Remembering a Legend: Bhupen Hazarika

Widely known as Sudhakantha, Bhupen Hazarika was a multifaceted Indian artist, famously referred to as the uncrowned king of North-Eastern India’s cultural world. He was an extremely talented person who lived his whole life as a poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author, politician and a renowned film-maker of the highest character. He was discovered by his mentors at a young age, who helped him outshine. Bhupen rendered music, wrote lyrics and sung for numerous Assamese, Bengali and Hindi films which created a ceaseless impression on both Assamese and Indian cinema, literature, and music. He was known for his crisp baritone voice and flawless diction.

Early life:
Bhupen Hazarika was born on the 8th of September, 1926 to Nilakanta and Shantipriya Hazarika in Sadiya, Assam. The eldest of ten children, he was opened to the elements of musical influence of his mother, who sung him lullabies and traditional Assamese music. His father moved to the Bharalumukh region of Guwahati in 1929, in search of better prospects, where Bhupen spent his early childhood. In 1932 his father further moved to Dhubri, and in 1935 to Tezpur. It was in Tezpur where 10 year old Bhupen was spotted by Jyotiprasad Agarwala, the noted Assamese lyricist, and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, a renowned Assamese artist. Bhupen accompanied them to Kolkata where he recorded his first song at the Aurora Studio for the Selona Company. His association with the icons of Assamese Culture at Tezpur was the beginning of his artistic growth and credentials. Subsequently, Hazarika sang two songs in Agarwala’s film Indramalati (1939): Kaxote Kolosi Loi and Biswo Bijoyi Naujawan at the age of 12. He wrote his first song, Agnijugor Firingoti Moi at the age of 13 and he was well on his way to becoming a lyricist, composer and singer. He studied at Sonaram High School at Guwahati, Dhubri Government High School and matriculated from Tezpur High School in 1940. He then completed his Intermediate Arts from Cotton College in 1942, and his BA (1944) and MA (1946) in Political Science from Banaras Hindu University. For a brief period, Bhupen worked at All India Radio, Guwahati when he won a scholarship from Columbia University and set sail for New York in 1949.

Bhupen’s major works include some of the most famous Assamese songs including ‘Moi Eti Jajabor’, ‘Ganga Mor Maa’, ‘Bimurto Mur Nixati Jen’, ‘Manuhe Manuhor Babey’ and ‘Buku Hom Hom Kore’. One of his major contributions to Hindi cinema was being the music director of outstanding films such as ‘Arop’, ‘Ek Pal’, and ‘Rudaali’. He also won the ‘Best Music Director National Award’ for ‘Rudaali’ in 1993.

While studying at Columbia University in New York, Bhupen befriended Paul Robeson, a prominent civil rights activist, who influenced him in his song “Bistirno parore”, which is based on the imagery and theme of Robeson’s Ol’ Man River. Bhupen met Priyamvada Patel and they later got married in 1950. They were blessed with a son, Tej Hazarika in 1952 and he returned to India in 1953.He began close association with the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association soon after returning from the USA in 1953 and became the Secretary of the Reception Committee of the Third All Assam Conference of IPTA, held in Guwahati in 1955. In 1955, he served as the Secretary of the Reception Committee of the Third All Assam Conference of IPTA. He also served as a teacher at the Gauhati University but left the job after few years and shifted to Kolkata. Later, he became a director and made award winning Assamese films such as ‘Shakuntala Sur’ (1961) and ‘Pratidhwani’ (1964). Some of his other directorial ventures include ‘Lati-Ghati’ (1966), ‘Chik Mik Bijuli’ (1969), ‘For Whom the Sun Shines’ (1974) and ‘Mera Dharam Meri Maa’ (1976). He also worked as a composer creating timeless music for many Assamese films and Bangla movies such as ‘Aarop’ (1973), ‘Chameli Memsaab’ (1975) and ‘Shimana Perye’ (1977). He was solely responsible for installing the first state owned film studio in Guwahati, the first studio of its kind in India. He produced, directed, and composed music for Arunachal Pradesh’s first Hindi feature film in colour “Mera Dharam Meri Maa” in 1977. Apart from this he has produced directed, composed music and sang for 32 (thirty two) films in Assamese, Hindi and other languages.

Bhupen Hazarika also made a mark in the state legislative assembly from 1967 to 1972 as an Independent and shared the house with another cultural icon Bishnu Prasad Rava. Hazarika made his debut from Naoboicha assembly constituency in 1967. The assembly records show that he once sang a song on the floor of the house criticizing then finance minister Kamakhya Prasad Tripathy. During his period in the house, he turned into reality the film fraternity’s dream of a film studio. Credit goes to Hazarika for the initiation of Jyoti Chitrabon. The maestro returned to politics in 2004 when he was fielded by the BJP as its candidate from the Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency. He created the biggest pro-BJP wave in the state but narrowly lost to the Congress. That was the last time Bhupen was seen in a political contest. While in Mumbai, he worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni and Hemant Kumar.

Achievements and Awards:
• Award for the Best Feature Film in Assamese (Shakuntala; Directed by Bhupen Hazarika) in the 9th National Film Awards (1961)
• The Best Music Director National Award for “Chameli Memsaab” (Chameli Memsaab; music by Bhupen Hazarika) in the 23rd National Film Awards (1975)
• Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award in the Republic of India (1977)
• Gold medal from the State Government of Arunachal Pradesh for “outstanding contribution towards tribal welfare, and uplift of tribal culture through cinema and music.” (1979)
• All India Critic Association Award for best performing folk artist (1979)
• In 1979 and 1980 he won the Ritwik Ghatak Award as best music director for two theatre plays, Mohua Sundari, and Nagini Kanyar Kahini
• Bengal Journalist’s Association Indira Gandhi Smriti Puraskar in (1987)
• Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987)
• Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1992)
• First Indian to win Best Music for the film Rudaali at the Asia Pacific International Film Festival in Japan (1993)
• Padma Bhushan – the third highest civilian award in the Republic of India (2001)
• Honorary Degree from Tezpur University (2001)
• 10th Kalakar Award for Lifetime Achievement in the year 2002, Kolkata.
• Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (2008)
• Asom Ratna — the highest civilian award in the State of Assam, India (2009)
• In February 2009, the All Assam Students Union erected a life size statue of Hazarika on the banks of Digholi Pukhuri in Guwahati.
• A full length docu-feature biopic film on his life titled Moi Eti Zazabor(‘I am an Wanderer’) jointly directed by Late Waesqurni Bora and Arnab Jan Deka has been under production since 1986
• Muktijoddha Padak — Awarded as a “Friend of the Freedom Struggle” award by Bangladesh Government (posthumously, 2011)
• Asom Sahitya Sabha has honoured him with the title “Biswa Ratna”.
• Padma Vibhushan – second highest civilian award in the Republic of India (2012)
• A postage stamp, bearing his face, was released by India Post to honour him on 3 May 2013

It was the 5th of November 2011, when the famous legend died of a multi-organ failure in Mumbai. Almost all houses in Assam lighted lamps as homage to the maestro. In a press release, popular singer Zubin Garg talked about how the passing away of Hazarika would create a void in the cultural arena of the state. That day, members of All Assam Students’ Union gathered near the maestro’s statue at Dighalipukhuri area with people stopping to pay tribute to him by lighting lamps.
Bhupen Hazarika was a true luminary who inspired millions across generations. He was an eyewitness and thinker of life, who utilized the message of society as a part of his songs. The subjects of his melody are a wide field of study. He headed out from place to place and attempted his best to build the fellowship among the diverse tribes of Assam. Hazarika sang and made songs that mirrored the social existence of different positions, groups and tribes. The straightforwardness of country life and the socio-society of the tribal social orders of Assam have been unmistakably reflected in his melodies. Not only did he demonstrate the distinctions of people from different societies but he also tried to build up a cordial connection among every one of these tribes. His contribution towards the Assamese culture and the Indian music industry is priceless and will remain in the hearts of many people all over the world. He won hearts with his unmatchable melody and brilliant masterpieces that he accurately delivered in his works. He will continue to be one of those rare artists to have that proficiency of being a great ballad singer. His genius for weaving a magical tapestry out of traditional Assamese music and lyrics will forever live on.

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