On Bohag Bihu this year, a remastered version of Xuoroni Mur, a song by Dr Bhupen Hazarika, was released on the internet. Sixty-one years ago, Dr Hazarika, had composed the track for Phani Sharma’s film, Puwoti Nishar Xopun (1958). The full song, for long heard only on cassettes, is now available on Youtube — cleaned up and digitally remastered for the first time by the Jyoti Chitraban Studio in Guwahati.
Xuoroni Mur isn’t the only one. Through the month of Bohag (or the first month of the Assamese new year corresponding to mid-April to mid-May), there will be a thousand songs from Assam — many which face the risk of fading into oblivion — released on Youtube.
While the Assam government-run Jyoti Chitraban Studio’s Digital Archive was launched in 2017 as a pioneering initiative in the Northeast and has done considerable work in digitising old films, music and photographs, this is the first time that some of the songs will be released online.
Helming the project is Jyoti Chitraban’s 26-year-old Axl Hazarika, who has been travelling across Assam, from Lakhimpur to Bongaigaon to Kokrajhar, tracking down families and individuals who are in possession of old vinyl records and cassettes to remaster.
Xuoroni Mur (by Bhupen Hazarika) and Kohua Bon (by Bhupen Hazarika and Ila Bose) both from Puwoti Nishar Xopun, took Guwahati-based Hazarika to Tinsukia town in Upper Assam last August on a tip that a gentleman was in possession of the film’s cassette.
“Most of my leads came through word of mouth. I’m still looking for people to contribute,” says Hazarika, terming this a “passion project” of sorts. Many times, these old cassettes were just lying around, collecting dust in forgotten corners of people’s homes.
“Some were willing to part with their tapes so we could bring them back to our studio to digitise. Often others would hesitate in the beginning, but once we explained our objective, they cooperated,” he says.
The objective is two-fold: one, work on tracks that have never been digitised before and thus save them from getting lost, and two, remaster old songs already available on the internet, so as to improve their quality.
“Seventy percent of old Assamese songs have been digitised by recording from old tapes and while they do exist on the internet, they are of poor quality and sound scratchy. What we have done is remastered these songs in a proper studio set up. The difference in clarity is a lot,” says Hazarika, who is an electronic music producer as well as the head of the Jyoti Chitraban Digital Archive.
Over the past two years, the Digital Archive has remastered 10,000 tracks – including “extremely rare tribal albums” featuring Karbi, Bodo, ad Mising songs. “Not all of them will be put on the internet,” clarifies Hazarika.
Among those that will be are songs such as Luitor Pani from Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s Joymoti (1935), the first Assamese film as well as Mure Mon Bonote from Indramalati, which Agarwala made in 1939. “Other restored albums include Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s first feature film, Era Bator Sur (1956) and Piyoli Phukan (1955), the first Assamese film to be recognised at the National Awards. The former featured songs sung not only by Dr Hazarika, but even Lata Mangeshkar, Hemant Kumar and Sandhya Mukherjee. “People can now listen to these on Youtube, SoundCloud and the Jyoti Chitraban website,” says Hazarika. Twenty six songs have already been uploaded.
Hazarika says that remastering an old song takes “more time than producing an original song would.” “Old vinyl and tape come with disturbances and unwanted noise. So we have to separate the layers of the old recordings (which is a daunting task in itself), and filter the unwanted sounds and frequencies out and then mix and master the layer as we would with a brand new song,” he explains, “The process takes a lot of time, but it is well worth the effort. The internet is flooded with low-quality audio of classic Assamese songs. I want to contribute as much as I can to fix that.”