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From Ol’ Man River to Burha Luit

By The Assam Tribune
From Ol’ Man River to Burha Luit
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Influenced by American musician and activist Paul Robeson, Dr Bhupen Hazarika crafted his iconic song that transcends class, creed, and colour, writes DR MANASH P GOSWAMI.
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Paul Robeson and Dr Bhupen Hazarika

Ol Man River, in Paul Robeson’s distinctive baritone, is a powerful anthem of black liberty of the 20th century which drew global attention to the life, struggles, and hardships of African-Americans. The song contrasts the struggles with the limitless and unemotional flow of the Mississippi River.

Music composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II worked on Show Boat – a splendid musical on life along the Mississippi River. It is while working together on the show that they created one of the most heart-touching songs of the 20th century, Ol’ Man River, written and sung from the perspective of a stevedore, who travels on a boat, represents the anthem of the downtrodden society. However, when Show Boat first premiered in December 1927, Robeson could not sing his iconic song, as he was busy with prior commitments. He finally sang the song in a 1928 London production of the musical.

Robeson’s song touched the hearts of many Indians, too. In fact, Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s classic composition Bistirna Parore has been recognised as the recontextualisation of Robeson’s Ol’ Man River from an Indian perspective.

Hazarika’s rendezvous with Paul Robeson was one of the most important turning points of his life. In 1949, Hazarika, who was studying at Columbia University, befriended Robeson, and, was immensely influenced by his life, music, and civil rights activism. The speech of Robeson’s where he said: “Guitar is not only a musical instrument, it is a social instrument. With one stroke of the guitar, you can change the pattern of the whole society”, had an everlasting impact on Hazarika’s life. He took to music as a major tool to reform society. The musical compositions of Hazarika have always been contemporary, no matter how everything has changed with the times. Hazarika always thanked Jyoti Prasad Agarwala for his piece of advice before he left for the US. Agarwala said, “Don’t go there only to see Hollywood, see the exceptional talent in black people also.” In fact, it was Agarwala who suggested Hazarika to meet Robeson.

Hazarika once said, “Songs are a definite way for social change. Social awareness is essential to write and sing songs. I was born with social awareness. With that social-awareness, I am creating, will create, and will die with social-awareness.”

While influenced by the lyrics of Ol’ Man River, Hazarika composed his masterpiece – Bistirno Parore (Of the Wide Shores). In his ode on the river Luit (another name for the Brahmaputra), Hazarika questions the mighty river – ‘Burha luit boan kio?’ for its indifference as it flows, insensible to the sufferings of the people who live by its banks. He symbolises the Brahmaputra as an insignificant leader. Hazarika represents the terrible apathy of the helpless people. In his lyrics, he expresses his disappointment over the mighty Brahmaputra for witnessing the poor, illiterate, and oppressed people since ages.

The song touches the heart of a sensitive listener of any class, creed, and colour. It seems like the tune of the song maintains conformity with the flow of the mighty Brahmaputra. Hazarika amazingly crafted the tune to express anger and apathy with meticulously chosen words. He provokes the listeners to think about the discrimination in the society. The elements of wholeness, harmony, and clarity made the song the masterpiece that it is today.

Paul Robeson’s humanistic approach, fusion of folk music and instruments, lyrics based on real issues are some of the important ingredients that found significant space in his songs. Probably, Hazarika accepted the fact that a real artist can never isolate himself from the socio-political paradigm. Therefore, he addressed the issues of the poorer sections of the society in his songs.

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(The author is currently working as Associate Professor and Head in the Department of Media and Communication, Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur. He can be reached at [email protected])

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