Dr Bhupen Hazarika and his son Tej Hazarika led parallel lives in India and America, their meeting occasional but significant. Yet, after his father’s death, Tej — a 68-year-old Brooklyn-based publisher — feels closer to the maestro than ever before. He now runs a foundation in Dr. Hazarika’s name to carry on the lasting legacy of the singer, posthumously conferred with the Bharat Ratna. Recently, Tej was in India to receive the honour.
Edited excerpts from a conversation with The Indian Express on a son’s memory of his famous father.
In February, you made headlines in India for ‘rejecting’ the Bharat Ratna the Government of India (GOI) awarded your father. Later, you issued a statement of clarification saying that you had never had. What happened there?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill came to me through the grapevine. I heard that the government was trying to introduce this unpopular Bill detrimental to Assamese language and culture. In my old age, I have become quite a nationalist, as far as Assamese is concerned. While I might not have grown up with it, this was the language my father thought in, spoke in, wrote in. He in, all likelihood, wouldn’t have approved of the Bill either. While I stand by that, the Bharat Ratna comment was misquoted — somebody just made it up! And as is the nature of news these days, it spread. Anyway, I had not even received the invite to accept the Bharat Ratna when the controversy broke. So, how could I ‘reject’ it in the first place?
Later the GOI did extend an invitation to you — as next of kin (NOK) — and recently you were at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to accept it. How was that?
What can I say? It was like a fairytale honour. At one point, I looked all around me — I was in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, there were all these dignitaries, the top officials, the Presidential guard. I had to pinch myself to believe it! The Central government was very gracious and respectful to my entire family though our travel and stay. I was happy, but I was feeling emotional too.
But another controversy followed right after you left on the ‘whereabouts’ of the award. A section in Assam feel that the Bharat Ratna should be kept here in Assam
Both the Padma Vibhushan from the GOI and Friends of Bangladesh Award from the Government of Bangladesh, which I received on behalf of my father in 2012, are on display at Guwahati’s Kalakshetra museum. This time I was in Assam for five days but received no official communication from the Government of Assam about the Bharat Ratna. Once they send me an official letter, I will be happy to do the needful and display the award in a safe place for public viewing in Assam.
Many, including you, refer to your father as a ‘global citizen’. Why do you feel that way?
I spent most of my life first in Uganda, with my mother’s family and later in America. In the late Fifties, my grandfather brought home a plush new sound system. It was then that I first heard my father’s songs — booming through those speakers, magnified. However, it was only when I was much older that someone sent me translations of his songs in English. That was an eye opener. I realised the depth of what this man was saying: not only the language, but the scope of his vision. My father was the ultimate poet and humanist — across denominations and borders.
Yes and that is why people loved him so much. He had this uncanny habit of connecting to people, regardless of background or social standing.
Back in the day when I would travel with him for shows in Assam, I saw firsthand how villagers treated him — in awe. I saw gangsters in Kolkata touch his feet! Now after his death, whenever I visit Assam, people come to me with the same respect and adoration they had for my father. They want to take pictures with me, form some sort of connection with me, all drawn from the love they have for my father. I try to reciprocate this — I wish them luck, I say something positive. My dad was very good with that, he was a people’s person and connected with them very directly. I try to emulate that, but I don’t think I am anywhere close to how he was.
So what was your relationship with your father like?
My first memory of my dad was when I was 3 or 4. After he gave up his job at Guwahati University, my parents had moved base to Kolkata. I was sent to Vadodara to live with my maternal grandmother — in a house full of aunts and uncles — while my parents struggled to build a life in Kolkata. I remember there was a wedding in my family and my parents were visiting. That is when I encountered them together for the first time: two magnificent looking people. I slept between them on the bed, and sat between them on long rickshaw rides around town. I thought to myself, with great pride, that these beautiful people were my parents.
You moved abroad soon after?
Yes, my grandmother and I sailed to Uganda (where my mother’s family lived) shortly after. My parents separated (they never divorced contrary to rumours) and my mother followed. It was only before my fourteenth birthday that my maternal uncle took me to Assam in 1964. I met my uncles for the first time: they all looked like The Beatles, wore drainpipes and boots. At 14, they offered me my first cigarette. I got my first guitar, made in India. There was so much music in the house. And in my head, I was like, wow I have a really cool family — one that I had not met before.
And there was my dad. I was in awe of him. On that trip he tried to give me everything he could, as much as he could. As an adult, he visited me in New York where we would spend night and day talking up a storm. Even then, I was a young man still in awe of him but sometimes we would argue. I had no fear in telling him if I ever disagreed. Maybe I picked that up from my mother. She knew him more than anyone else.
Very little is known about your mother, Priyamvada Patel Hazarika.
My parents met and married when they were in New York, both students. When she was with my father, she made big sacrifices for him, setting her ambitions aside for seven years. After they separated, my mother built a career for herself in Uganda, where her family was based. First she was a news editor at Radio Uganda, later on become editor and anchor for television, and finally she joined the diplomatic service. She was a voracious reader and fashion-savvy with a wide exposure so my father always consulted her for many creative things. She was also involved in some of the first films he made. Their house in Tollygunge, Kolkata was set up by her. Sadly, a museum in Guwahati — where the memorabilia of that house is displayed — has no mention or trace of my mother.
How do you connect to India and to Assam?
I am already connected. I might not be an Indian passport holder, but I am Indian by birth. Same goes for Assam, I identify as Assamese but having lived away, I speak very little Assamese. My father loved Assam — but despite that not once did he tell me, “Tej, why don’t you learn Assamese?” Instead he would ask me about New York, America, about my life. But still, we would have long conversations about Assam and India. He had great concern for his land. He wanted to find a solution — no matter how bad things may be, you got to find a way forward. That’s the legacy he left behind.
And how do you intend to take the legacy forward?
Till before his death, we led parallel lives. After I cremated him, his world flooded mine. I set up a foundation in my father’s name. The main aim is to promote his ideals through art, music and culture. While the pace of activities slowed down in between, we are back on track now. In New York, I founded an independent book publishing imprint called Cool Grove Press— we have now branched out to publish Northeast Indian authors. Soon we will release in Assam, The Winged Horse, a book of 76 of my father’s songs translated by Syed Ahmed Shah — a project six years in the making.
Can you tell us a little about your life in Brooklyn, with your wife and son.
Well, you can say that we are creative bohemians. My wife Candace is a singer, a gourmet cook and a stylist. Her father was a Hollywood actor and her uncle was the legendary Jazz drummer and band leader Chico Hamilton. My son, Sage Akash, 28, has these influences as well in his DNA — no wonder he spins vinyl recreationally at a venue once a week in Brooklyn. It’s monumental to be able to bring them both here to Assam. An African American, Candace grew up in Los Angeles and New York and to see how my Assamese family relates to her is incredible. It’s something my father stood for: to embrace the diversity of humanity and not judge people based on race, caste, creed, or economic standing in society. For that I am incredibly proud.