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The African American Bhupen Hazarika

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the musical maestro from Assam, was bent on dispelling the age-old anathema of racism and communalism

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika

Sentinel Digital Desk

Pranjal Dutta

(The writer is Assistant Professor & Head, Department of English, Sarupathar College. He can be reached at

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the musical maestro from Assam, was bent on dispelling the age-old anathema of racism and communalism through his works and drew inspirations from a plethora of socio-cultural events as well a galaxy of great personalities of the world. This self-proclaimed Jajabar travelled the length and breadth of the world and perceived the universal features of mankind. In the year 1949, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika went to America for pursuing Ph. D at Columbia University – at a time when the overall socio-political scenario in America was volatile and disturbing. The African American culture and literature, the Negro Spirituals, the great African American singer Paul Robeson and charismatic Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. exerted strong influence on him.

In America Dr. Hazarika was exposed to the racial discrimination and segregation meted out to the African Americans. During his stay in America the problem of slavery was at its peak. The problem of slavery saddened and disappointed Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. His preoccupation with this theme is revealed in several songs. In his popular lyric 'Moi Eti Jajabor" he sings: 'Bohu deshe deshe grihodas dekhi sintito hou bor' (I ponder over the problem of slavery in many nations). In his song 'Otitor Buranji likhoke', Dr. Hazarika sings: Mississippir parorote/ Kopahor khetite/ Nigro 'John'-e binaale/ Koi manuhor boronor kotha. (In the cotton cultivation on the bank of the river Missippi, the Negro 'John' aggrieves stating the problem of colour feeling). This song refers to and bears the impact of the African American Spiritual 'John Henry': John Henry, O John Henry/ Blood am running' red/ Falls right down with his hammer to the ground.

The slaves while working in tobacco, sugarcane and cotton cultivation on the bank of the river Mississippi used to sing their folk songs called the 'Spirituals'. 'Hang down your head Tom Dooley, Hang down your head and cry' is one of such Spirituals sung by the slaves as they picked cotton. Dr Bhupen Hazarika's popular song "Manuhe manuhor babe Jodihe Okonu Nebhaabe (If Man would not think for Man)" is modeled on this folk song. This song not only imitates the original tune of the Negro Spirituals but digs at the practice of Slavery: Manuhe manuhok besibo khuji/ Manuhe manuhok kinibo khuji/ Puroni itihaas duharile/ Bhool jaanu nohobo kuwa, somoniya? (If we try to sell or buy humanity/ if we repeat history/won't we be wrong, tell me – comrade?)

The African American Spirituals and the Blues exerted strong influence upon Dr. Hazarika. His moving ode to the Brahmaputra, 'Burha Luit Tumi' is modeled on the African American Spiritual 'Ol' Man River': Ol' Man River, that Ol' man river/ He must know something/ But he don't say nothing/ He just keeps rolling/ He keeps on rolling…

The spirit of this African American Spiritual echoes in the Assamese song when Dr. Hazarika sings: Nishobde nirobe burha Luit tumi/ Burha Luit buwa kiyo?

The African American Spiritual 'Ballad for Americans' hammers home the issues of racial interaction and American identity and tries to establish that the various ethnic communities constitute a part of America. This spiritual embodies a mild protest against racism. The speaker implies that the destinies of the Americans are tied up with the destinies of other racial groups living in America. The spirit of this spiritual finds a succinct reflection in Dr. Bhupen Hazarika's song 'Moi Asomor, moi Bharator'. Here Dr. Hazarika speaks of greater Assamese identity. His assimilationist stance is succinctly revealed as he sings: Moiei Khasia moi Jayantia/ Dophola Aabor Oka/ Moiei Singphou bhoiyamor Miri/ Suwonsiriya Deka…

Colour feeling which Dr. Bhupen Hazarika met in its worst form in America astonished and shocked him. Hence he waged a war through his songs against colour feeling and propagated the message of equality of all human beings. His resistance and protest against racial violence and exploitation are succinctly revealed in the song 'Jhok Jhok Rail Sole' (composed in Chicago, the USA in the year 1949): Kola kola koilaar dhuli laagi kola pora/ Bahur sokotire susonor kona baat/ Huhokai thoi moi somoior aalitir/ Nishaan urao. (Thwarting the blind alley of exploitation/ with the stamina of my arms/ Blackened with the black soot of coal/ I raise the flag of Time …).

The twentieth century saw the rise of many African American leaders who attacked segregation in social and cultural life. Such great leaders including Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr. exerted strong influence on Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. It is to be mentioned here that during his time at Columbia Dr. Hazarika was an ardent supporter and friend of Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, actor and civil rights activist. The charismatic African American leader and singer Paul Robeson's crusade against racial discrimination and segregation permeated Hazarika's own worldview. Inspired greatly by Robeson's powerful rendition of the songs 'we're on the same boat brother' and 'we shall overcome' Hazarika translated these lyrics into Assamese as 'Aami ekekhon naore jatri' and 'Ami hom sofol'.

Paul Robeson was very much influenced by the ethos of Blacks Arts movement and used his songs as weapons in his unrelenting crusade against racial discrimination and segregation. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, who was exposed to the racial discrimination and segregation meted out to the African Americans, wrote lyrics on issues like racial and national identity and used his songs as a potent weapon against racial bigotry following the ideals of Robeson. His songs embrace the themes of racial harmony, tolerance, equality and universal love. Indeed, he tried to weed out race and caste - related differences between man and man. In other words, his songs demand the society to be casteless, classless and advocated racial harmony and unity.

The black civil rights movement and the concept of Black Nationalism inspired Dr. Bhupen Hazarika to a great extent. Non-violent in nature, the civil rights movement encountered severe hurdles in view of the whites' harassment and terror upon the African Americans seeking justice. On the other hand, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. ignited revolutionary ferment in the mind of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. An indefatigable proponent of freedom, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika identified himself with the plight and concerns of the poor and the down-trodden and directed his efforts towards raising awareness among them. His revolutionary ferment is succinctly manifested in such songs as 'Topto Tikhare Ogni Sokti Rokto Borne Jwale', and 'Aah Aah Ulai Aah'. The song 'Prosonda dhumuhai prasno korile muk' reveals the exhortations of a committed revolutionary: Bajroi dile muk udatto kontho/ aaru dile saahosor jukti/ bajror konthore/dhumuhar soktire/ geet gai kopam diganta… (Thunder has bestowed me a robust voice/and given me bold reasons/ with the voice of thunder/ with the power of tempest/ I'll quake the horizon…).

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the visionary with a world vision, stayed in America at a time when the country witnessed great racial as well as ethnic conflicts and turmoil. The seeds of nationalism, racial equality and Marxism which had already been sown in his personality by Jyotiprasad Agarwal and Bishnu Prasad Rabha were sustained and nourished in the American racist society. Indeed, Dr. Hazarika went to America as 'agni jugar phiringoti' (a spark of a fiery age) and returned as a missionary minstrel with a world vision. The racial conflicts, the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots, exploitation of the poor and the down-trodden African American slaves disappointed Dr Hazarika during his sojourn in America. The inspirations for his songs like 'Dola, dola', 'Prothom nohohoi ditiyo nohoi' 'Bhaang sil bhaang' might have emanated from such experiences. No doubt, Dr. Hazarika, who dreamt of establishing a society having no gulf between the haves and the have-nots ('Jiyai thaaki ekhon samaj gorhibor mor mon aase'), identified himself with the poor farmers, the starving people, the wage-earners and the insecure minorities.

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