre”, “New Delhi” and “Delhi” often acquire critical — even conspiratorial — meanings due to historical and political reasons, the announcement of Bharat Ratna for Hazarika sends mixed signals in the backdrop of the uproar over the bill. An interesting dimension is that those at the top of the BJP government in the state forged their political careers on a discourse strongly opposed to the “Centre”, “New Delhi” and “Delhi” in their previous incarnations in the All Guwahati Students Union and the All Assam Students Union.
Hazarika’s songs have long provided sustenance to sub-national politics in Assam and the region. It is a remarkable fact that the values and reference points he espoused inspired Indian nationalists during the wars with China and Pakistan as well as current and former rebels, who seek Assam’s secession from India. Many of his Assamese songs were open to several interpretations. They not only reflected the sense of frustration and helplessness over Assam’s problems since 1947, but also inspired those who favoured a violent resolution to those problems, particularly the United Liberation Front of Asom. Assam’s troubled history found a rich and resounding reflection in his songs, most of whose lyrics he wrote, composed and sang.
A significant body of Hazarika’s work was deeply political. The subtext of politics was clearly woven into his songs as Assam witnessed convulsions over the foreigner issue. In a perceptive analysis tracing Assam’s contemporary politics through Hazarika’s songs, academic Sanjib Baruah writes that given his pan-Indian stature, it is significant that his lyrics are so inter-textual with mainstream Assamese social discourse and its sub-national themes. As he puts it, “One finds in his music the constant reflection of the political moods of the Assamese. Using his lyrics, one can construct an unofficial history of the Assamese nationality its hopes, aspirations, and disappointments. Even the most recent radical and militant turn that Assamese sub-nationalism took in the 1980s...found more than a pale reflection in Hazarika’s music…[His] music, and indeed his entire career, are texts that underscore the compatibility and dialogical relationship between Assamese sub nationalism and pan-Indianism.”
Hazarika composed an inspirational song in 1968 that anticipated the Assam movement against ‘foreign nationals’. The song’s lyrics celebrate, among other Assamese cultural heroes, Ambikagiri Roychaudhuri (1885-1967), a firebrand nationalist who was jailed during the freedom movement. In the song, Hazarika laments that ‘we no longer have an Ambikagiri to remind us day and night that our land has gone’. Another version of the song recorded at the height of the Assam movement celebrated the ‘thousands’ who were ‘responding to Ambikagiri’s call’.
During the infamous 1983 elections in Assam, held in the backdrop of massacres and boycotts, Hazarika wrote a ballad, 1983 – the year of the devastating fire – the year of the election, which describes a “little brother” who was killed. In the lyrics, Hazarika sought to build a collective Assamese connection to a martyr of 1983 by evoking ties of family and of a village community. The martyr becomes every parent’s son, every sibling’s brother, and every person’s friend.
The song asks: “My little brother disappeared that year. Do you have any news of him? He wanted to build his country and to secure a happy future for those who live in Assam. He did not want to become a stranger in his own land.” It evokes the emotional connection with a family, and says: “Mother does not eat her food, the village youth all wait for you each day, your sister lights an earthen lamp in your room every day and poor old dad goes to the railway station every day, hoping to find you in one of the trains.”
Baruah also analyses and translates the lines of one of his later songs that was set to a martial melody that applauds bravery, sacrifice and heroism: “I salute mother Assam and I dress up to go to war. I salute the river Luit (another name for Brahmaputra) and pray to Goddess Kamakhya; with your blessings and an oath, I am off to war...It is not the time to teach history lessons, it is not the time to take it easy; the enemy taunts us at our gates, leave aside your daily tasks, get ready for war and be prepared to lay down your lives.”
Reflecting the turbulent times of the 1980s and early 1990s, when ULFA had unleashed a spree of violence and killings, one of Hazarika’s songs depicted an Assam where the stillness of death has overwhelmed life: “There is neither joy, nor sorrow. There is no laughter and no tears...There are no rules and no norms...There is only the chess game of death day in and day out. And amidst it, all things of beauty flee in fear.”
Noting the deeply inter-textual nature of Hazarika’s work, Baruah writes: “[His] music illustrates the imaginative possibilities of making India’s regional sub-nationalism compatible with pan-Indian nationalism.
Few of India’s cultural icons have so clearly reflected politics, and guided people through difficult times as Hazarika did in his lifetime.