He is a poet, academic, lyricist, composer, singer, actor, orator, journalist, author and filmmaker of the very highest repute. Meet Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the doyen of Assamese culture and living legend from the Northeast Indian State of Assam. He is a communicator of romance, passion, universalism and humanism. He has gathered awards aplenty: for his contribution to cinema, to music, to culture, and to the vigour he reinstilled in the Assamese, jostling them awake through song, and forcing them to rethink old attitudes. In 1994, he was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest award in India for contribution to films.
Hazarika is cherished in Dhaka as much as he is in Guwahati. His song on the war of Bangladesh’s freedom, “Joi Joi Naba Jata Bangladesh” (hail the newborn Bangladesh), is a stirring marching tune which was on every Bengali’s lips during those harrowing days. His songs are not limited to Assamese and Bengali, and Bhupenda’s rich baritone is equally at ease with Hindi, Urdu and English.
Bhupen Hazarika was born in 1926 at Sadiya in the eastern most region of Assam. After completing his schooling at Gauhati, he studied at the famous Benaras Hindu University, completing his M. A. in Political Science (1946); there he also learnt music at the Sangeet Bhavan. Thereafter, he left for New York, USA to pursue his doctorate in Mass Communications from the Columbia University. During his five years at New York, he also received a Lisle Fellowship from Chicago University, USA to study the use of educational development projects through cinema. During his time at the USA, he became a leader of the Assamese Diaspora and also started and edited a newspaper. During his time at Columbia University, Hazarika was a friend of Paul Robson, the black American singer, actor and civil rights activist whose zealous crusade for social justice greatly moved Hazarika. Inspired greatly by Robson’s rendition of the song ‘Old Man River’, Hazarika composed his own powerful ode to the river Brahmaputra.
Bhupenda, as he is fondly addresses by many, showed signs of early musical genius even before he started singing on All India Radio in 1937, at the age of eleven. He stayed for sometime at Tezpur, an idyllic town on the banks of the Brahmaputra. There he came to associate with the three early 20th century icons of Assamese culture, namely Roopkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Natyasurya Phani Sharma. He played stellar roles in some landmark dramas as well as films during the early years of Assamese cinema. Bhupen Hazarika began his career in films as a child actor in the second talkie film to be made in Assam, Indramalati (1939). A prodigious genius he wrote and sang his first song at the age of 10 after which there has been no looking back. After returning from the USA he went to Mumbai to work in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) with several leading Marxist intellectuals from Kolkata.
At IPTA he met Hemant Kumar took him around to meet all the big music directors and singers in Mumbai. He wanted Lata Mangeskar, known as the Nightingale of India for her mellifluous voice, to sing a song for his first film as a director, Tunes From The Deserted Path.
There has been no looking back for Bhupen Hazarika. He has sung for hundreds of Assamese, Bengali and Hindi movies. He has travelled to and performed in over 150 countries. His songs have been translated to Japanese, Nepali and more. He produced, directed and composed music for several award winning Assamese movies. He cut several music albums encompassing classical, folk, pop, modern and other genres. His Bengali song ‘manushe manushor joinney’, adopted from his own Assamese rendition of ‘manuhe manuhor baabe’, was named the best song of the last millennium by the BBC. He has won the National Awards for best filmmaker (thrice) and best music composer. He has produced and directed award winning and critically acclaimed documentaries.
Dr. Hazarika has penned more than one thousand lyrics and authored fifteen major books, besides many short stories, essays, travelogues, poems and rhymes for children. He has been an extremely popular columnist and editor, for over 20 years, of the popular monthly magazines Amar Pratinidhi and Pratidhwani.
He was elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly as an independent in the year 1967 and was instrumental in setting up of the first state owned film studio of India. He has also been the President of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the highest literary body of Assam. He has held a wide array of positions on several boards, councils and committees and served as the President of the Sangeet Natak Academy. He has travelled widely as a Indian Delegate to Conferences on Mass Communication, Poetry, Music, Performing Arts and Cinema all over the world. He has won numerous awards and honours but remains a humble man who is fond of home cooked Assamese food. At the age of eight, he still performs on stage and enthralls generations of fans with his rich baritone. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika is universally recognized as one of the greatest balladeers from India.