Over half a century ago, a young man, my father Kamal Hazarika, sat at the back of a bus listening to the sound of its engine ticking over. He became inspired with its rhythmic backbeat and the embryo of a song developed in his mind.
He composed the tune and penned its lyrics before any of it could escape him and it became a romantic Assamese ballad of a departing lover who promises to return at the spring festival, the bihu.
The song ‘Senai moi zao dei’ was snapped up by HMV, sung by Deepali Barthakur and millions of people took it to their hearts. Over the course of half a century it became one of the top Assamese songs of the twentieth century*
His talent was noticeable as a child where in his hometown of Shillong he was already organising cultural events, concerts, plays and music recitals, getting people together and making things happen. These would be the hallmarks that would mark out the course of his life.
Shillong in 1930s was even more beautiful then, a hill station of frosty mornings, babbling springs and pine trees that whistled in the fresh, chilly breeze; his real love though was in the plains of central Assam, amongst the wide fields of paddy and yellow mustard flowers, in the idyllic villages of Kaliabor where his parents were born.
Every winter the entire family would journey there by bus and train, eventually arriving in the hamlet of Borbhokoti, by the banks of the River Kolong, in a swaying convoy of rickety bullock carts, crammed with luggage, giggling brothers and sisters sat on bedding, around rattling pots and pans.
Those village winters in the 1930s would profoundly influence his unique style of Assamese folk music, and shape his undying love for its culture. They were carefree times filled with the unbridled joys of childhood, playing on the meji ghor, running across dried out paddy fields, riding elephants, herding cows, swimming and surfing down sandy embankments on palm leaves.
It was during these days of early boyhood adventure that my father encountered the rich folk culture of Assam: watching bhaona with its colourful costumes of gods and demons; hearing the thudding drums and cymbals from the naam ghar. Perhaps it was right there, by the banks of the slowly flowing Kolong, around the evening fire where folk songs and borgeet were sung, that his life’s calling ushered.
He learned to sing and play the harmonium; on Sundays, their white-washed house atop a hill in Shillong, Aranyam, became a local hub of culture and resounded with songs from his early influences like Pankaj Mullick, or Bishnu Prasad Rabha, who was friends with his elder brother Tarun and would come to pen songs.
In 1936, when he was 11, he went down to Guwahati with his brother Amal to watch an inter-school’s football match. There, sitting cross-legged on the dry grass of the Judge’s Field with rows of other boys, a stray ball came their way and a lad down the line kicked it back; they got chatting; this was his first encounter with a young Bhupen Hazarika. Their friendship would flower, he would visit their house on weekend sleepovers, and correspond when the young genius left for Benaras University. They would meet many years later in London when my father would organise a series of concerts for him.
His music profession started to take off in the 1940s when he became an ‘A’ Class Artiste for All India Radio in Calcutta, taught music at St Edmunds and led choruses with his pupils winning national schools competitions.
It took much courage to choose to leave everything for London in 1957, for he had so much to leave.
He intended to spend just a year in London to study Welfare Management and return to find a job in the rural idyll of Assam’s tea industry – but fate conspires differently – instead he spent half a century in London; it was in the concrete jungle of London, not the greenery of Assam, which would bear the fruit of his most creative years.
London was a tough place to be in those years, especially for an Indian with just 4 pounds in his pocket when he disembarked at Tilbury Docks; it was a very different place to the liberal and cosmopolitan city of today; then, it was a dreary city recovering from war, a place of foggy pollution, a place of faded glory, that was the centre of a crumbling empire, where food was rationed and jobs were hard to come by.
Indians felt like second class citizens and even renting a room was beset with problems for some adverts stated ‘Sorry, no coloureds, no dogs, no Irish.’(Quite why the Irish who looked just like the English, were last on the list of prohibited groups perplexed my father.)
He rented a small room kept warm with a coal stove, from a little old Polish lady in Edith Road in Fulham and settled in to classes and work at the High Commission of India.
Bouts of homesickness, spurred by a deep longing to be in Assam once again, would trouble his mind in those years; it would be something that would affect him on and off for most of his life. There was a sense of being cut off, for India and England were more distant in those days and the world was bigger.
Letters from his family in Assam took 4 weeks to arrive; a passage to India took 21 days, and a lot of savings; even phone calls home were expensive and had to be booked several days in advance via an operator who might call back with a connection at any ungodly hour without warning.
When we knew him as children his memories could be triggered by the smell of grass or the cooing of a pigeon; the taste of mustard seeds or a roaring field of wheat; watching the Thames, the Seine or the Rhine, or the Hudson, it didn’t matter which, would take him back to those dreamy days by the banks of the Kolong. At at his heart he was a dreamy and sentimental romantic.
Worse, in 1961 the Chinese army invaded northern Assam; only his kindly old landlady kept him sane from the incessant mental turmoil of the thought of never being in touch with his family again. Of losing his beloved Assam forever. She calmed him down, for her own beloved country of Poland had been invaded by Hitler’s and Stalin’s armies just a few years before; she reassured that be him being abroad, if his family were to be split up and moved all over China, they would still know where he lived; only he could reunite them but luckily the Chinese army withdrew after a matter of weeks.
Music provided comfort; he learned western musical notation, marvelling at how black dots on lines could be musical notes; he learned proper breathing techniques for singing and started to compose songs in English. Deep in his mind, more songs waited to be born, to be ushered in to life with his trusty harmonium the midwife.
He had many opportunities to perform. His boss at the Indian High Commission in Aldwych, was an admirer of Ravindranath Tagore, and because my father knew those songs, he was given the opportunity to sing at one of the most iconic auditoriums in the world: the Royal Albert Hall.
He learned Polish songs from his landlady and sang them at the Polish Church in Fulham, sending many in to joyful tears – no one had ever heard an Indian sing in Polish before.
He started up the first bihu celebrations (Assamese festival) in the early 60s with a small contingent of London based Assamese, mainly bachelors, in the Karachi Hotel in Russell Square. London’s bihus were as authentic as possible with lemony fish curry (tenga anja), coconut sweet balls (narikol laru), and sesame seed rolls filled with molasses (til pitha), and lots of dancing late in to the night with hands aloft and bodies swaying. One year they danced around a mechanical meji ghor (bonfire) that he had improvised from rolls of cardboard, which at the flick of a switch, whirred to life, with red ribbons blown by a fan under an orange light to mimic the flames.
Over the decades in the UK, he organised Shankar Dev Tithis, Assam Associations and involved himself with setting up the UK Chapter of the Asam Sahitya Sabha. He produced and directed a dance drama of the Assamese fairytale Tejimola which was distributed to London’s schools.
In 1963, he married my my mother Dhira Chaliha, Assam’s first woman pilot, and he became a family man with my sister and I being born just as the decade closed out.
Our family home was a little patch of Assam-in-London, with rooms adorned with Assamese brass ornaments and woven cloths on the sofa backs; on the wall in the hall hung a huge green and red cane hat and upstairs was a small altar , a thapana, where every morning he would pray and light incense that would waft around the house.
In a cabinet in the sitting room there was a small glass bottle with an air-tight rubber lid. Inside it was some soil, nothing special, just brown earth, some of it in tiny clumps, and some in fine dust with an occasional dried root. The bottle’s contents were evidenced from a label on its underside: this was, the writing stated in proud capitals, ‘SOIL FROM ASSAM’. For my father, this was hallowed earth.
Often after a hard day’s work he would love to sing with his beloved burgundy harmonium perched on his knee, swaying, smiling as he sang, looking upwards and tapping his feet. In front of him would be an a fading, hardback exercise book, crammed with his songs, looking like some ancient tome, with some pages inserted and dog-eared and held together with elastic bands, as if these songs, lyrics, poems, and embryonic ideas for new ones, were bursting to be born.
Conversations at home were in Assamese, my father made it a point that we would learn to speak Assamese before English. Infact one of the only English words we knew as young children, almost as a lone concession to the world outside the light-green door, was what we called our father – ‘daddy’.
When I was growing up, Assamese was to me a private language, in my mind, one only spoken by three other people, my parents and my sister – no one else. When I went to Assam at the age of five (we went every three years) I was amazed – uncles, aunts, cousins, the radio announcer, shopkeepers, rickshawallahs, autorickshawallas, zookeepers, even beggars – there was a whole society out there, all speaking our private little language. I was gobsmacked.
Today, despite not speaking it for years on end, it comes back to me in an instant, and has over the years enabled closer friendships in Assam. It is perhaps the greatest gift to us, language that great un-locker of human connection, from our parents.
My father loved the company of people; childhood summers in our three-bedroom house in the middle of Thirsk Road in south London were filled with guests from Assam. At times it felt like growing up in a free hotel.
We loved having Assamese guests staying, for they came with stories and laughter, their suitcases smelled of mothballs and funnily they wore warm woollen clothes in the English summer.
As soon as our guests arrived, just as they they took off their coats in the hall, I would usually ask them ‘When are you leaving?’. This was because I wanted our guests to stay as long as possible but my father explained to me that I should avoid saying this, and instead say ‘I hope you are staying for a long time.’
Best of all, we would get to show them around London, ride the Underground trains, visit the Tower of London where the Queen kept her jewels, go to Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons and ride the lions. Buckingham Palace. Madame Tussauds. The city was ours in those hazy warm summers.
Our house in the middle of Thirsk Road in the borough of Merton, became some kind of de facto Assamese embassy in London thanks to daddy’s kindness and of course my mum’s graft.
When I was eight years old, a very special guest came to stay with us – daddy’s childhood friend Bhupen Hazarika. My father’s cultural organisation, Pragjyoti Kalaparishad (which brought artistes from Assam to the UK) had organised a series of concerts for him in Scotland, Birmingham, at London’s Mahatma Gandhi Hall and at the BBC TV studios.
Bhupen Uncle as we called him, stayed with us for weeks – it was as if he was close family and on some evenings he would even cook for us, picking tomatoes and aubergines from mum’s vegetable garden. I made up a joke for him: ‘what pen never runs out of ink?’ Answer: ‘Bhupen’. He thought this was hilarious and mentioned this in my autograph book.
It was only when he performed at Trafalgar Square did I realise how immense Bhupen Uncle was; it was a truly emotional to hear Assamese songs giving such pleasure to 30,000 people in the central square in London. And all the while, the man behind the scenes, in the background, printing the tickets, sticking up the posters, booking venues, making it all happen was my father.
In the 1980s, my father sought out new projects, each delivered with a passion; he organised dance recitals on BBC TV for Indira PP Bora and helped set up and music a new Assamese school for the young second generation.
He produced and directed a video dance-drama of the Assamese fairytale Tejimola which was distributed to several London schools. He also assembled a galaxy of stars to produce a cassette of his songs called Howorni bare boronia. And to think, he managed to do all these things while still doing a demanding day-time job as an officer in the British Civil Service.
He was never money-minded, his objective was to spread Assamese culture, to earth new artistes, to instil their roots to children, keeping alive Assamese traditions abroad. That was his gold. He wasn’t very political either, his world was a simpler one filled with beats and notes, tunes and lyrics. He once said to me in a philosophical moment that if everyone in the world learned to play a musical instrument, then all conflict would cease: people wouldn’t be able to hold guns or knives, if they held flutes, drums and guitars. Music would make everyone happy. At his heart he was a romantic idealist.
He was attentive and loving to us, his family. He encouraged my mum to follow a career and taught us to sing naam and borgeet; my sister took it even further dancing bihu, and winning singing competitions.
I would make my father go crazy with incessant questions – (Why is the world round? Where does the sun go at night? How does our TV work? If smoking is bad, why do we give incense to Krishna ?) and he never once refused to answer any of them.
On Friday nights, he’d come home with sweets in his pockets, red liquorice laces and polo mints, and let us stay up late to pick up mum from her job, hiding in the back of the car to surprise her in our pyjamas. He loved to mess around, and could make you laugh till you cried; he’d pretend to break open apples with his bare hands (secretly semi-cut beforehand in two perfect halves for us) and every morning he would wake us, making us go mad, endlessly repeating, the early bird catches the worm.
He made friends easily; the Japanese family he sat next to on a plane from Moscow; a young man called Dan from Sri Lanka from whom he bought a car part; the door-to-door sales woman from St Lucia; a Zimbabwean Rastafarian called Pax. Everyone counted in his world and I never heard him once utter any bigotry or harbour ill feelings towards other religions or races. He transcended such nonsense.
For the last 20 years of his life, he devoted his time between the UK and Assam, and luckily his indefatigability never failed him. He helped set up the UK Chapter of the Asom Sahitya Sabha, he made a short award-winning film based on his poem Aita hei gaon khon koloi gol, poignant reminiscences of bye-gone Assamese village life.
Shortly before his death, he archived 82 of his songs, recorded by other artistes in an authentic style, at the Srimanta Sankaradeva at Kalakshetra for future generations to enjoy.
As his body was failing and his breath leaving him, he still continued to sing and play his beloved harmonium as if it was sustaining him, giving him energy. Music was the oxygen that coursed through his veins.
When you live in the hearts of those that loved you, you never really die and an artiste never dies completely for their works live on; every time a poem is read or a song is played, some part of that person, deep in their core, is brought back to life again. Especially one that has given so many so much joy for so long.
Gulap morohi jai, the rose has died, its petals have withered away, but still its fragrance continues to endure, bringing delight for generations to come for ever more.
The author writes for http://www.heyloons.com
*Senai Moi Zao Dei, was voted one of the top 20 Assamese songs of the 20th century by Amar Asom