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The love story of Kalpana Lajmi

The Lajmi-Hazarika affair was scandalous to many, but together they built an inimitable oeuvre

Kalpana Lajmi and Bhupen Hazarika. Photo courtesy: Harpercollins India
Kalpana Lajmi and Bhupen Hazarika. Photo courtesy: Harpercollins India

About a week before her death on 23 September at age 64, film-maker Kalpana Lajmi asked her doctors if a special medical contraption and ambulance could take her to the venue where her book was being launched—it was her dream to be there. The doctors wouldn’t permit it. The book, Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him, published by HarperCollins India, is a memoir of Lajmi’s life with Hazarika, her lover, husband and mentor who died in 2011. It was a life of devotion that survived complicated detours into adultery and some bitter conflicts. Her book explains why, only after his death did she become his “wife and consort"—a recognition she’d always longed for.

People close to the couple, who visited Lajmi in the last few months, say it worried her a great deal that after her death, memories of the great singer and songwriter would go away too. It was not a relationship between equals, but there was a common ground: both of them were committed more to the aesthetic and political impulses of their work rather than the need to make a certain kind of music or cinema to stay relevant.

To make Hazarika’s “jibon mukhi" (humanist, life-affirming) idiom relevant required new ways of presenting him, and Lajmi was aware of that. Her worry was justified. Hazarika lives on in Assam: a large, beautifully designed museum in Guwahati preserves his music, writing and objects of personal importance. His songs are still a springboard for new musical talent to flourish in the state; a concert of Bhupen Hazarika songs has emotional resonance across all classes of people there. After Lajmi’s death, the Bhupen Hazarika legacy, which she fiercely and unapologetically owned, will either be resurrected for the world outside of Assam or it will fade. Hazarika and Lajmi did not get along with most of his Assamese relatives. They resented Lajmi—a live-in relationship with a woman 35 years younger than him shattered the ideal that Bhupen da’s fans, friends and family looked for in his personal life.

Hazarika was divorced when Lajmi, then 17, met him at his uncle’s home in Mumbai. He’d had girlfriends and flings before and even after Lajmi began living with him in Kolkata. Unwillingly, Lajmi accepted him as he was, and as she details in the book, went on to have an affair with one of Hazarika’s closest friends, the tea baron Hemen Baruah. Hazarika later got Barua to fund Lajmi’s first feature film Ek Pal (1986), based on a short story. Hazarika was himself an accomplished film-maker by then, having written, produced and directed films such as Era Bator Sur (1956), a Balraj Sahni starrer about the exploitation of tea labourers in Assam; Pratidhwani (1964), a Khasi love story; and Siraj (1988), about Muslim-Hindu strife. Lajmi and Hazarika collaborated on six films that she directed, including the award-winning Rudaali (1993). All her films have women protagonists who defy stereotypes associated with marital life and sexuality, and in the book, Lajmi mentions how Hazarika honed her intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities. Lajmi directed six films, which, in theme, treatment and emotional charge, were far ahead of their times—with feminist and queer characters seen as outcasts in Indian society. She found her creative voice in her 40s, and broke out of the shadow of Hazarika. Lajmi and Hazarika adapted Assamese short stories for a television series in Doordarshan called Lohit Kinare.

Parts of the book, in which she describes how Hazarika casually denied her the emotional stability she was looking for and drove her to depression, is astonishing. All his life, Hazarika talked about her in public as his “manager".

Lajmi, an awkward, overweight teenager, born to a family of aesthetes (her mother Lalitha Lajmi is an artist and her maternal uncle was director Guru Dutt), fell in love with Hazarika and found in him an escape from her life in Mumbai. Until she started making her own films, she spent 15 years managing Hazarika’s life and work. She worshipped him for his constant need to speak against every establishment that ruled Assamese society and politics, to sing about the “tritiya shrenir jatri", or the people who travelled in a train’s third-class compartment. Lajmi called him dhumuha or the storm.

In their later years of their life, both Lajmi and Hazarika fell into creative limbos. Their wealth had depleted, the majlis (celebration) ended, and they became worshippers of a god woman. She spent the years following his death trying to tell the world why she loved Hazarika, and why his work and memory ought to live on. Lajmi writes with awe about Hazarika’s reaction to the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983, when 2,000 Bangladeshi immigrants were killed: “Setubandhan (bridging of gaps) was his slogan. Integration was his call. As a singer he lamented to his beloved Assam that all he could see everywhere were flames, that his brother was lost, missing in this chaos of blood, gore and battle."

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