Bhupen Hazarika: Musician, poet, film director and social activist

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The Independent Online

Bhupen Hazarika was Assam's most famous product not to come off a tea plantation.

In a life as a film industry all-rounder, vocalist-composer, journalist and cultural activist, his name became synonymous with Assam. The aptest comparison is Rabindranath Tagore and Bengal; Hazarika's legacy, like Tagore's in his region, is imprinted on the popular and intellectual Assamese and Bangla imagination.

Hazarika, the eldest of 10, was born in 1926 in Sadiya, then the British Raj's furthermost North-eastern frontier station. In 1935 the Assamese poet Jyoti Prasad Agarwala made Assam's first film, an historical drama called Joymoti. Already writing songs by the age of 10, Hazarika acted and sang his own composition in Agarwala's second film, Indramalati (1939). "The melody he inherited was from my mother, Santipriya, although our father was well acquainted with the kirtan and other holy verses," his sister Sudakshina Sarma said.

Academically gifted, he went to Banaras Hindu University, where he obtained a BA and MA in political science. He then worked as a producer for All India Radio's Guwahati station before obtaining a scholarship to study in New York; he received a PhD in mass communication from Columbia University. Absorbing Greenwich Village's music scene, he sang with Paul Robeson and was briefly jailed for participating in civil rights demonstrations.

He applied his American studies well. His re-contextualisation of the Mississippi in "O Ganga Tum..." flaunted melodic lifts from "Ol' Man River". In 1972 and 1973 he sang at East Berlin's Festival of Political Songs. His extensive song output ranged from escapist fare sung by Lata Mangeshkar and his sister Sudakshina to political songs – and was a beacon of how to fuse folk traditions with classical or popular forms. His "Manush Manusher Jonno" ["Humans are for humanity"] came second only to Tagore's national anthem "Amar Sonar Bangla" ["My country of gold"] in a recent Bangladeshi poll.

Returning home married and with a son, he rose to directing film, first in Assamese then in Bengali. Assamese cinema book-ended his directorial credits, from Era Bator Sur (1956) to Siraj (1988). He also contributed music to entertainment and documentary films and TV programmes in Assamese, Bengali and Hindi. In 1992 the Government of India conferred on him the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, its highest prize for contributions to Indian cinema.

As a social activist he straddled causes. During the Assam Movement protests between 1979 and 1985, he wrote and sang songs that others sang in the streets. Spearheaded by the All Assam Students' Union, this mass populist movement railed against illegal immigrants and their alleged involvement in voting scams – and whipped up xenophobia. He also took up the cause of the indigenous peoples, known in Indian parlance as "Tribals", and their cultures. This included directing For Whom the Sun Shines (1974), a documentary about Tribal folk music and dance. He was fêted with many of the subcontinent's most prestigious awards.

Hazarika led an unconventional life by Indian standards. Aged 45, he met the 17-year-old Kalpana Lajmi, the niece of the film director, producer and actor Guru Dutt; Kalpana's mother, the artist Lalitha Lajmi, was Dutt's sister. A year later they were living together. Still stung by his first marriage's failure, they entered into what amounted to a no-marriage pact. Their personal and professional lives remained entwined until the end, with Hazarika contributing music to a series of her "parallel cinema" films, many socially engaged, many addressing women's issues, including Ek Pal (1986), Darmiyaan (1996) and Kyon (2003). After his stroke, she effectively put her career on hold from 2007.

Bhupendra Kumar Hazarika, composer, poet, film director and actor, journalist and social activist: born Sadiya, Lakhimpur district, Assam and Eastern Bengal (now Tinsukia district, Assam) 8 September 1926; married Priyamvada Patel (one son); partner to Kalpana Lajmi; died Mumbai 5 November 2011.

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