Wanting to write for the last few days… but was not able to access the proper words… it seemed that the emperor of words had taken his treasure along when he had departed… The other day, while going through a book came across an interesting anecdote – narrated by Professor Narayan Parashuram of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He was supposedly told by Rock legend Bob Dylan that Dylan was inspired by an artist called Bhupen Hazarika in the early 60s… ‘but very unfortunately he hails from a country like India and more unfortunately, he decided to return to that country… had he stayed back here ( in the US), a lot of people around the world would have introduced themselves as Bhupenites…’ ‘Unfortunately return to the country’? Not quite, Mr. Dylan! You should have been in Assam this week to understand how we pay respect our artist … too bad the national media had not covered it the way they should have to make the people of rest of India experience it first-hand! (On second thought, why should they? After all, this time it was not a serial bomb blasts or discovering of a mass grave in the north-east of India we were talking about! How can the national media think of any other reason to feature Assam/ Northeast in the front page??) According of Wikipedia, with over 600,000 thousand attendances, the funeral of ‘the bard of Brahmaputra’ Dr Bhupen Hazarika hold the record of being the most watched funeral ever (just to understand the magnitude, Michael Jackson’s memorial service was attended by 17,500)… However, the statistics reveals only a small part of the complete story.
What Bhupen mama means to us, the people of Assam in particular, is impossible to explain in words… As a friend was suggesting the other day, perhaps the nearest analogy could be the influence of Rabindranath Tagore on the people of Bengal – when Tagore was alive, that is… When we received the news of Bhupen mama’s demise after a prolonged illness, we were on our way for a hike to a fort near the hill station of Lonavala. Below the starlight sky up atop the fort, as we were chatting and re-living the moments we had shared with the master weaver of words and melody, one of our ‘honorary Assamese’ friend commented –‘right now we are doing something he would have surely approved off… he was so full of life!’ ‘Lust for life’ perhaps will be a phrase that describes Bhupen mama the best… Even in 85 years of age, he would discuss with us about making a film together… And to live till he is 100, to complete his unfinished work… Remember vividly the day he came to record the title poem of our bi-lingual film, ‘as the River flows’/ ‘Ekhon nedheka nadir xhipare…’ After recording the Assamese version of the poem, initially he was not exactly happy with how his recitation of the Hindi version was shaping up… and like a small child, was requesting us to give him a little more time to prepare…promising, ‘soon you will find my Hindi to be even better than that of Raj Kapoor…’ Remember vividly the time when we went to meet him on his last birthday at the ICU section of the hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for the past few months. He was too weak even to open his eyes, but when we requested him to come over to our home to have another meal with fish tenga, he nodded with a smile… one promise which he couldn’t keep… Money never featured in Bhupen mama’s sphere.
People close to him jokes about Bhupen mama giving his domestic help Rs 50/- to get 2 kg of fish till recently, unmindful of the fact that was the price of fish more than two decades ago… Mr. Kamal Kataky, who played guitar with him in his public performances for last three decades or so besides doubling as his de-facto manager, had narrated an incident when we went to pay our respect to the departed maestro in Mumbai’s Kokilaben Ambani Hospital. Sometime in the beginning of this century, Bhupen mama was invited for performing in a function almost at the India- Myanmar border, organised by a minister of the Assam govt. At the end of the function, the minister handed over some money in an envelope to Kamal Kataky. As it appeared like a bad manner to count the money right in front of the minister, Kamal kept the envelope with him – only to discover latter that it amounts to just Rs 10,000/-! The sum was not enough even to cover their vehicle hiring costs!! When Bhupen Mama got to know of the amount, his first reaction was whether the minister paid them more or less – so clueless he was about financial dealings!! And his immediate next reaction was, ‘let’s consider it to be another free performance that we have done Kamal…we won’t discuss about it ever again.’ ‘Mriyuo tu eta xilpa, Jibonor kathin xilat kota ek nirllubh bhaskarya!’ – couplet penned by one of Assam’s premier poet, Hiren Bhattacharya. Roughly translated, ’death is also an art, a stark sculpture carved on the hard rock of life…’ It would be difficult to find an Assamese youth who has not quoted this couplet sometime during his/her romantic college life.
I was no exception… However, I understood the true meanings of the lines only on the night of 7th November. I was awake till the wee hours of morning watching TV, looking at the endless emergence of people on the streets of Guwahati. They had come to visit the departed magician, whose body was kept in Guwahati’s historic Judges Field for the people to pay their homage… Initially the body was to be kept there for 12 hours before the funeral pyre scheduled for next morning. But, one could have never imagined what was to follow! People from all walks of life cutting across the barrier of cast, creed and age- came over from all across the country (and abroad) to pay their reverence…the queue stretched up to 10 kms and more, continued throughout the night… the govt. was forced to push back the funeral by a day…Yet, after more than 36 hours when the body was finally taken out for the last rights, countless number of people were still pouring in to pay their respect to the departing soul of Bhupen mama …Doubt whether any artists at any corner of the world had experience such a spontaneous outburst of public adoration! At his death, Bhupen mama succeeded in bringing people from all walks of life together, cutting across all the man made boundaries… a dream which he dreamt of throughout his musical life, which was spread over 7 decades …Truly, can there be a greater ‘art’?? On the title poem of ‘as the River flows’, which has been one of his last work, he spoke as the voice of the river Brahmaputra – I know long ago the River used to speak. but when he realised every drop of pain flows above horizon of words he surrendered to silence… – as the funeral fire was embracing the body of Bhupen mama, I could almost hear the great River weep, silently… I told him not to. Because, legends never die…they just turn into folklore…