Paul Robeson and India

Sean Coughlan writes about Paul Robeson, the singer, black activist and socialist (full report at BBC):

“Robeson was like an electro-magnet going through a pile of iron filings. It wasn’t just admiring fans, it was deep admiration… he radiated personality, a man of great commitment and strength… totally immune to the persecution he suffered.”

Prompted by Benn’s elderly aunt, Robeson sang Old Man River. “The whole tea room went silent, it was the most extraordinary experience.”

And to those in India, Paul Robeson’s song Ol’ Man River, came to us much before one came to learn about Paul Robeson himself, for me, the introduction was via Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist. The song itself had come to us in Bhupen Hazarika’s invocation to the river Ganga (in Hindi) and to the mighty Brahmaputra (in Asomiya).

An mp3 version of the song sung by Robeson, though it is a very short clip.

Robeson,however, came to us in the voice of Bhupendra Hazarika- in the Hindi and the Asomiya versions.

Hazarika had met Paul Robeson and was so influenced that he rendered the famous song into Asomiya and Hindi.


Few know that, during his time at Columbia University, Hazarika was a friend of Paul Robeson, the great black American singer, actor and civil rights activist. Robeson’s passionate crusade for social justice and black pride has permeated Bhupenda’s own worldview. Inspired greatly by Robeson’s powerful rendition of the song “Ole Man River”, Hazarika created his own moving ode to the Brahmaputra.

(Bard of the Brahmaputra by Sanjoy Hazarika)

For this song alone, he is forgiven the sin of joining the BJP in his later years.

An excerpt from the song (full text), with its powerful message in the language as spoken by the Afro Americans:

O’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…

He don’ plant tater,
He don’ plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ‘em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song.
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain.
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rollin’ along!

Link to BBC report via the Histomat.

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18 thoughts on “Paul Robeson and India

  1. Bhaswati

    Thanks for the post. Paul Robeson remains dear to a whole generation of Bengalis too, and there’s even a Bangla ode in his honour. I didn’t know about the Hazarika connection though.

    Reply
  2. Alok

    I didn’t know about this. thanks for all the links.

    With you on Hazarika’s misguided political ambitions. I wonder what he is doing now.

    Reply
  3. bhupinder singh

    Renegade Eye: I haven’t seen Showboat, will do so now.

    Bhaswati: I should have guessed the Bengali connection ! I miss the late communist theoretician (and my mentor) Mohit Sen who would have surely known a lot about both.

    Alok: I understand from a newly found Asomiya blogger friend that he is back to doing what he is good at.

    His turn towards the BJP was not well received in his home state and he was badly slandered by the press there.

    Reply
  4. Kamalakarhttp://sotosay.wordpress.com/

    Didnt know Hazarika’s two river songs had this connection. About his politics, I believe he was involved with the ULFA in its early formation; and as it became an extremist organisation he dissociated himself from it.

    Reply
  5. bhupinder singh

    Kamalakar: I am not sure of his support to the ULFA, it is possible that he supported it in its early years.

    But his joining the BJP came as a shock because it is a reversal of his early revolutionary poetry and all that it stood for (and made his reputation).

    In that, he joins another radical poet discussed on this blog few days back – Namdeo Dhasal.

    Happily, BH has now distanced himself from politics.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    bhupinder thanks for Hazarica songs i really enjoy O Ganga feel merging myself in his song .and remember Nehru too .
    raghubir

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    hun dil mera mandir di mamti te charke .shank bajanouda
    hun dil mera mandir noo dhavan da nit hooka launda
    hun dil mera under kuriya pyar nahi he .
    hun dil mera humm humm karna shad chuka he .. felling when Bhupen hazrika said ok to bjp . He is great inspite of all this plitics . raghu

    Reply
  8. bhupinder

    Now my heart climbs the ramparts of the temple and blows the conch,
    Now it brims with tears
    It no longer brims with unudulterated love,
    Now my heart no longer hums

    Hope I got the translation right, Raghu

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    Anecdote on music
    Tansen was a great musician and akber was very found of of his music one day tansen was in particular form Akber went into ecstasy and asked him , What is the secret of this sweet concord of notes which takes me out of this world and transport s me to divine regions ? I have not heard anyone else who can thus cast a spell of magic and make a slave of our hearts . You are really a wonderful , Tansen .
    Tansen replied Sir I am only a humble pupil of my master , Swami Hari das . I have not mastered even a fraction of the masters technique . Is there one who can sing better than you ? asked Akbar . So akbar and tansen went to master Hari Das. Tansen already warned Akbar that swami would sing only if he wanted to . Several days they stayed at the ashram but s]
    Swami did not sing Then one day tansen sang one of the songs taught by the swami and deliberately introduced a false note It has almost an electric effect on the saint his aesthetic nature received a rude shock . He turned to tansen and rebuked him saying ,What has happened to you tansen that pupil of mine should commit such gross blunder ?
    He then started singing the piece correctly ; the mood came upon him and enveloped him and he forget himself in the music , which filled the earth and heaven akber and tansen forgot themselves
    In the sheer melody and charm of music
    When the music stopped akber turned to tansen and said, You say you learnt music from saint and yet you missed the living charm of it all .Yours seems to be but chaff beside this soul stirring music
    It is true , tansen said ,my music is wooden and lifeless by the side of the living harmony and melody of the master . But then there is this difference . I sing to the emperor s bidding but my Master sing to no man s bidding but only when the prompting comes from his innermost self , That makes all the difference By R srinivasan ( 10th class English reader lesson , our Indian music stories and Anecdotes )
    by raghbir

    Reply
  10. bhupinder

    Thanks for sharing the anecdote, Raghbir.

    Indeed, the surprising thing is that it is only among the musicians in India that such a search for perfection exists. I all other fields, it is “jugaad” and tardiness.

    I wonder what the reason is.

    Reply
  11. bhupinder

    MP Saikia: Thanks for your comment. can you please be specific about the misconceptions on Bhupen Hazarika? I would like to correct if I represented anything incorrectly on this blog.

    Reply
  12. S. Amir Kenyatta

    Thank you all for your comments, I am the writer / artist of the acclaimed One Man Show on Paul Robeson & have been touring it around the world, I would love to bring the show to India for some Benefit shows in schools & theaters. Please visit my website http://www.paulrobesononemanshow.com
    and contact me about bringing it to your hometown. Robeson is my hero & mentor & I’m passionately committed to keeping his memory alive.
    Respectfully
    Stogie Kenyatta
    Paul Robeson One Man Show .com

    Reply

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