In 2004, Jubin Borthakur aka Goldie or Zubeen Garg, had joined protests following a sad chapter in the history of violence in Assam. That year 13 people, including 10 school children, were killed in Dhemaji by ULFA militants. It was also the year Assam saw one of the highest number of deaths in a single year, according to official data tracking violence in the region. Garg composed Olop Xanti Diya (Give us a little peace) overnight in the memory of the children and sang at the protest:
Moron yagyar dhuwa,
Swadhinata buli kua,[…]
Kaar babe kua,
Kune dekhibo, kune bujibo, kun robogoi kua
Nijok xudhisua, soku meli sua,
morixaalir baat nije khuli lola
(What you call freedom is
The smoke from funeral pyres
To whom do you lie?
Who will see it? Who will understand it?
Who will remain?
Ask yourselves, open your eyes;
you’ve set off on the road to the morgue)
Just two years prior to this, the political had overlapped with the personal again for Garg. He had released Sishu in 2002, in the memory of Jonkey Borthakur, his sister/co-singer and an actor, who passed away in a car accident that year. But the album, like many others by Garg, was also an equally brave political commentary on corruption, terrorism and how these extinguished the dreams of an entire generation. In Sishu, Garg aches for a better space for societies in Assam:
Give us back our own world…
A lopsided world isn’t what we seek…
Fifteen years on, the immediate context may have changed and the nuances might be different in shade, but Garg — an iconic singer in his own right — still has to shift between the world he would like to call his own and the lopsided one he’s often forced to inhabit.
Just last month, Garg made headlines when, singing at a Bihu show in Guwahati’s Noonmati area, he started off with some Assamese numbers but launched into Dil tu hi bataa from Krrish 3. It was one of his many popular Bollywood songs: Ya Ali from Gangster (2006) was a huge hit and he had also delivered hits for Hindi films like Fiza (2000) and Kaante (2002). But all that didn’t matter. He was stopped mid-song and the organisers told him that Hindi songs were not welcome on the Bihu stage. A disappointed Garg left the stage angrily. Speaking to the regional press, he said: “Why shouldn’t I sing in Hindi or English? That too, my own songs? Bihu is a musical festival and I’ll sing whatever I wish to! Across 25 years, I’ve sung more than 16,000 songs.” He points out that multilingualism comes naturally to him and should not be seen as a political statement of any kind. “My father had a huge library of books, films and music, all of which moulded my opinions as a teenager. Since he was a government employee, we were constantly on the move along with his transfers. Consequently, I acquired different dialects and cultures when very young. So, the entire region is home to me.”
Born in Jorhat in 1972 to Kapil Thakur, a magistrate, and Ily Borthakur, a singer, Garg was named after the legendary composer Zubin Mehta, and he was marked out for great things early on in his life. He says, “I learnt tabla at a very young age. My mother was a vocalist. My madness for music comes from her.” That madness has now seen Garg make scores of chartbusting Assamese albums, starting from his first, Anamika (1992), which became wildly popular, right from the initial weeks of its release.
Proficient in multiple musical instruments, Garg’s signature fusion of rock with classical and folk music gained a new audience in Assam; not entirely unlike the Sufi rock wave sweeping through Bollywood in the early 2000s. His most famous albums: Maya, Pakhi, Mukti, Sabdo, Jantra, Sishu etc span an array of languages: Assamese, Bodo, Oriya, Bangla, Nepali, and Hindi.
Over the years, Garg has performed across genres: romantic songs, Bihu-tuned songs, modern songs, devotional songs and folk songs. However, a lot of his albums, like Sishu and Mukti, also displayed his anger and rebellion against the corrupt elite dominating the nexus of power. Ever since, he has been hounded with complaints of lack of morality, social irresponsibility and even aping western music. In 2013, the ULFA issued a diktat against the performance of Hindi songs on the Bihu stage, which many artists were forced to obey. But Garg decided to raise his voice against it and this is when he was threatened. The Bihu committee’s agreement with ULFA’s diktat is based on fear, confusion and a mistaken sense of cultural vigilantism.
Though the committee members, burdened by what’s “folk” and what’s not, sought to explain this matter without any understanding of how linguistic hegemony operates, in hindsight, Bihu as a folk festival, too, underwent massive transition in the fervour of Assam’s sub-nationalism. It wasn’t in the “stage form” as it is today. Many Bihu lyrics and their language have been sanitised and made more “palatable” for the audience.
So, who must decide what should be sung on a Bihu stage or not? Must it be the people who donate money for the shows, the committee members, ULFA or the artists? These are tough questions but ones that give rise to many more debates about Bihu and the role of an artist. Garg says, “I made my songs in the way in which I feel comfortable. Art is all about freedom.”
Garg sticking his neck out for artistic freedom has its own legitimacy. In his own artistic choices, he has always been eclectic and heterodox. He debuted as director in Tumi Mur Mathu Mur (2000), has acted in films like Dinabandhu (2004), and given music for hits like Mon Jai (2008). “My recent musical Gaane ki Aane got a warm reception. I have also been making Mission China for the last two years. It’s my second directorial venture after almost two decades, set for a release on September 8 this year,” he says.
His interests are wide ranging: “I would have been a footballer. In Assam, I have a football team. All the artists also come under the banner of Kalaguru Artiste Foundation, a cultural organisation founded by me for the welfare of the artists, and they collect funds to help flood victims. The Northeast is brimming with talented faces. We need to inspire them.”
Since 2002, Garg has remained both an inspiration and a rebel. But after the Bihu incident, his rebellion has taken the shape of a new dissent which is appreciable, irrespective of our individual stance on the politics of culture and otherwise. He says, “I don’t think there can be any threats when you get so much of love and affection. I only sing for the people. I live for them and I’ll die for them.”
Rini Barman is an independent writer & researcher with India Foundation for the Arts.