Bhupen Hazarika, one of the most famous cultural icons of the Northeast, wore many hats — singer, lyricist, musician, filmmaker and cultural activist — and the Bharat Ratna comes as the culmination of a long-standing demand from his fans and the state’s cultural community.
Rishi Raj, Hazarika’s nephew and a cultural worker, told The Indian Express, “The family welcomes the award. It has come a bit late — had he been alive you would have seen tears of joy in his eyes. But that often happens with cultural icons. He was like a very large tree, whose roots went deep into the soil of his country. His creation was universal and inspired generations.”
Born in 1926 in Upper Assam’s Sadiya, Hazarika studied in Guwahati, Banaras Hindu University and Columbia University in the US. The recipient of numerous awards — including Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and posthumous Padma Vibhushan — Hazarika is widely credited with putting Assam and the Northeast on the cultural map of India and the world.
His songs and lyrics, in many languages including Assamese, Bengali and Hindi, centred on themes of internationalism, equality, peace, unity between religious and linguistic communities and even tribulations of working class life. He wrote the music and sang for numerous films, directed several others, and was given the Dada Saheb Phalke award in 1992. He was popularly known as ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’ and ‘Sudhakantho’.
“He was a humanitarian. He sang about marginalised communities and used music and culture as a weapon for social reform. In one of his Bengali songs, Amay Ekjon Shada Manush Dao, he talked about how the colour of everyone’s blood is red, irrespective of race. He was a good Assamese, good Indian and good international citizen. He worshipped humanity and sang for the benefit of mankind,” Hrishikesh Goswami, media advisor to the Assam Chief Minister, told The Indian Express.
“Whereas he had been a legend in eastern India for decades, his compositions for the Hindi film Rudali won Bhupen-da recognition across the subcontinent. Perhaps the best example of the humanistic ideals that imbue his works is the song “Manuhe Manuhar Babe’ (For man), composed in 1964,” wrote journalist and author Sanjoy Hazarika in his book Writing on the Wall: Reflections on the North-East. The song, translated, goes: “If man would not think for man/ with a little sympathy/ tell me who will – comrade?/ If we repeat history/ if we try to buy/ or sell humanity/ won’t we be wrong – comrade?”
Loknath Goswami, singer and cultural activist, described Hazarika’s songs as “pro-poor, anti-establishment, for equality and secularism”. But he questioned the timing of the award. “Awarding him Bharat Ratna now raises a political question. Is it to appease the Assamese community when protests have erupted in every corner of the state against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?”