Custodians of Culture

Interview with Dilip and Sudakshina Sarma
by Nilutpal Gogoi


The couple has been born into a legacy. And, both have dedicated themselves to the cause. For they have taken up the mantle of cultural sentinels, working silently and more often than not behind the scenes. Across the length and breadth of Assam have they crisscrossed, broadcasting the heritage bequeathed to them by Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwalla and Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha. It is therefore in the fitness of things, albeit a bit belatedly, that the septuagenarian Dilip Sarma and his beloved, the sexagenarian Sudakshina Sarma, have been jointly honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for the year 2002 in recognition of their contributions to the research and practice of the State’s folk music and Jyoti Sangeet. In fact, this is for the maiden time that a couple has been accorded this honour simultaneously.

Ever smiling and simple, the Sarmas personify the selfless character one generally attributes to artistes.

Sudakshina and Dilip Sarma Dilip Sarma was born at Bajali in erstwhile Kamrup district, as the eldest of five children, to the illustrious family of the founder editor of Awahan, late Dinanath Sarma and late Renu Devi in 1926.

Sudakshina (Queenie Hazarika) Sarma was born at Guwahati in 1934, as the fourth of ten siblings, into the culturally inclined family of late Nilkanta Hazarika, an ACS officer, and late Shantipriya Hazarika. They hail from Nazira. Dr Bhupen Hazarika is her elder brother and late Jayanta Hazarika was younger to her.

While Dilip Sarma got the opportunity to be groomed in the then cultural capital of India, Calcutta, where he accompanied his parents at the impressionable age of one, Sudakshina Sarma got the chance to interact and be influenced by such titans of that age like Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Natasurya Phani Sarma and others in Tezpur where she had occasion to accompany her eldest brother Bhupen Hazarika in the later 40s.

At the age of ten, she recorded the evergreen number Nahar Phule Nushuwai with Rabha and one of her mentors Kamal Narayan Chaudhary.

Walking down memory lane, the bespectacled lady of average height, carefully put aside her walking stick and making herself comfortable on the cane chair in her simple but neat drawing room, said: “I still recollect with great excitement how Gandhiji blessed me after I performed a number before him in Guwahati. I was then in my teens.”

She has worked as a playback singer in several pallas — sets of three LP records on dramas — including Prabin Phukan’s Maniram Dewan, Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s Piyoli Phukan besides Vishnu Shakti and Rakshya Kumar of Lakshyadhar Choudhury as well as in films like Parghat, Maniram Dewan, Chikmik Bijuli and Abuj Bedana among others. Most of her songs are preserved in HMV, Columbia and Senola records. “Among the other artistes were the family members of Jadab and Debobala Chaliha including Minoti, Arati, Lakhimi, Rubi and Rekha Chaliha,” she reflected.

Her audio cassettes are Jautijugiya, Aparup Tomar Bani, Geet Gao Ekelage, Sirasundarr Sanskriti and Nijara Parar Sur etc.

When the news of their selection by the Sangeet Natak Akademi was announced on March 25, 2003, they were camping at Chamata in Nalbari as the key-persons of a workshop on Jyoti sangeet organised under the aegis of the Directorate of Culture and the Chamata-based Srimanta Kala Niketan.

Reacting to a query on the need for such workshops, Dilip Sarma said: “The significance of such training camps can’t be undermined today when we are being perpetually injected with all forms of alien culture and music including pop, western music. Both of us are fortunate enough to have come into close contact with both Rupkonwar and Kalaguru and to also get the unique opportunity to learn their ideals and typical tunes from them. Now, it is our duty to ensure that the basic tunes of these immortal songs are maintained. It would be a disgrace for us if these sangeets are rendered in different notes than those preferred and proposed by them. Moreover, neither Rupkonwar nor Kalaguru could live to attach tunes and notes to all their numbers. Hence, the utmost need for such workshops.”

During his tenure as a member of this distinguished panel constituted under the Cultural Directorate for documenting Jyoti Sangeet, he brought out Sur-Jeuti. It comprises the notes of these songs.

As Dilip Sarma talked about his childhood days, his eyes behind the glasses appeared dewy: “After clearing my matriculation in 1942, I got enrolled in St Xavier’s College in Calcutta itself.” He added: “Our house at Bhabanipur was the meeting place for several prominent personalities from Assam. I remember father having adda with Pandit Tirtha Nath Barua and Dr Prafulla Dutta Goswami among others. I closely followed his discussions about Awahan, that was published in 1929 from there, with its publisher — litterateur Nagendra Narayan Chaudhary who later became the president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha and was also a zamindar.

“We also had as guests Rupkonwar when he was underground along with Birinchi Kumar Barua, Tirthanath Sarma, Holiram Deka and Ambika Bora among others. He readied several of his compositions including Muktideul in our house.

Kalaguru and Sonitkonwar Gajen Barua used to camp in our place while taking troupes to present dance programmes in Calcutta. Among the other greats from whom I got the initial training in Assamese tunes and songs were Purushottam Das and Kamal Narayan Chaudhary.

“During those days, my taleem in classical music and Rabindra sangeet were from Ustad Khitish Ghosh as well as Ustad Sukhendu Goswami besides gurus Rabindra Lal Roy, father of noted classical singer Malabika Kanan.

“During those days, massive relief camps were held at Midnapur and Bardhaman for the people marooned in the floods. I accompanied the relief workers including Sachin Deb Barman and others in such campaigns. The first-hand experience of the plight of the masses crippled by nature’s fury was etched deeply in my psyche,” Dilip Sarma said.

His first Assamese song was recorded by HMV Company in 1942. It was directed by Kamal Narayan Chaudhary and Purushottam Das. That very year he made his mark as an artiste in the Assamese programme broadcast daily by the All India Radio from Calcutta. Then followed his recordings of Rabha Sangeets.

“In 1949, I worked as the assistant music director to Rupkonwar during his redubbing of the first Assamese film Joymoti. I also sang the following numbers in the film — More Bharatare More Saponere and Luitare Pani Jabi Ai Bai,” he said with a sense of pride.

In the 1950s, he rendered his voice in the Purushottam Das composed Jar Jeevanare Jeuti Heral in the film Nimila Anka.

Recounting the days during the freedom struggle, especially in the aftermath of the partition, Dilip Sarma appeared sad: “Those were really tumultuous times. While there were scenes of the crowd’s insanity there were many instances of communal harmony too when Hindus shielded Muslims from marauders and vice versa in Calcutta.

“In 1950, we returned to Assam and put up in a rented house at Uzan bazaar for sometime,” he stated. It was four years later that he tied the knot with Queenie (Sudakshina) Hazarika whom he first met way back in 1943 at Calcutta where she had gone with the Kalaguru to record his song Nahar Phule Nushuwai Tagar Phule Suwaba. The song was recorded with Kamal Narayan Chaudhury by the Senola Company. Dilip Sarma had also rendered a few Jyoti Sangeets and some other numbers in the record then.

“During one such programme at the Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir in Uzan bazaar, Uday Shankar presented a novel dance drama with his troupe members performing robotic artistic movements. That night, she (Sudakshina) also presented a beautiful classical dance number,” smiled the grey-haired and French bearded romantic humanist.

In the 40s, Sarma acted and was also a playback singer in the Assamese film Biplobi. He acted in Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s Chikmik Bijuli as well.

During the early 50s, Dilip Sarma was attracted by the activities of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). “The progressive outlook of Prabuddha Rai Chaudhury, Hema Sarma, Nagen Kakoti, Prof Bhabananda Dutta and others really fired my imagination, and I too joined the bandwagon,” he stated.

After becoming an active member of the Gana Natya Sangha (IPTA), he worked with it from 1951-52. After their marriage, both represented the Assam unit of the organisation and presented Jyoti Sangeet and other numbers in China under cultural exchange programmes. “The other members of the troupe were Balraj Sahni, sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, Haribai Barodkar, Kathak exponent Damayanti Joshi and Debabrat Biswas,” he said, adding: “During those visits, I also presented Assamese songs via the radio programmes from China, Russia and Poland.”

On his most memorable event, Dilip Sarma smiled, “That was the interaction with the great Chou En Lai in China when I shook hands with him!”

They performed at the World Festival in Poland and also at an annual session of the London unit of the Asom Sahitya Sabha.

Sarma retired in 1985 as a subject teacher (Assamese) from the Bengali Higher Secondary in Paltan bazaar in Guwahati. He had joined there in 1959.

Along with Biren Phukan and Purushottam Das, Dilip Sarma composed and published Tribeni — a book on the basic notes of Assamese folk tunes.

“After the demise of my father in 1978, I took upon myself the onerous task of bringing out the magazine Awahan. He had, since our days in Calcutta, trained me to collect advertisements, read the proof, do the composing and also carry out circulation work. Earlier too, it had stopped publication in 1947, after it was revived in 1953. And from 1985 for sometime, I carried out this mission till 1992, publishing it as a three-monthly magazine,” he said.

In 1994, he was honoured with the Kamal Narayan Chaudhury award for his contribution to music.

He was also the music director of the first Assamese children’s film Abuj Bedana produced by Gunasindhu Hazarika. It was screened in international film fests too.

Dr Bhupen Hazarika has also asked his brother in-law to prepare a book on his songs in the form of Indian classical notes. Similarly, the Sattradhikar of the Majuli-based Auniati Sattra has reposed on Sarma the heavy responsibility of bringing out a book on the notes used in the religious psalms and bargeets of the Sattra. Moreover, Sarma has also accepted the offer from the non-resident Indians in USA to document the musical notes of Jyoti and Rabha sangeet.

The couple has rendered many immortal numbers. Mention may be made of Moyu Bane Jao Swamihe, Nahar Phule Nushuwai, Kamalkuwari More Praneswari, Rati Puwaelre Kuruwai Pare Rao, Ur Ur Ur Neel Akashat, etc. The Sarmas have two sons, prominent singer Rituparna Sarma and Rishiraj Sarma who is a lawyer and an up-and-coming artiste while their daughter Rijushree is married to noted writer Paramananda Majumdar. v The Sarmas have been running the ‘Jayjayanti Kala Kendra’ — a music college and art school affiliated to the Pracheen Kala Kendra, Chandigarh, and the Sarbabharatiya Sangeet O Sanskriti Parishad, India — from 1990 at their home.

On his immediate plans, Dilip Sarma said: “I aim to once again bring out the Awahan in the near future.”

Coutesy: The Assam Tribune (2003)

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