Balladeer Extraordinaire

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The prodigiously talented musician was the defining element of Assamese identity and culture, remembers Nilim Dutta

BORN INTO a family of modest means, steeped in Assamese culture, Bhupen Hazarika’s prodigious talent became evident at a tender age when he began to compose, set to tune and then sing his own compositions with a flair unmatched by many with similar interest and comparable talent in music. Naturally, this endeared him to cultural stalwarts such as Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, who took it upon themselves to nurture and temper his unbounded talent.

End of an era: Bhupen Hazarika’s genius transcended barriers
End of an era: Bhupen Hazarika’s genius transcended barriers, Photo: Luit Chaliha

In 1937, by the age of 11, Hazarika had composed and set to tune his first song. Two years later, Agarwala and Rabha helped Hazarika cut his first gramophone record. It was al`so the year when Agarwala, the pioneer of Assamese films, had Hazarika sing and act in Indramalati. The boy wonder had found his niche very early in life, which was to later become a defining part of his unparallelled creative legacy.

Even as Hazarika evolved as a poet, lyricist, composer and singer, his quest for academic excellence continued, goaded by the thirst for knowledge and intellectual satisfaction. He became one of the youngest students to graduate with a Master’s degree from Benares Hindu University in 1946.

End of an era: endearing him to fans all over India
End of an era: endearing him to fans all over India, Photo: Ujjal Deb

Meanwhile, India’s long struggle for freedom was approaching a decisive climax and the idealism and intellectual ferment of this tumultuous age deeply influenced his intellectual outlook.

Hazarika soon left for the distant shores of New York to continue his academic quest and obtain a Master’s and Phd degrees in mass communications from the famed Columbia University. Inevitably, he got drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and soon endeared himself to one of the resistance’s stalwarts, legendary black singer-composer Paul Robeson.

It was while in Columbia that Hazarika received his first international recognition, a gold medallion from the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for being an unparallelled interpreter of India’s folk music.

It was also at Columbia where Hazarika met his future wife, Priyambada Patel, who relinquished a promising diplomatic career to accompany him back to India as he set off on his remarkable creative journey.

Assam, however, proved to be too small a canvas for Hazarika’s seemingly limitless creative energy. In 1955, he relocated to Kolkata and within a short time endeared himself to the masses of Bengal. It is also the period when he spread his wings as a versatile filmmaker, lyricist, music director and playback singer. While his creative career soared, his marriage unravelled and soon he and his wife parted ways. They did so, however, with dignity and remained each other’s well-wisher forever.

Later, Hazarika relocated to Mumbai, the heart of Hindi cinema and set the entire nation swooning in the magical lyricism of Rudaali, directed by his long-time companion Kalpana Lajmi. In 1993, the nation honoured him with the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

THE IDEALISM and the intellectual and creative ferment of the revolutionary age fired Hazarika’s creative genius. The company of great minds and leaders tempered his intellectual brilliance.

However, it was as a balladeer extraordinaire that Hazarika ruled the hearts and minds of his innumerable admirers. His songs were unmistakably rooted to the earthiness of the land in which he was born, yet tempered in his inimitable style by a universal idiom that appealed to one and all, breaching the narrow confines of linguistic and ethnic identity.

In style and substance, the more than 600 songs he composed and sang, displayed a range of amazing versatility.

He could sing evocatively about the struggles of the downtrodden with the same ease as he could sing in tender longing of a beloved or her beauty in surrealistic, sensuous eroticism — each song revealing a new aspect of his versatility.

Hazarika’s passing away has brought to end an era of unbounded creativity that became a defining element of Assamese identity and culture and instilled in his brethren a rare sense of confidence and pride any nation perpetually craves for.

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