Bhupen Hazarika’s poetic legacy bears emancipatory possibilities to imagine a democratic political struggle for the Brahmaputra valley’s very survival.
The Bard of Brahmaputra
It was the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s and the ‘Red Scare’ had reached its peak in the United States of America. In New York, a young man from Assam was attending lectures given by the blacklisted communist singer Paul Robeson. One such day, the black cult-icon brought a guitar to his classroom at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences and asked the gathering what on earth it was. The chorus rose to call it “a guitar”, “a musical instrument”, “an accompanying instrument”! Robeson uttered an emphatic ‘no’ and corrected the class saying that “a guitar is not a musical instrument, it is a social instrument. The strum of a guitar can alter the way a nation thinks!”
That very moment altered the life of Bhupen Hazarika, then a graduate student at the city’s Columbia University. He later wrote, ‘I too wanted to be a singer with the power to change society’. Back in 1939, at the tender age of 13, he had already composed a radical song with a social vision – ‘I am the spark of a flaming era, I shall restore to the deprived their dues and build a new India, I shall forge weapons from human skeletons and slaughter the oppressors’.
Growing up at Tezpur, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, he had been deeply influenced by the aesthetic milieu of the town. It was shaped by Assam’s two foremost artistes of that era–Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, self confessed ‘worshippers of beauty’. Both of them had a keen political eye on the ongoing anti-colonial struggle and during the decades of 1930s and 1940s, they wanted to create an art renaissance in Assam, by weaving together plays, poetry, music and cinema. It was during his formative years, the Bishnu- Jyoti duo, sowed in the young Bhupen Hazarika, the seeds of a dream of creating a progressive cultural vision for the region.
To add to that, Paul Robeson’s friendship in the United States decidedly instilled in him a lifelong zeal to create ‘music for millions’. Many would like to argue that Hazarika, till the end of his life, always remained a triptych, embodying the three canvases of his mentors – Bishnu Rabha, Jyotiprasad and Paul Robeson – carrying forward each of their dreams: the quest to build Rabha’s Mukti Deol, a temple of freedom, the quest to be Jyoti’s biswa bijoyee nojowan, the young revolutionary conqueror of the world, and at the end the quest to spread Paul’s message- ‘we are in the same boat brother’!
Yet in his life’s course, Bhupen Hazarika embarked on multiple boats to traverse varying political currents. In the larger landscape, he is seen as one of the greatest cultural communicators in South Asia’s modern history, through a package of soulful ‘universalist’ songs sung in several languages, sometimes in diverse folk tunes. On the other hand, back in Assam, he came to be seen as the most important regional figure, who had reflected and in turn constituted the collective imagination of the millions of people living by the Brahmaputra River. If on the pan-Indian stage, he was seen alongside the great left-leaning cultural figures, for his home state he is seen to have signified particular meanings, throughout the entire postcolonial period.
Such particular meanings in turn owe their roots to the complex political history of Assam. To read Bhupen Hazarika’s Assamese songs as social texts, one must locate him in the aspirations and the changing moods of the people of Assam. Perceptions of marginalization by Indian national narratives have historically formed subnationalist currents in Assam’s politics. In such a climate of mass uprisings ever since the 1960s, Hazarika’s songs wanted to pay homage to the hundreds of thousands of people who had come out to the streets. Coming to realize the serious shortcomings of a ‘nationally’ oriented socialist politics for a complex postcolonial periphery, he decided early on, not always to travel on theoretically prescribed trajectories. Instead, Hazarika went on to invoke the mother motif for his trouble-torn land and rhetorically warned the so called advocates of a shallow cosmopolitanism – ‘Unless you wipe the tears of your mother’s eyes, your love for the world will be wasted. If you become a crippled limb in the world’s body, will the world love you for that?’
Nonetheless, enough waters have flown down the Brahmaputra! Today we are at a juncture when his ‘beautiful Assam, the land of sunrise in India’s eastern marges’, has reached an unbeautiful predicament. The fragile ‘ethnoscape’ of ‘the land of the red river and the blue hills’, and the tales of a million mutinies should give us a new urgency to engage with Bhupen Hazarika’s legacy. The unstable peace of Assam invites us to reread the texts, and re-imagine a new cultural discourse – infused with the melodies of those old ballads – upon which the survival of this diverse river-valley rests.
I would often imagine the Brahmaputra and Bhupen Hazarika, as flipsides of the same metaphor, indistinguishable and interwoven. If the river was the silent mirror that reflected the history of the vast humanity that has inhabited this land, the bard was the voice that echoed this history. The ceaseless flow of the Brahmaputra, through the ages, had rendered the green soil of the land fertile for everyone to settle along and this in turn inspired Bhupen Hazarika to spin dreams of unity through his music. Today, when both stand the risk of being claimed by hegemonic discourses for exclusive imaginations, the challenge is to revive the multiplicities of both the bard and the Brahmaputra – the people’s singer and the people’s river.
That is because Bhupen Hazarika’s music spoke directly to the heterogeneous humanity of the Brahmaputra valley, cutting across boundaries– from the poor fisherman to the autorickshaw-puller, from the peasant in his field to the young girl weaving at the loom, from the young man in his country-boat to the ‘tribal’ old man gathering woods in the hill forests, from the mahut riding an elephant in the dense forests of Goalpara to the leaf-pickers of Assam’s countless tea gardens. In turn, as if he was speaking to the Brahmaputra itself, to ‘the ceaselessly flowing waters of the tired Luit, which turn crimson red, smearing the fancy hues of the setting sky!’ He would go on to chronicle the social history of his land through his ballads and would sing- ‘a multitude of humanity on both the banks, multitudes of histories, breathes of hopes and heart-loss down the ages!’
Even so, the river’s silent witness to the social crisis on its banks anguished Hazarika. He would protest to his beloved Luit, calling it a cold old man. Inspired by Robeson’s song ‘Ol’ Man River’, the celebrated working-class anthem of the African Americans along the Mississippi River, Hazarika wrote and sang for his own people- ‘Though you hear, the cries of despair, of the hordes who dwell on your boundless banks, oh Burha Luit, why do you roll impassively, silently on?’
The sheer frustration with the Old Man River that ‘don’t say nothing, jes’ keep rolling along’ would extend to the Ganges, to express his camaraderie with the people’s struggles across Northern India. Indeed, to sing of the great rivers of the world, from the Mississippi to the Nile to the Volga, and the liberation of the people on their banks was Bhupen Hazarika’s passion for life and he said, ‘Each wayfarer I met made me feel at home, and that is why I remain a roving nomad’. The Ganga and the Padma, the Meghna and the Yamuna, are ‘all mother’ rivers; ‘streams of tears from the same eyes’ and ‘the sky and the wind are the same’ for all the riverine people, along the green plains of South Asia. Through such imageries of rivers merging into one common sea, he would make his deeper political point – the dream of building solidarity among the dispossessed masses by transcending the ‘shadow-lines’ that divide people and nations.
The necessity to transcend is indeed the subtle message of all of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs. However, in the bard’s world view, true transcendence is that which is not seen as a submission into some ‘other’ cultural hegemony that could erase local histories. This was his attempt at negotiating the perturbing ‘nation- question’ for a peripheral people increasingly bordered in someone else’s idea of India. Therefore he wished to emphasize the sovereign cultural imagination of a region of the modern times and only then, could today’s ‘great regions’ come together to form ‘great nations’, that in turn a ‘great world’.
Therefore the events that had evolved out of the local populace’s worries of economic, cultural and linguistic subjugation deeply affected Bhupen Hazarika. And he made rather forceful statements to suggest that his support for such mass movements should not be seen as an exercise in parochial provincialism – ‘Assam too has the rights to look up to the sun and fight for its dues; By dubbing such aspirations as narcissistic, you are hiding your own evil transgressions’. For all his life, he sang, ‘To say that I love my mother, can in no way mean, I hate the other’s’.
In retrospect, it is evident that Bhupen Hazarika blended the ideals of Marxism with the perceived powers of an inclusive ‘subnationalism’, to imagine a humanist struggle that would help uplift the people of the Brahmaputra valley from their destitution and daily humiliations. However, to realize this goal, the revival of Assam’s multiculturalism and the imagination of a unified regionalism were central -‘So many nations, and subnations, with their vibrant cultures, came together and embraced, and my beloved Assam was made. If we do not forget, our divides that separate, and if do not toil, with our hands on our soil, and rebuild our land, this land will go to hell!’
His ‘Assamese’, therefore was a ‘nationality’, equally composed of every community of the region, created by a confluence of peoples. ‘Those who have come from afar and have called the land of the Luit mother are the neo-Assamese’. Even during the tumultuous Assam Movement, Bhupen Hazarika never lost sight of the real issues- that of the structural malice of the Indian nation state, that of the politico-economic discrimination towards the people of his region, on which the resolution of all other issues depended.
For that reason, rather than celebrating the consoled bourgeois- imaginations, he would sing to caution – ‘Today , I salute you all the Assamese people, new and old, and want to remind you, if Assam’s public does not wake up, ‘durbhog’ (misfortune) will grip us even during the prosperous bhogali Bihu, and the joyous heritage of Rongali Bihu too will turn into the destitution of Kongali Bihu…If today’s Assamese do not save themselves, Assam will be plunged into beggary, Being born in this world, one must be conscious, else we will lose all the rights we deserve’. Such awareness would in turn prepare all for a social resurgence to resolve the wrongs of a rather unfair history.
Assam: History’s Pandora’s Box
We have learnt from Marx, how through a cruel process of ‘primitive accumulation’, an emergent capitalist class appropriated, commodified and privatized peasant land, commons and all communal holdings; and thereby separated the very producers from their means of production. In Capital, he famously put it, ‘the history of this, their expropriation is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’ Any exploration of the history of Northeast India, not only validates such interpretations, but also shows how this was an ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Examining the convergence of ‘nature and nation’, social anthropologist Bengt G. Karlsson has drawn our attention to the paradox which sums up the region’s fate-‘rich environment, poor people’!
One can argue that through an intricate concoction of ecology and economy, modern Assam was made sometime in the nineteenth century. Historian Jayeeta Sharma has eloquently shown us how the advent of the British in 1826 changed the fate of the region permanently as the colonial state transformed a jungle-laden frontier into a cultivated system of tea plantations, making Assam an ‘Empire’s Garden’. Eating up the endless tracts of Assam’s most fertile lands, the export oriented tea enterprise, tied the region to the capitalist world market solely for the profit of the lords in London; but in return altered its social landscape completely by the induced settlement of more than one million migrants. The colonial plunder was hidden under the carpets through a wide ranging rhetoric of “improvement” and “progress” (unnati).
What progress Assam achieved is a matter of wonder! Explaining the never-ending inter-ethnic violence ever since the 1980s, political scientist Sanjib Baruah argued that this was a result of the contradictions among the many worlds created by modernity. If the textbook history teaches us about modernization as a list of good things brought about by the West such as national unity, democracy, and constitutionalism, he asks the question – ‘how would one make sense of the rest of the package that came to Assam along with modernity! For example, political conquest, tea plantations, private property, economic incorporation into larger market networks, the dispossession of peoples whose command over resources was governed by rules of precapitalist social formations, and the violent militant expeditions of the colonial modernizers against “primitives” and “savages”- that often, were methods of dispossession?’
And one of the clues to the current imbroglio of a ‘Durable Disorder’ indeed lies in the nineteenth century history, what Baruah has called the ‘clash of resource use regimes’. From the times of the Ahom state, the precolonial economy was such that most Assamese peasants did not practice settled agriculture due to the abundance of land across the vast green plains of the Brahmaputra valley. The advent of the colonial land settlement policy and the merger with the British Indian state, not only connected Assam into a global resource use regime, but also dispossessed the peasantry in more ways than one- the obvious burden of tax, but more importantly, the complete denial of access to the surrounding land, which all peasants more or less, traditionally availed, both for occasional cultivation, to collect fish, fruits and vegetables and for essential non-agricultural purposes such as collecting house building materials, raw material for basket weaving, and very crucially also to raise silkworms for the large indigenous silk industry.
Further the reckless grab of what was called Assam’s ‘wastelands’ became the goose that would forever lay golden eggs for the English tea company, but with the blood and sweat of migrant men and women from places as far as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, who were brought a century and a half back. Unlike many a creative reflection of poets and writers, Bhupen Hazarika’s ballads do not romanticize the tea gardens as aesthetic sites of regal imagery. The Adivasis, the community of tea garden workers, despite the baggage of extreme mistreatment, have retained with them fragmented memories of distant lands long left, echoed in their rich songs and dances.
Deeply aware of their plight and history, Bhupen Hazarika becomes one of them, shares their joys and sorrows through his songs, singing in their tune the love story of Janakpur tea garden’s Janaki with Ratanpur’s Budhu. Capturing the highly gendered space of the tea-picking woman, he becomes the voice of Chameli, the young jolly girl, who has to constantly bear the brunt of the sahib’s lustful advances. Despite her love for the new land, she laments at the end-‘Oh my English Lord, why did you bring me here, deceiving all the way?’
And if regions too, like nations are ‘imagined communities’ and are constructed through a play of myths and histories, then the ballads of his Mising Brother or the Bodo sister, the Gorkhali girl who lost her cow or the Khasi farmer playing the shorati flute , the people on the Karbi hills or the East Bengali Muslims who came to Assam dispossessed by the floods of the Padma river, carry deeper meanings, promises of the future. It is in such a ‘poetics of space’, Bhupen Hazarika’s songs unites all along the Brahmaputra valley and creates a rainbow region, with a proud cultural heritage.
Looking back, it needs little overstressing that land and resource use are at the heart of all conflicts in Assam, the struggles over which wars were waged between the state and the society, between the ethnic groups, between one another. The colonial legacy of profit-oriented planting of people everywhere and the commodification of agriculture, in order to ‘civilize’ and ‘improvize’ the land created our modern destiny. Peoples who were at the receiving end of this, more than others, were the ‘tribes’ of Assam who had been traditionally practicing a hunting-gathering economy along with shifting cultivation. As thousands of peasants had been brought to settle in the ‘surplus lands, the local tribes of Assam began to feel left out by the new socio-economic formations.
Yet the memory of a past, a time of harmony and union, and of a peaceful cultural economy, forged by the confluence of different groups never eludes Bhupen Hazarika. Mesmerized by the spectacular beauty of the Tirap frontier of Arunachal Pradesh, the bard reminisced the precolonial times, singing – ‘In the good old days of the Ahom Swargadeo, the Noktes came down the hills, to exchange salt; such were the times, Sri Sri Ram Aata embraced the Nokte king, and christened him Narottam, nara-uttam-the best among humans, and said if humans turn human, and hug one another, no caste-creed matter!’
For a region whose cultural boundaries were always blurred, all throughout the ‘pre-modern times’, Hazarika’s songs imagine a landscape of bonhomie between the people of the green plains of the Brahmaputra valley and the eastern Himalayan hills that surround it – “The Galongs of Siang, the Khamtis of Lohit, the Wanchus of Tirap, all beckon me today; joy and ecstasy fill the gateways of Assam, as if there was a fair of love and affection!… I clasped my Monpa brother to my arms, he gave me an idol of Buddha in return, told me, the flag of age-old amity is fluttering.’
Tragically, as if the flag of age-old amity could not keep fluttering, colonial history altered it all, separating people from people with rigid administrative boundaries. Far worse, even after independence, people began to wonder whether there was indeed a separation between ‘the colonial’ and ‘the Indian national’. In curious ways, Assam’s natural resources travelled outwards, while military resources from New Delhi travelled inwards to suppress peaceful political protests. ‘The new youth’s expressions, of the yearning for their dues, cannot be rubbed out; coz the tyranny of the police cannot last long!’
Yet when a supposedly liberal democracy started showing its illiberal face towards the people on the edge of the ‘nation’, politics would consequently take militant turns. Starting from the early 1980s hundreds of thousands of men and women went into agitation, who cried out- ‘Tej dim, tel nidiu’ (We will give our blood but not our oil). Scholars pointed out that Assam had continued to exist as a ‘Colonial Hinterland’ and the fate of such continuity had resulted in an ‘India Against itself’! Many youths started writing fiery poetry, many more picked up guns, joining the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), failing to see any promise from the Indian nation state,
And Bhupen Hazarika did sing of the fire that enveloped the red-river valley in the last three decades- ‘The Brahmaputra is aflame today, the smoke rises on the mind’s horizon, meteors circle the firmament… This fire is not of green forests, this raging fire is of enraged millions, whose piled up pains of being denied, erupts like volcanoes.’
Songs for the future
Bhupen Hazarika and Jayanta Hazarika
Courtesy : Ruma Baruah (via Bhupen Hazarika Foundation)
Recently, when I read Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, set in a village near Mayong during the climax of tensions between the ULFA and the Indian state, I was transported back to a past, left not long back-to the first decade of my life. To grow up in the 1990s’ Assam is to virtually grow up under the shadow of the gun. Mobilizations, animated by a whole host of socio-historical factors, were crushed with brutal counter-insurgency operations by the Armed Forces, making it the bloodiest era of my state’s history. Capturing the chaos of life, death and love among a people caught in the crossfire, Kashyap’s The House with a Thousand Stories will remain an emblematic novel of the Brahmaputra valley during its recent turmoil.
We need such stories, to remind us that we do not want to go back to those days. Those were the days when the coercive state apparatus showed the extent to which it could go. How massively, everyday lives were affected in such climates of fear- the fear of the sound of Army boots in villages, the fear of strange knocks at the door at midnight, the fear of sudden disappearance of family members- still haunt many. Of late, one had been optimistically hoping that Assam was about to arrive at a post-conflict era, having moved on, from a haunted past. That is because the separatist insurgencies are somewhat on the back foot today.
Yet our hopes of peace were once again put to the test when the devastating violence broke out in the summer of 2012 between the Bodos and the Muslims of East Bengali descent in western Assam. The violence killed many, burnt hundreds of houses and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, permanently changing the lives of countless dwellers on both the banks of the river.
As a matter of fact, the experiences from identity – driven mobilizations based on notions of exclusive ethnic homelands, have taught us that such projects often end up empowering only a few, disempowering the majority and in turn create their own vicious cricles of further exclusion. However complex historical circumstances had failed the projects of creating an inclusive regional imagination. All the more, the modernist idiom that tends to circumscribe the ambit of a language to the ambit of one particular community, led bourgeois-sectarian elements to ‘ethnicize’ the Assamese, along with other groups.
The ballads of Bhupen Hazarika always reminded us of the dangers of such circumscriptions, for a land, a language and a community, are composite creations. And ‘Through the ages, without knowing each other’s tongue, men have come towards men, since the language of love has no script, so easy to read, just with will.’ What other than the red river bears its majestic proof – ‘The mighty Brahmaputra, holy site of great synthesis, for untold centuries has been conveying, the message of unity and harmony!’
If love is to be used as a political concept for collective becoming, as philosopher Michael Hardt proposes, Bhupen Hazarika was definitely a true champion of the politics of love. For it is love that can effect a complete transformation increasing the joys of the social life; and Hazarika’s numerous songs are not only poems of love at the level of the couple, but are radical texts of romantic social possibilities – ‘If man is indifferent to man, shows no compassion, who else will think of humanity?’
At a time when we are confronted with the ardent necessity of reconciliation, mutual apologies and looking beyond past wrongs, what better way is to walk to the future than to live by the cultural imaginations of the bard who had created for us a montage of a past, sketching the snippets of assimilation in this land, stretching back to ages. Indeed, how crucial it is to envisage a humanist discourse for the valley, breaking all the binaries of the ‘insider-outsider’, since all who have come to live along the great river have called this land their home- ‘From a thousand plateaus, from a thousand plains, and from a hundred streams, we flow down to, merge into the great Luit!’
Such synthesis is indeed the call of the day in this ‘holy site’ along the Brahmaputra. It is only through harmony and trust, the larger structural issues that fuelled militant movements of the last decades can be resolved. These issues, that are multiplying every day, have to be resolved for a peaceful future. Today, the threats of pan-Indian religious-nationalist currents loom large, which can cripple the century-old multi-cultural social landscape of Assam. What’s more, the neoliberal aggressions of the large-scale hydro-power adventures in the river’s upstream may jeopardize, not only the future of its flow, but also the livelihoods of millions, who have built a riverine civilization, with their hard toil on the soil.
The local peasants who are already broken down by increasing landlessness have been further dispossessed by the woes of river-borne erosion, recurring floods, drying up of many a tributary and droughts. The new movements that have arisen today for the rights of the vast riverine peasantry of Assam should certainly take inspiration from the songs Bhupen Hazarika sang, the songs that carried the agony of the millions of toiling masses, upon whose everyday struggle an unequal society was surviving-‘Along the zigzag paths, we trudge and carry the dola, the palanquin of the lords… But if it slips from our soldiers, it will tumble down, the dola of the grandees, the dola of the great kings!’ Against such indifference of the ‘grandees’, the revolutionary voice of the bard cried out – ‘Let me be a smoldering fire, on a cold wintry night, warming the tumble down cottage of some poor, unclad peasant’ .
Indeed, Bhupen Hazarika’s poetic legacy bears emancipatory possibilities to imagine a democratic political struggle for the Brahmaputra valley’s very survival. Around six decades back, at the founding moment of Assam’s first university in Guwahati, the bard sang, ‘Shattering the barriers of darkness, there flows a stream of light through Pragjyotisha (the ancient name of Assam), radiance from hundreds of earthen lamps, sparking a festival of knowledge, will illuminate the banks of the Luit!’. Such a dream of radiance illuminating the banks of the river remains unfulfilled even today. With new plunder coming our way, the conversations of the valley, therefore must not forget the songs long sung- ‘Assam is a great organ of the great India; but all neglect must be resisted; the greedy neo-imperialists have exploited us, but thousands wake up today, the courageous chants of the exploited, would crush the exploiters.’
In a region where natural resources are rich, but human resources are poor; the new political discourse of Assam would do well to take an environmental turn that can create a new reference for a collective peoplehood. Coz, the monsters of the proposed mega dams pose before us the anxieties of a mega catastrophe on all scales- seismic, economic and ecological. They stand to wipe out the very culture of cultivation along the Brahmaputra. Far from being the multipurpose projects that benefit the entire river valley, these hydro-dams are machines that seek to convert rivers into dollars. Like all peripheries in a capitalist world system, the region’s rivers would light the outside world, with the powers generated and driven out through the grids, leaving itself in darkness.
In fact, the times are such that the new market logics tempt societies to turn both the river and the singer into mere icons that can be appropriated. Against such times, both the bard’s verses and the Brahmaputra’s waters must be made to flow on, without being commodified. The creative forces of the ‘multitude’ must shape creative politics for the future; and for that matter, the strum of a guitar shall reproduce the rhythms of the powerful ballads, ever always relevant- ‘struggle is another name of existence, and history sings the victory of mass resistance!’
Tanmoy Sharma grew up in Guwahati and studied physics for his bachelor’s degree at the Delhi University. He is presently a graduate student of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. His essays have previously appeared in Open Democracy (UK), Open Magazine, Kafila, The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel.