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Bishnu Rabha : A Friend of the
Toiling Masses

by Sumanta Rajbanshi


Bishnu Prasad Rabha (1909-1969) was a man of versatile personality. He was an artiste, a writer, a dedicated researcher of art, culture and literature, and also an advocate of social reformation for liberation and unification of the exploited and downtrodden people belonging to diverse castes and communities. Dr Sibnath Barman rightly describes him as a symbol of the Assamese Renaissance. Rabha was ever aware of the unique cultural heritage of Assam and its rich Vaishnavite tradition. Having witnessed and experienced a complex socio-economic situation in Assam and the problems arising out of it during and after the freedom struggle Rabha could not confine himself to the ivory-tower of art and felt the urgent need of joining the fight against social injustice, exploitation and all other sinister forces working for division of the society in the name of caste and community. It may be mentioned here that his acquaintance with Marx and Lenin gave him a new insight to look into the life of the downtrodden masses, empathise with them and work for their socio-economic upliftment. His object of working for the amelioration of the exploited masses encouraged him to search for his role model in Leonardo da Vinci, Lord Krishna and Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva. These three saints of versatile genius provided Bishnu Rabha with his desired role model for becoming an artist, a writer, a musician and a social reformer.

Bishnu Rabha inherited 2500 bighas of land from his father Raibahadur Gopal Chandra Rabha who was a police officer under the then British government and was honoured with the prestigious title of ‘the order of British Empire.’ But Rabha left behind the legacy of his father and became a member of the family of the poverty ridden masses of this country, instead of becoming a landlord. He did his matriculation from Tezpur Govt. High School in 1926 and had his collegiate education from St Pauls of Bangladesh and Victoria College of Kochbehar. But, Rabha did not complete his higher education and being fired by the zeal to liberate India from the clutches of the British, he involved himself in the freedom struggle.

His association with the freedom struggle put an end to his student life, but it had unfolded a new chapter in his life. Rabha was inspired by the nationalistic sentiment during that time, but the concept of nationalism that he had in mind was free from all narrow-minded ideas and racial or communal prejudices. He dedicated his life for establishing a society which could ensure equal and rapid development of the people belonging to diverse castes and communities. But Rabha put much stress on inheritance and enrichment of our cultural heritage, which is to be carried on along with socio-economic development. He believed that for enrichment of the great Indian cultural tradition we must have to cultivate and enrich the Assamese culture which forms a part of the same.

While his associate Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla went to Germany for getting himself trained in the art of film-making, Rabha started searching for our cultural resources preserved in the Namghars and the Satras and also in the hearts of the common people of the State. During the time of the World War II Rabha travelled from one place to another and had the rare opportunity to see from very close the life of the various tribes living in the hills or in remote places of the plains and study their problems as well as their cultural resources. Rabha aimed at undertaking some practical measures for socio-economic development of the tribals who were yet to get justice from the existing social system. Rabha himself wrote a good number of poems, songs, novels, short stories etc in Assamese language, but he never ignored other vernacular languages of the region.

He believed that for consolidating the foundation of the greater Assamese nation we must ensure growth and development of the language and literature of every community living in Assam. Had our short-sighted political leaders and the intellectuals realised the value of Rabha’s pragmatic views we could avert many of the troubles that the State had experienced in the last couple of decades. Rabha was well versed in many of the languages like Nepali, Bodo, Bengali, Assamese etc. and could prove beyond doubt his acquintance with the culture of every community. It is no wonder that every community recognised him as a member of that community. We can say that Rabha himself symbolised the assimilation of diverse languages and cultures in the Brahmaputra Valley, which is an age-old process going on till date.

Rabha’s contact with the Indian Revolutionary Communist Party in 1945 had brought about a sea-change into his thoughts and outlook. While the Indian National Congress fought to liberate the country from the clutches of the colonial rule of the British, Rabha thought that the country must also free herself of some other internal forces causing pain to millions of her poor children. Rabha believed that Zamindars, Mahajans etc had snatched away peace and happiness from the life of the cultivators and perpetuated their suffering. He was of the view that we must get ourselves rid of the British colonial force sreading its poisonous tentacles to the heart of the Indian nation, but to wipe the eyes of the poor we must also establish the Panchayati Raj abolishing the old social system causing perennial exploitation of the peasants and the labourers.

There is no denying the fact that his association with the Communist Party helped him in broadening the horizons of his mind and making him aware of the suffering of the exploited masses. Rabha also became aware of the rich cultural resources of these people that can be used as a vehicle of change. His achievements like Asomiya Kristir Somu Abhash (An outline of the Assamese culture), Asomiya Kristi (The Assamese culture), and Mukti Deol (The temple of freedom) reveal the change taking place in his outlook. Rabha tried to interpret art, music and literature in terms of class-difference and the power structure in the society. We can call Rabha a pioneer in the branch that later came to be known as Marxist criticism having its ground on the economic and cultural theory of Karl Marx. Depiction of the harsh reality in the existing society and the toil and suffering of the poor occupies an important part of his creations. He wanted to use art and literature as a means of uniting the masses to work towards liberation from the shackles of bondage. Rabha even took up arms to launch a battle against the landlords and the government, the latter, he believed, provided safeguards to the social oppressors and he made the demand that cultivators must be given their legitimate rights over their own land. He considered that only the true tillers of the soil should have right over their own soil and he continued his struggle for this cause till his death.

It is a perennially debatable question whether art is for art’s sake or for sake of the society. Rabha nowhere insisted on making art exclusively a medium for social change or nowhere he denied that art is an end in itself, but it appears from his writings that he firmly believed in the power of art as an instrument of social change. The life of the common people of Assam along with their pains and sorrows found significant expression in his works. His conviction was that art has the power to encourage unity and solidarity among the downtrodden people of the world and disseminate the message of a revolution for changing their lot. But art did not lose its aesthetic qualities in his hands or became merely a tool for expressing his political views, on the contrary he became one of the few to consolidate the foundation of modern Assamese art and culture. We have had many timeless and precious numbers from him. Rabha expressed enviable talent in making his art a tool of social change as well as shouldered the great responsibility, along with other artistes like Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, Dr Bhupen Hazarika or Parvati Prasad Baruva, of giving Assamese music a new direction and a new dimension. But he never deviated from the roots or distorted the tunes of the soil.

It is a matter of regret that no proper evaluation of Rabha has been done so far. We can learn much from the writings of Rabha to approach many of the socio-political problems in Assam. The new generations of Assam should be made aware of Rabha’s contributions to Assamese art, culture and literature, so that they can be inspired to work for inheritance, preservation and enrichment of our cultural heritage.

Courtesy: The Assam Tribune (June 2006)

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