Baritone of Assam

It has been a cruel year: M.F. Husain, Shammi Kapoor, Mani Kaul, Gautam Rajadhyaksha, and now Bhupen Hazarika are no longer in our midst. All of them shared not only the bond of cinema but were also remarkable for their refined manners. They don’t make artistes and gentlemen like them any more, and perhaps never will.
Bhupenda — “No Mr, sir or saheb please, makes me feel old,” he would laugh — was so soft-spoken that frequently, he would have to be requested to repeat what he had just said. It seemed as if he pumped up the volume only before a recording mike. Every word had a distinct clarity and an emotive timbre, the baritone rising to a pitch which younger singers could never touch. And his style of singing was distinctive, it could not be imitated.
Although Mumbai, and specifically its film industry, can repress an artiste of
originality and rooted in his soil, Bhupenda neither succumbed to the market pressures nor did he cater to populist sensibilities. In his company, I often felt that he may have moved from Assam but Assam had not moved out of him. Fiercely proud of Assam and its purity of culture, he believed in aesthetic principles. Bucks in the bank account didn’t matter. At the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), as part of its script panel, I would see him support experimental films vehemently. He would reason that without rewriting the grammar of any art form, there can be no evolution.
Be it at the NFDC office or in the corridors of the I&B ministry, Bhupenda pushed for better cinema, talking on behalf of several off-mainstream filmmakers, without them even knowing that they had an angel of mercy. Resolute in his progressive beliefs, he qualified that this did not mean discarding traditional elements completely. When the new and the classic are blended, he would say, there is magic.
A political science graduate who had completed his doctoral thesis on applying audio-visual techniques in adult education, Bhupenda would be gung-ho about the songs of Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte. He would render Ol’Man River, eyes closed, not a cadence out of beat. I heard this Robeson cover, “live”, performed before an audience of four: Gulzar, Kalpana Lajmi, actress Neena Gupta and I. Gulzar joked, “But some day do honour me by singing a lyric by this nacheez.” Result: the unforgettable score of Rudaali. Talk of the film, in any context, and Dil hoom hoom kare replays on the turntable of your mind.
Bhupenda’s collaboration with Javed Akhtar yielded Do sadiyon se for M.F. Husain’s Gaja Gamini. The painter, the lyricist and the composer were on the same wavelength at the recording studio. A creative synthesis was on. Delighted by the composition, Husain broke into an impromptu jig that evening. And Bhupenda said with relief, “I am so glad that Husain-saab has liked the song. He is difficult to please.” Among the composer’s other post-1970s film scores were for Jahnu Barua’s Aparoopa, Sai Paranjpye’s Saaz and Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal, Darmiyaan and Chingaari.
That he carried the spirit of Assam throughout his life was evident from the fact that apart from composing and often penning lyrics himself, Bhupenda performed at “live” concerts globally. Tireless till the end, his yearly itinerary would include tours in the US, Europe and south Asia.
With the media, he would be incorrigibly shy. “How can I blow my own trumpet?” he would apologise whenever he was collared for an interview. Consistently his insistence was let’s-not-lose-sight-of-our-roots, let’s-not-succumb-to-the-fleeting-Western-fads-and-trends.
The last time I met Bhupenda was a couple of years ago, eyes sparkling and his zest for artistic endeavours undiminished. He was a regular at international film festivals, at theatre shows and classical music concerts. And if he was ever requested to sing at a private gathering, he wouldn’t fuss. He would render a vintage Assamese song. On insistent demand, he would render Ol’ Man River or Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song, and of course, the crowd favourite, Dil hoom hoom kare...ghabraye.
And at the end of the performance in a capacious hall, he would respond with a, “Thank you”, spoken in a shy whisper.

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