From Bad To Verse: Remembering the peace-keepers of Assam
Rongili Biswas, daughter of musician and cultural activist Hemango Biswas, pays tribute to his unique mission, in lyrics, photos and words.
In 1960, violent riots broke out in Assam, after an act recognised Assamese as the only official language of a state with a significant Bengali-speaking population. There was mass vandalisation, with several Bengalis killed and injured.
Could culture make things better? Acclaimed musicians Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika led a team of artistes that travelled across Assam, advocating peace in their performances. It was the first, and perhaps only, instance of a cultural intervention putting an end to widespread unrest.
Biswas was one of the pioneers of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Assam, a group that played a significant role in the peace mission. His daughter Rongili Biswas, a Kolkata-based economist and folk singer, extensively researched the turbulent period for her documentary, A Song For Everyone. She brings some of her findings to an evening that incorporates talk, music and photography.
“I’ll talk about Assam’s leftist culture at the time, how the language movement unleashed the riots, and then show archival photographs and scenes from my documentary, and sing a few songs that were collaborative ventures between my father and Bhupen,” Biswas says.
Following a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts last year, Biswas retraced the route her father and Hazarika took. While many of the artistes are no longer alive, she managed to trace and interview three of them for her film.
She mentions how one song, ‘Haradhan rongmon katha’, jointly composed by the two musicians, had a far-reaching impact. “It’s the tale of a Bengali and an Assamese peasant, both of whom have lost their homes in the riots. The tune is haunting and many in the film have referred to it, recalling how it led people to tears.”
Along with co-singer Dhrupadjyoti Das, Rongili will be sing a reconstructed version of the song at the event.
Rongili believes her project assumes special importance in today’s politically fraught times. “In 1960, a performance troupe travelled to riot-torn regions and changed the atmosphere. It’s high time we reexamine how powerful culture can be as a form of resistance.”
- Shikha Kumar