I was 7 years old when I first saw Dr Bhupen Hazarika sing -- at the Assam Sahitya Sabha in Kohima, Nagaland. Thanks to my dad, I had heard Dr Hazarika's songs even earlier.
I understood very little of what Dr Hazarika sang that day. But I did understand that every word resonated deeply with every adult present there. And there was something very reassuring about that baritone -- like my father's lullabies.
Over the years, I learned to sing along with dad and his harmonium. He would seldom sing anything else other than Dr Hazarika's songs. And somewhere along the way, they transformed from being mere words strung to notes.
His songs paint pictures. Pictures that remind me, like countless others, of the idyll we associate with our wonder years, and the storms that rip that idyll. Tea garden workers plucking the two leaves and a bud. The rivers flowing serenely while man butchers man on the banks.
I began to believe in Dr Hazarika's songs, and saw them as beacons of hope -- something that the whole of Assam and most of Northeast India had been doing for years, and something that the freedom fighters of Bangladesh did too.
Now when I look back and analyse, I realise that maybe it was because he wrote and sang of things that touched our lives: Love, nature, travel, governance, culture, and human emotions. May be, he gave a voice to subjects that no one else had thought of till then.
Or, may be, it was just the timbre of his voice, the honesty of his soul.
Growing up in a boarding school, athletics and volleyball were as much a part of my life as was singing Dr Hazarika's songs. When I sang on stage for the first time -- as part of an inter-Sainik School event -- I sang two of his songs. Some people told me that I should take my singing more seriously if the National Defence Academy did not happen. I never did get through the NDA.
When I moved to Calcutta for my graduation, Dr Hazarika's songs saved me from ragging by seniors. I only had to strum the guitar and sing to them, no matter what time of the day or night
it was. What song I had to sing, of course, depended on the audience's (mostly inebriated) state of mind.
And I went on to discover how household a name he was in Bengal too. Songs like Aami Ek Jajabor (I am a nomad), Ganga amar ma (Ganga is my mother), Hey Dola Hey Dola (about palanquin-bearers), Manush Manusher Jonno (Man is for fellow man) were part of most family get-togethers and public musical gatherings.
I fell in love with a woman -- who would eventually become my wife -- from Bihar, at a time when the Assamese and Biharis were at loggerheads. Probably, it was Dr Hazarika's songs about the brotherhood of man that had taught me subliminally that hate only begets hate. And that those who seek to divide people will inevitably draw the wrath of the gods.
Now, I live in Mumbai, a corporate slave by day and singer by night. I have performed across the length and breadth of India with my band. And every time I go up on stage and feel the adrenaline rush, I thank Dr Hazarika. For making me realise the power of music -- that can make thousands rise, sway, hope, live.
My trips home -- yes, Assam is and always will be home -- have come down to once a year. My dad has grown old now. He is a lot calmer, quieter, a far cry from the bundle of energy he always was. But every time I go home, he reaches for his harmonium and sings the same songs again. Like he always did.
I can hear the vigour in his voice fading, and it makes my heart heavy. The same words, which I have heard him sing since I was a child, mean so much more now.
The biggest achievement for a singer is when the songs become the soundtrack to people's lives. And that is why Bhupen Hazarika will live forever -- for being a dauntless writer, composer, singer who could touch deep inside the muscle we call the heart.
As I write this, I realise how little time I have spent with my parents. How, unknowingly, the rat race has completely taken over my life. And how, when I need comfort and reassurance, when I find myself in times of trouble, the only songs that play in the background are those of Bhupenda.
Moi aaru muur saa/Duyu duyure logori/Kune koi moi okolxoriya.
Me and my shadow/Are friends with each other/Who says I'm alone.
Pranab Gohain, a product manager with Tata Communications, sings with the Mumbai-based Hindi rock band Prayag.