It would be reductionist, feels Rongili Biswas, to say that music solves everything. But there was a time — more than fifty years ago — when it tried.
In 1960 Assam, barely recovering from its first “language riot”, a group of dramatists, singers, writers and artistes journeyed through the riot-torn countryside, singing tales of peace.
The troupe was led by Rongili’s father, Bengal’s Hemango Biswas, and Assam’s Bhupen Hazarika. To date, it remains the only example in Indian history of a purely cultural intervention attempting to end a violent riot.
In 2018 — when the differences between the Assamese- and Bengali-speaking population of Assam have come to the fore again — Rongili, an economist and singer based in Kolkata, is invoking the month-long road trip her father and Hazarika took, through a song aptly titled, Hemango-Bhupen: A Song For Everyone.
“It was sheer coincidence. In 2012, I was trying to reconstruct my father’s life though his archives,” says Rongili, over the phone from Kolkata.
Biswas’s home, named ‘Jironi’, is filled with his writings in the form of diaries, notes, records, cassettes and photographs. “When I was going through his things, I knew Assam had to be addressed at some point because that’s where he did so much work,” says Rongili.
That’s when she came across photographs and letters from the 1960s peace mission her father had undertaken with Hazarika. When the riots had broken out because of a political decision to make Assamese the state’s official language, Biswas telegrammed Hazarika suggesting they undertake this journey. On August 27, 1960, the duo performed in Shillong (the capital of Assam then), marking the beginning of their historic road trip.
“I thought the best way to retrace this journey was by actually visiting these places my father and Bhupen Hazarika went to,” says Rongili. In 2016, she got a grant from the Indian Foundation for Arts to do so. The outcome of her research would be a monograph, a film and a song, reconstructed from her journey.
While the film was ready and even screened in Assam and Kolkata last year, the song, Hemango-Bhupen, was released by Asha Audio — a Kolkata-based recording company — on December 13 on Youtube. “I think it is important to retell this tale, especially in the current circumstances, even though I realise how extremely sensitive the matter is,” says Rongili.
The 44-minute clip, told through old photographs and the letters Biswas wrote to his wife, Ranu during his journey, has six songs, jointly sung by Rongili and Assamese singer Dhrupadjyoti Das: Haradhon-Rongmon katha (composed by Biswas and Hazarika), Kauri Pore (lyrics by Keshab Mahanta, and tune by Rudra Barua), Biswabijoyi Noujawan (composed by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala), and three songs by Hazarika, which were translated by Biswas for the journey: Pothe namo aloker, Jhak jhak jhak jhak and Pratidwani shuni. But it was Haradhon-Rongmon katha — composed particularly for this journey — that moved the crowds the most. It was a story of two peasants (a Bengali and an Assamese) who stood united despite losing everything in the riots.
About 17 minutes into the video, Bengali author Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, who is narrating Biswas’s letters (the other bits are narrated by Rongili), quotes him saying: “We were worried about our second programme at Nagaon, because there had been widespread riots there.” In this leg of the journey, the musicians roped in Assamese folk singer Khagen Mahanta in their troupe — and while Bengalis did not turn up, it was like “magic” for those who did. Later, in Sivasagar, the students greeted the troupe by showering them with flowers.
“When they were journeying, the big rioting was over. But what remained was a bitterness and a lack of faith. That is when their voices and music worked like magic,” says Rongili, who travelled on the same route — from Shillong to Guwahati to Nagaon to Mangaldoi to Tezpur (among others) — in January and October 2016.
“I had taken a cinematographer along with me. We were extremely pressed for time and I thought I wouldn’t find anyone who remembers,” says Rongili. But the 50-year-old ended up “finding everyone.”
In Dhing — one of the worst-affected areas in Nagaon — she had read of a 12-year-old girl who had sung in the troupe. “I thought I would never locate her but I did. Her name is Bina Hazarika and she is now gynaecologist in Golaghat. She gave me a fantastic, and a very emotional, interview — after 56 years!” says Rongili.
In another part of Nagaon, Biswas met a man in his seventies, who was a school student when the peace mission had arrived. “He told me about the songs they sang, and the effect it had on people. It was a kind of magic,” says Rongili, adding that the process was like working on an old memory but also finding something new in the process. “Who knew an old memory can give back so much?” muses Rongili.
Part of the group was also a young dancer Uma Dutta — Rongili’s cousin — who is now 85. Most of the pictures used in the video are from her collection. Rongili also did interviews with Ruby Hazarika, sister of Bhupen Hazarika, and actress Jnanada Kakoti, both of whom were a part of the troupe. Other personalities who took part in Hazarika and Biswas’s journey included stalwarts like Bishnu Rabha, Jayanta Hazarika, Keshab Mahanti, and even dhol player, Moghai Ojah.
“In my father’s memoirs, he speaks about the effect of this peace mission. My father was someone whose honesty was never questioned. When he had to, he even admitted to the failures of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the organisation he founded,” says Rongili. The IPTA was one of the oldest association of Indian theatre artistes formed in 1942.
In the week that Hemango-Bhupen has been available on Youtube, the feedback has been good. And while it is a team effort participated in by translators, singers, musicians, writers and of course, the Assamese and Bengali community who lived to tell the tale, Rongili feels the main narrator of Hemango-Bhupen is one that cannot be seen: music.
“Perhaps it is because of the time it has been released, or because of the way it has been made — people are listening to it,” she says.