National : Assam’s bards of freedom gave a voice to nationalist aspirations

By Sujit Chakraborty

Guwahati/Agartala, Aug 14 : The 1920s to 1940s was a period when a large number of songs, poems and lyrics were composed in Assam as part of the freedom movement. These in turn worked as an inspiration during the freedom movement and had an electrifying effect on the masses during the freedom struggle.

“O Mur Apunar Desh”, written by Lakshminath Bezbarua (1868-1938) and tuned by Kamala Prasad Agarwala, is the state song of Assam. It was officially adopted as the state song at the Assam Student Conference held in Tezpur in 1927.

The song was first published in 1909 in an Assamese magazine named Baahi (Flute).

Though his father Dinanath Bezbarua was a senior official with the British government, Bezbarua devoted himself to revive the lost glory of the Assamese language and literature and dominated the Assamese literary world for about half a century.

Fighting against his contemporary writers, his literary and cultural crusade was aimed at the overall development of Assamese society.

According to Guwahati-based journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap, the twentieth century saw an upsurge in literary activities related to the freedom movement in Assam.

He said that the earliest recorded song is from 1916, when Ambikagiri Raichoudhury (Assam Kesari) composed a song, sung as the opening chorus, at the annual conference of the Assam Association, which was the first political platform of the province which became the provincial Congress in 1921.

In 1917, Raichoudhury wrote and sang, E-je agnibeenar taan (Tune of the veena of fire), at the Assam Association conference at Barpeta, in which he said, “This is not a song of laughter, mirth and relaxation. This is a tune of the veena of fire which has made life and death one.”

Due to the immense influence of Raichoudhury’s songs across Assam, the British government confiscated his book ‘Shatadha’ in 1924 because of its strong revolutionary content, said Kashyap.

In 1921, when Mahatma Gandhi made his first visit to Assam, Raichoudhury and Karmavir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi spent a session with him to explain in detail how a number of songs composed by the two were spreading the message of freedom and non-violence in the province for several years.

In 1926, the 41st session of the Indian National Congress opened with a chorus, “Aji bando ki chandare/samagata virata/naranarayana roopa” (How do we welcome you, this supreme incarnation of humanity? We’re a humiliated and dependent lot with a shrinking mind and heart/We have no flowers, sandalwood paste and incense sticks… / With our voice, strangulated by shackles of slavery/ We can’t produce a melody…) composed by Raichoudhury.

According to Kashyap, Bishnu Prasad Rabha (1909-1969) was another great cultural icon who is fondly referred to as Kalaguru, whose poems and lyrics too had an electrifying effect on the masses of Assam during the freedom struggle.

He said in neighbouring Manipur, the most important popular piece of literary work that continues to instil a sense of patriotism among the people is ‘Khongjom Parva’, a traditional ballad originally composed orally by Leinou.

He was a washerman who happened to be a witness to the Battle of Khongjom, one of the most significant incidents of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891, in which several hundred brave Manipuris laid down their lives. Leinou recorded the bravery and patriotism of the Manipuri soldiers in his orally-composed ballad which came to be known as ‘Khongjom Parva.’

A musical narration, ‘Khongjom Parva’ has over the years expanded its scope to include stories about other legendary Manipuri characters, as also some from the Mahabharata.

This was how the message of the resistance against the British had spread in Assam, through oral poetry as early as in the 1830s.

The British had started occupying the present-day northeast since the Treaty of Yandabo, signed with the Burmese invaders in 1826. Prior to that, the Burmese had invaded Assam and Manipur thrice, in 1817, 1819 and 1821, and occupied both which were then independent countries.

The British, who had entered Assam with a promise of going back after flushing out the Burmese, however stayed on after discovering tea and petroleum.

When Maniram Dewan, Assam’s greatest hero of 1857, was hanged in February, 1858, the effect of folk songs and ballads was so strong that people continued to sing them, making them inseparable from the freedom movement which grew more intense with every passing year.

In the post-independence era, Bhupen Hazarika had sung a portion of that ballad in ‘Maniram Dewan’, an Assamese film of 1963, said Kashyap.

Folk songs of various genres spread the news far and wide, and freedom loving and patriotic people began singing about their heroic deeds and sacrifice.

A sizeable number of these songs and poems were lost in time due to non-documentation when people who had composed and sung them were alive. A few, some in bits and pieces, however have been collected and preserved by a couple of scholars, Kashyap stated in one of his articles.

According to the writings of Sahitya Akademi award winner Late Biswanarayan Shastri the dramatists Satyaprasad Barua, Prabin Phukan and a few others have convincingly dealt with the socio-economic problems in a Gandhian way to usher in a new society.

“Gandhian thoughts have been analysed in a few works in Assamese. Gandhivad by Bijay Ch. Bhagwati is one of them. During the Chinese aggression there was an outburst of writings in the shape of drama, poems and songs, wherein the litterateurs appealed to the patriotic sentiment of the people,” Shastri said in an article.

He wrote: “Poems ‘Mor Desh Manuhara Desh’ by Devkanta Barooa and poems by others created a new atmosphere. Patriotic songs by Bhupen Hazarika were on the lips of all young men and women. They sang of unity of the people and oneness of purpose.”

“Harijan Andolan started by Gandhiji. During this period a number of social dramas were produced of which Lahanga, Viplava, etc. by Daibachandra Talukdar, may be mentioned,” Shastri said in his book “Nationalism and Patriotism In Assamese Literature”.

According to Shastri, young people from Assam proceeded to Calcutta for higher education, a few of them even before the establishment of the Calcutta University. They studied English and Bengali literature in depth and imbibed the spirit of patriotism.

Anandram Dhekial Phukan (1829-59) was the pioneer in Assamese literature. He had his education in Calcutta before Calcutta University was established. He was the Rammohun Roy of Assam.

He was paid a warm tribute by Colonel Hopkinson, the then Chief Commissioner of Assam, who said: “Considering the peculiar circumstances of Assam in which Anandram was placed and his premature death at the age 30 one is bound to call him a greater genius than Raja Rammohun Roy.”

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

–IANS

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