Music being an integral part of culture is often used as a weapon for social reformation and revolution. It is possible to understand the culture of a region through music. In fact, culture can loosely be understood as the way of life of a group of human being. However, we need to pause here to ask ourselves a pertinent question: Does music form a part of material culture? How do we define material culture? Material culture includes all the physical things that people create and attach meaning to, and also provides us insight into the non-material culture, which includes the ideas, beliefs habits and values of people. Dr Bhupen Hazarika, the cultural doyen of North-East India, has to his credit composed and sang a great number of songs. Besides reflecting humanism, revolutionary spirit, patriotism, history, romance and life, his songs represented material culture in all its nuances. Emphasis would be laid on the study of the subjects like the construction of identity, social disparity and representation of the past with the help of the selected songs of Dr Hazarika.
Keywords: : Material Culture, Identity, Collective Memory, Social Structure
Material culture incorporates all the physical things that are created by people and invested with meaning. It also provides us insight into the non-material culture, which includes the ideas, beliefs, habits and values of people. Material culture is a study about the relationship between the people and the things; it is all about the culture of things. On the other hand, Non-material culture is about the culture of ideas. It consists of the intangible creation of society such as values, norms and beliefs. “Material culture” according to Jules Prown “is the study through artefacts of the beliefs, values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions of a particular community or society at a given time” (Prown, 2000, pp. 1-19). The objects, things and materials are the stuff of meaning and practices of everyday human activities. It gives us the insight to understand the social structure, global networks and cultural ideals. According to Ian Woodward, “objects are the material things people encounter, interact with and use. Objects are commonly spoken of as material culture. The term material culture emphasises how apparently inanimate things within the environment act on people, and are acted upon by people, to carry out social functions, regulating social relations and giving symbolic meaning to human activity” (Woodward, 2007, p. 3).
The present study intends to explore the underlying meaning of objects as reflected in some of the selected songs of Dr Bhupen Hazarika. The study concentrates on the representation of the object in Hazarika’s songs, and how the issues of identity, societal construction and collective memory are entangled in the network of such objects. According to Stuart Hall, “we give things meaning by how we represent them— the words we use about them, the stories we tell about them, the images of them we produce, the emotions we associate with them, the ways we classify and conceptualise them, the values we place on them” (Hall, Evans, & Nixon, 2013, pp. 17-26). It is apparent that Hazarika not only invests meaning to such objects but also deconstructs the normative meaning often associated with such objects.
One can study an object through music also. Music is one of the medium through which human beings produce beauty of contour, harmony and expression of emotion. It is always dialogic; its meaning is always produced and reproduced in its creation, expectation, reception and interpretation. Social issues get reflected in lyrical compositions of music; ecological factors do influence the musical structures. On the other hand, music forms a part of the non-material culture, but it constitutes material culture in a discursive form. Sometimes, in the lyrical composition, we find the use of certain objects whose possible meanings are produced in a symbolic or metaphorical form. Sometimes composers also add a specific value or function to an object. Thus, with the help of music, we can study the perception of people, their pride and their memory as connected with an object.
A material object can be read as a source of collective memory. The term ‘collective memory’ is used for describing the shared stories, artefacts, food, drink, symbols, traditions, images, and music that bind the members of a group together. The discourse of collective memory apparently begins with the work of Emile Durkheim. According to him, a society requires continuity and connection with the past to preserve its social unity and cohesion (Durkheim, 1995). Maurice Halbwachs, on the other hand, is considered the first sociologist to use the term collective memory. He is stated to have build the foundational framework for the study of societal remembrance. According to him, all individual memory is constructed within social structures and institutions, and individuals organise and understand events and concepts within a social context. Thus, individuals collectively shape memory by ordering and organizing them within the same social structure. It can, therefore, be said that a group construct memory and the individuals do the work of remembering. However, Halbwachs states that, “collective memory is shaped by present issues and understandings. Groups select different memories to explain current issues and concerns. Leaders of a group reconstruct past using rationalisation to choose which events are remembered those that are eliminated and rearrange events to conform to the social narrative, to explain the present situation” (Halbwachs 1952).
Cultural study of things or objects gives us insight into the social structure of human life. It gives us the insight to understand how people constitute a society and create rules and regulations. Anthony Giddens’ Structuration theory helps us to understand the form of social life and how people create rules and regulations in a social situation. According to him, “human agency and social structure are in a relationship with each other, and it is the repetition of the acts of individual agents which reproduces the structure. This means there is a social structure- traditions, institutions, moral codes and established ways of doing things; but it also means that these can be changed when people start to ignore them, replace them or reproduce them differently” (David, 2002). He believes that social structure exists through the way people use rules and resources. He talks about the normative rules that govern behaviour and signification code by which meaning is produced. For example, a way of speaking about a pattern can be used for conveying an argument. Such signification code can be used to analyze songs also. For instance, an expressive element of a song reproduces meaning, and it can reflect the social structure. Dr Bhupen Hazarika, a man of soil and masses, represents a set of ideas, values, and norms of Assamese society through his analysis of such kind of objects. In part, we can say that Dr Bhupen Hazarika employs language and expressive behaviour of the symbolic objects as a signification code in order to produce meaning and explore social structures. Thus, it can be said that, in a given situation, a material object has a role in creating the rules of human society. On the other hand, physical objects created by the society influence how people live.
Dr Bhupen Hazarika, a lyricist, artist, journalist writer and filmmaker from Assam, endowed with a magnetic voice and superb creative power, has produced pearly lyrics gained him immortality (Goswami, 2012). His lyrics are replete with a wide range of emotions and feelings. The main themes of his compositions are revolution, patriotism, feeling for the oppressed and the downtrodden, love, amity, harmony, romanticism and above all humanism. Some of his songs reflect objects which signify the culture, history, power relation and social structure of Assam. For instance, the song Dola, he Dola, reveals the suffering of the bearers of palanquin of kings: “through the meandering road/ I carry big men’s palanquin/ … I hold on to a labourer’s life/ exhausting my body”(translation ours). Here, Dola becomes the symbol of exploitation and domination. It bears the stigma of power politics. The song represents the two opposite situation: a sophisticated lord in silk, and sweating palanquin bearers who cannot give a cotton shirt to their children. The actions and attitude of the palanquin bearers suggest their subalternity. The tune of the song is suggestive of walking with careful steps and the hard labour of carrying a heavy weight upon their shoulders: “through the ages/they dumped the heavy burden on us/ our shoulders seem to creak/ the big men sleep in the palanquin/ but we sweat/ while we climb up the high hills/ we have to walk carefully/ if it slips from our shoulders/ the big men’s palanquin will go down” (translation ours). Dola is a covered litter designed for one passenger carried by two men on their shoulders by means of a pole. On the other hand it carries beliefs and people’s perceptions of the power, class and livelihood associated with this object. In part, dola creates a social system and class division in the society. Though it was a mode of travel for the royal/ rich people, it required the common people to carry it on their shoulders. Thus, it carries two types of meaning: for the royal/ rich people, it is a symbol of luxury, power, class and status. On the other hand, for the lower class, it is a means of exploitation.
If we look for Dola, the object used in the song, precisely in the history of Assam, we find that it was commonly used during the Ahom reign as a mode of travel. In historical context, during Ahom age, the use of a dola was restricted within the aristocratic circle of kings and nobles (Rajkumar, 2000). It was considered as the symbol of status and power. Here, the class division is distinct. The kings ignore the fact that the development of a kingdom depends on the hard labour of common people. Thus, Hazarika is attempting through this song to highlight the decadent Ahom history in order to emphasize the ugly exixtence of class division and social disparity in our contemporary society.
Let us consider the song “Bulu o Mising dekati bojali je pepati xurere xojali dekhun dichang mukhor nixati”. It expresses the cultural and social values of Mising community of Assam. The song starts with the sound of Pepa (a wind instrument) blown by a young boy. The song showcases the vibrant culture, dress, custom and rituals of the Mising tribe of Assam. The mibugaluk shirt, dumer (a kind of headgear), the pererumbong sadar (a piece of cloth), riha (a piece of cloth worn by women), yellow coloured ribigaseng worn by the missing girl, the oinitom (a love song), and gungang (a musical instrument) are the very essence of the of the Mising culture. The song expresses the culture of the Mising community by identifying objects which are visibly fetishized by the community such as dress. It also refers to the colour of the dresses, how women and men distinctly dressed up, the fabrics of these dresses, the process of weaving, designing and their usage. On the other hand, it bears the significant value of using certain colours and the unique identity of the community. Thus, the song represents the unique culture, tradition and heritage of Mising community in particular and Assam in general.
Hazarika’s songs also encompass the art and architecture of Ahom period. For instance, the song “Deshar Hoke Moru O” is based on nationalism ushering a revolution. The lyrics of the song reflect upon the fading colour of Ranghar: “Ranghar Ranghar tejrongi Ranghar/ aji kio rang tur nai.” Through this song, Hazarika is asking a very pertinent question as to why the colour of the Ranghar is fading away? To speak metaphorically, the vibrant colour of Ranghar denotes the robust energy of youth and the faded colour denotes the weakness of youth. His primary concern has been to awaken the youth of Assam from the deep slumber induced by colonialism. By symbolically representing the vibrant colour of Ranghar, he invokes the power of youth to deter any qualms over the colonial power. At the same time, he urges the youths of the country to awake and fight for the nation. It may be mentioned that the Ranghar was constructed by King Pramatta Singha in 1746 A.D. During Ahom period it was the royal pavilion where Ahom kings and nobles would sit to enjoy the games like buffalo fights and performances like bihu dance. It is a two storied building having a unique pattern and architectural design. It bears the pride and past of Ahom history and culture of Assam. Thus, Hazarika draws the sentiment of the people by bringing in the significance of the Ranghar. Here, we can understand the people’s emotions, sentiments, public memories and values connected with the pride of Ahom architecture.
Let us consider the song, Dukhore Upori Dukh. Again, in this song, he projects Ahom art and architecture to denote past pride and history. The song reflects on the various socio-political and economic crises which the state of Assam has been enduring in the present time: “today, Rohdoi and Bhogai cry/ the buffallo horn is not blown/ the drum in the holly place of Lord Shiva is not there/ The drum and the gong are not pounded/… Snakes have taken shelter in the Barghar/ as it is surrounded by the grasses/ and a doleful tune is humming inside the Karenghar/ The company comes to the vicinity of the Soraghar/ in order to settle itself for a while/ but it passes the Soraghar and enters the Barghar/ piercing the chest with lance/ Ranghar Pavilion has lost its charm/ and Tolatolghar is surrounded by darkness” (translations ours). The song represents the obstacles faced by the Ahom kings at various times including the invasion of East India company. It also reveals the political demolition and cultural decay of Ahom kingdom. Metaphorically speaking, Hazarika tries to depict the present situation of Assam by referring to the past events. It unfolds various cultural conflicts, political exploitations, economic imbalances, and the change in people’s perceptions towards social values and norms. On the other hand, it carries a vast account of those architectures, their values and meanings which they hold during the Ahom Period. At the same time, the public memory, stories and historical events related to those objects are relayed forward. The playing of the drum in Shiva temple reveals the ritual practices of the particular period. The Shiva temple was constructed during Ahom period by the king or Bor Raja Ambika, the queen of king Shiva Singha in 1642 A.D. However, the song reflects on the changes that the societly is afflicted with in the contemporary era along with the transformation of the ritualistic tradition. Hazarika, thus, urges the society to maintain the three important royal building of Ahom kingdom— Karenghar, Ranghar and Tolatolghar. He believes that these monuments are the symbol of the pride of Ahom rule in Assam. It may be noted that Soraghar is a room inside the royal palace where discussions and decisions on war and other matters of importance for the empire are taken by the king in consultations with his ministers. (Rajkumar, 2000, p. 139; translation ours). On the other hand, Borghar is the main house. The song, thus, untangle the pattern of houses and other architectural designs of Ahom period, and the idea of space and its usage. The song also reflects on the advent of the British and how the Ahom kingdom declined under the colonial power. Apparently, Hazarika is making a statement on the present socio-political and economic situation of Assam. Furthermore, by referring to the darkness in the Tolatolghar and Ranghar, he is hinting at the possibility of a catastrophic future for Assam.
In the song, Rod Puawor karone, Hazarika looks at the Assamese culture through the prism of a metaphor: Ajir mula gabhorue dopdopai ulale hengdane maku dekhi korobat lukale/ mulai aji homajxalot seneh seleng logale xojaboloi pindhaboloi kak? The song reveals how the social structure of the Assamese society has been undergoing transformation. Hazarika is optimistic to find the Mula Gabhorus (to denote young girls) of the present generation exercising power with boldness to show their chutzpah. She is also an accomplished weaver. In fact, Mula Gabhoru, as mentioned in the song, was the wife of Phraseng Mung Borgohain, an Ahom warrior. She established herself as a female warrior of the Ahom period by going to the battlefield to avenge the death of her husband against Turbak Khan, the Mughal warrior. Therefore, Mula Gabhoru, in the song, highlights the state of affairs, practices and traditions during the Mughal invasion of Ahom kingdom. During the Ahom period, the wife of a general or a commander used to offer a piece of cloth called kabach kapur to her husband before he leaves for the battlefield. It was believed that if a wife could offer the piece of kabach kapur to her husband, he was sure to escape death on the battlefield. However, the kabach kapur had to be made maintaining certain rules. The wife of a soldier would start spinning cotton in the middle of the night, make threads out of it and would finish weaving before the daybreak (Borboruah, 1981, p. 65). It is believed that in case of Phra-seng-Mung Bargohain, Mula Gabhoru could not offer kabach kapur for short of time. Hence, he died on the battlefield. Thus, it can be argued that most of the material objects relating to Ahom history are connected to their belief system and public memory. In the present-day context, the song depicts the power of hengdan and the shuttle. Hengdan, being a tool of war, has the power to save the nation. On the other hand shuttle, an object used for weaving, has the power to economically transform the Assamese society. The song also peeps into the contemporary status of women in relation to the Ahom period. Moreover, during the reign of Pratap Singha (1603-1641 A.D.), he gave impetus to the cottage industry. Mumai Tamuli, the then Barborua, made it a rule that every woman before going to bed must spin a bundle of thread which was to be collected the next morning by an officer appointed for this purpose (Bhuyan, 1960, p. 127). Hence, the song reflects on the history, beliefs, norms, culture, tradition and the status of women of the Assamese society during the Ahom period.
In the song, Bihuti Bosore Ahiba, the Bihu and its importance in building unity among the masses is emphasized. As it is, the Bohag Bihu heralds the dawn of a new year, a new spring. Through this song, Hazarika is ushering a new hope and a better future for the people of Assam. The lyric marks gamosa as the image of unity: e moromor digh di hepahor asure ekotar gamosa buaba. Here, he attempts to bring forth the values and emotions associated with Gamosa for the Assamese people. Gamosa is a piece of cloth used by Assamese people as a symbol of honour and love. Hazarika explains the weaving process behind the making of this object. In addition to its symbolic representation of unity, the song identifies the object as an identity marker of the Assamese society.
From the study of Dr. Hazarika’s songs, we can infer that music texualizes material culture. For, it is the material culture that initiates and endows specificity to our thought process and, thereby, dovetails things with ideas, archives with identity, traditional practices with collective memory etc. By representing certain objects/ things in his songs that he considers valued at a particular time and space, Dr. Hazarika endeavours to salvage the truth concealed in the maze of history. However, while attempting to interpret the intricate web of things and ideas, he locates himself in the Bor Axomiya culture and tradition. It does not mean that he ever strives to be a chauvinist/ nationalist, rather he considers himself to be a humanist with history and root.
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We are thankful to the ICSSR, New Delhi for the generous financial support without which this paper would not have been possible.
This is a revised version of the paper presented in the National Conference on Perspectives on Material Cultures in Northeast India organized by Department of History & Archaeology, NEHU, Tura Campus on 23rd March 2018