Paul Robeson walked into a Columbia University classroom with a guitar in his hand and asked his students, 'What is this?'Apparently, sometime in the late 1940s, legendary American singer-composer
It was obvious to everyone that it was a guitar and so they kept quiet. One person stood up and said, 'Sir, this is a musical instrument that can transform society.' That person was Bhupen Hazarika." So the story goes…
I regret why I didn't spend time listening to the rest of the story from the man himself. I actually never asked him about Paul Robeson. We all knew he was deeply influenced by Robeson's Ole Man River and adapted it to his river song which is amongst his most well known and loved numbers. It is haunting and vivid. At the end of his performances he always paid tribute by singing Robeson's 'We are in the same boat brother'. After journalism school and traveling the world in 1962 he covered the Chinese advance into India as a war correspondent. None of his dispatches are available in the archives. But his one song that came out from witnessing the war remains the most poignant testimony of that humiliating defeat India suffered: "I was in Bomdila Club which was partially destroyed and sitting in front of 57 frozen bodies of Indian soldiers. I composed the song 'Koto Junawor Mrityu Hol' (See so many soldiers have died)." But instantly, after humming a few lines from the song he meandered down a different course reading out a song he had composed after Kalpana Chawla's death in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. He was unwell but restless about setting the lyrics to music.
Bhupen Hazarika was not interview material. He was much more than that. He was a master storyteller but led the interviewer to where he wanted to wander. Defiant and irreverent, he could hold a smile even when making the strongest and boldest statements.
What is striking about a life like Bhupen Hazarika's is that everyone I know in Assam has a personal anecdote with him that they most certainly share. That is why he truly belonged to the people. These have become the most engaging conversation pieces and add to the lore of one of India's most prolific balladeers. Though, as I can tell you, he would have surely disapproved of this categorization.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is Chair, Internal Security, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Bureau Chief (NE) New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) (on sabbatical)