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Remembering Bhupen Hazarika (Sept 8, 1926 – Nov 5, 2011)
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

November 7, 2011

Reams have been written about Bhupen Hazarika and the entire nation and Assam have been grieving at his demise. He was a towering figure and indeed placed Assam on the world map. Whoever ever heard his baritone voice could never forget it. More than two generations of people in India and migrants abroad have grown up listening to his songs. Patriotic, political, love songs, folk songs, music he composed for films and innumerable occasions when he sang in person - he mesmerized his audiences wherever he sang. People loved him.

I had started working on Sattriya dances of Assam, visiting Guwahati from 1958, after I saw the dances for the first time in All India Dance Seminar, along with my mentor and guru Mohan Khokar, convened by Sangeet Natak Akademi in April 1958 in New Delhi. Even when I was ‘a green horn’ and ‘up and coming scholar,’ Dr. Maheswar Neog saw my enthusiasm and   welcomed me with affection. Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, founder and editor of Marg Publication had given me letters of introductions to scholars and leading personalities in Assam when I went again in 1966 to Guwahati to meet Dr. Maheswar Neog to undertake documentation of the tradition at Majuli Island to visit Kamalabari Sattra.

Mulk uncle, as we used to address Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, was a close friend of Bhupen Hazarika. He had asked me to meet him ‘without fail.’ Who had not heard of Bhupen Hazarika? Kalakashetra trained Bharatanatyam (and Sattriya dance exponent) Indira PP Bora’s (nee Indira Barua) uncle Pradeep Chaliha, an authority on dances of Assam, arranged my meeting with Bhupen-da and when I touched his feet at his residence at Nijarpar, Chandmari house  in Guwahati, he welcomed me with a warm smile and embraced me. He was delighted that a ‘Gujju bhai’ had come all the way from Mumbai to visit Kamalabari Sattra on Majuli Island on Brahmaputra River to document Sattriya dances. As is the custom in Assam, he gave me a gamosha (scarf) and also the typical Assamese hat. We talked nine to the dozen, he was in a good happy mood and hummed few songs for me. Not only that, it was Bihu time, therefore he specially arranged for me to attend his performance at night along with one of his personal friends. When I went with him to the venue, I was stunned to see more than 5,000 people, a large crowd, who lustily cheered Bhupen-da. He sang “Ganga tum bahati ho kyun?” in his spellbinding baritone voice. He followed with song after song. His popularity was at its peak.

For Assam, he was the voice of Assam and later people addressed him as voice of Bharat.
Soft spoken, always smiling and immaculately dressed, Bhupen-da won over whoever came into contact with him. One knew about his close working with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), his contemporaries Salil Chowdhary, Harindranath Chattopadhyay and also at one point Pandit Ravi Shankar and other luminaries. Bhupen-da’s song, in particular one inspired by Paul Robeson’s famous song ‘Ol Man River’ shall always remain evergreen in one’s memories. “Burha liut tumi” from Assamese which he sang in Hindi “O, Ganga tum” and in Bengali as “O, Ganga tumi” – he questions the river for remaining indifferent to the woes and sufferings of the people.  Bhupen –da and Brahmaputra River were inseparable.

He was a global citizen and took the music of Brahmaputra to far away places. He inter-mixed it with Volga, Mississippi.  He also inspired a generation of musicians in Assam. His entry into films from a very young age of 11 is well known. And the song “Dil hoon hoon kare…” from Kalpana Lajmi’s film ‘Rudali’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar has captured the nation.

In Mumbai we knew Kalpana’s mother, well known painter, Lalita Lajmi, sister of late film maker, director, actor Guru Dutt. Lalita’s daughter Kalpana was a tomboy and used to play roles in plays directed by Satyadev Dubey. We used to meet often and when Kalpana started her long association with Bhupen-da for more than 30 years defying all societal norms, and producing, directing films, Bhpuen-da, Kalpana and I used to meet often.

Before I moved to Kolkata to join Rabindra Bharati University as a Professor and Head of Dance Department, in Mumbai at National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), I used to often arrange lec-dems of Indira PP Bora of Sattriya dances. When Bhupen-da would come to know of it, he would invariably come and attend our lec-dems and compliment us. Once, he brought with him the present Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi.  For so many unavoidable reasons, the work on special issue of Sattriya dances for Marg was held up. But he would encourage me and Indira to carry on. We kept him informed of our lec-dems on Sattriya at Ahmedabad at Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana, in Delhi at Kamani, at Kolkata at Gyanmanch, at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha for Natya Kala Conferences in Chennai, and in Imphal, organizing a one day conference inviting Guru Bipin Singh and traditional Sattriya gurus for comparative study of the form.

Bhupen Hazarika and Gujarati poet Rajendra Shah
(Courtesy: Gujarati Samaj, Kolkata)
During my stay at Kolkata when Bhupen-da was dividing his time between Guwahati, Mumbai and Kolkata in the year 1985, Gujarati Sahitya Parishad was organized by Kolkata Gujarati Sahitya Samaj and they asked me to request Bhupen-da to attend it and also sing his most loved songs. Very few knew that Bhupen-da was married to a Gujarati girl Priyamvada Patel and had a strong Gujarati connection. He has a son by her, Tej Hazarika who lives in Toronto, Canada. Bhupen-da and Priyamvada separated after some time. Gyanpith awardee Gujarati poet late Rajendra Shah was a fan of Bhupen-da. Bhupen-da agreed immediately and with his superb singing meeting all farmaish from Gujarati fans of his, sang song after song and won lot of affection of all present.

Bhupen-da received several honours including Dada Saheb Phalke award for his lasting contribution to Indian cinema. He knew the Jhaveri Sisters and used to visit us at their Juhu residence in Mumbai. When Bhupen-da was appointed by the President of India as Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, there was a great jubilation since practically everyone in the artist’s community knew him. Some of us were inducted by him into the General Council and Executive Board of Sangeet Natak Akademi for a tenure of five years. Bhupen-da often would talk of Sattriya dances and according it a status on par with other established seven classical dance forms. With help of the secretary Jayant Kastuar, me and others in Guwahati, he organized a conference in Guwahati in 2000. Leading dancers, critics and traditional gurus, performers and  scholars met and discussed various classical aspects of the dance form. It was unanimously accepted by all that Sattriya dances met with all characteristics of classical dance. And it was acknowledged so. Thanks to Bhupen-da’s initiative, finally Sattriya dances received recognition as a classical dance form along with other dance forms. And after 2000, the dancers practicing Sattriya dances never looked back. Within a decade, it has become a part of mainstream dance form. The legendary gurus and senior performers have been receiving Sangeet Natak Akademi awards.
Bhupen Hazarika, Uma Sharma, Sunil Kothari, Rajyalakshmi
Courtesy: Ashvani Chopra
When I received Padma Shri in 2001, Bhupen-da had also received Padma Bhushan the same year. There was a reception organized by my dear friend Rajyalakshmi, a lawyer and a great supporter of Kuchipudi dance, at her residence in Delhi. A galaxy of dancers including Sonal Mansingh, Raja - Radha Reddy, Uma Sharma, Geetanjali Lal, Swapnasundari and other local dancers, well wishers, admirers were invited at a short notice. Many turned up. Late Dr. R Venkataraman, our former President of India, also joined us, as did Bhupen-da. Uma Sharma also had received Padma Bhushan award the same year. Uma being Uma, requested Bhupen-da to sing “Ganga tum bahati ho kyun?” and danced on the spot doing abhinaya. How can one forget those happy moments? These are the happiest memories of mine of Bhupen-da’s generosity and affection.

During Bhupen-da’s tenure as Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, many Assamese scholars, artists, musicians received national awards. Bhupen-da paid the debt to Assam and his favourite  river Brahmaputra and drew attention of the nation to the North East region. Thanks to Bhupen-da and tremendous hard work by Jayant Kastuar, secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi, a constituent body of SNA has been established at Guwahati for Sattriya Kendra and every year on 15th November, declared as Sattriya day, an annual dance festival Nritya Parva is organized for four days and also a seminar. A wealth of information and serious study has come up by now from Assamese scholars and dancers. I have benefitted immensely from these events.

I was in touch with Bhupen-da and Kalpana during past one year informing Bhupen-da about the progress of the book, which I am editing for Marg Publication on Sattriya dance, and which is under print. When Bhupen-da was conferred Fellowship by SNA, it was decided that for SNA archive, we interview him in great detail. I was assigned the job. But Bhupen-da had to return to Mumbai for urgent work, so it was postponed.  Few months ago, when I spoke to Kalpana, she said Bhupen-da was not keeping well, so we had better wait. He was happy that the book on Sattriya was making good progress. I was keen to show it to him, but alas! that was not to be and he passed away.

He was an extremely affectionate and kind person. A true artiste, with a deep feeling for artistes, Bhupen-da has left a legacy of his wonderful songs, TV serials, films and hundreds of songs he wrote and sang. It was a privilege to have known him, worked with him and receive his affection.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to