The Da Vinci of Assam

My father, Bishnu Prasad Rabha (seated bottom right) with members of his family. Dacca, East Bengal (now Dhaka, Bangladesh). Circa 1915 

Image and narrative points contributed by Hemraj Rava, Tezpur, Assam

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

My father Bishnu Prasad Rabha is a legend in North East India. Indeed he was an accomplished man – a freedom fighter, communist revolutionary, writer, painter, poet, dramatist, actor, filmmaker, composer; a polyglot (13 languages), and an elected leader in the Legislative Assembly. 

In this photograph my father Bishnu is seated bottom right, about seven or eight years old, with his biological family. Not in the photograph is my great grandfather Soniram Musahari who was from Rani, a village in South Kamrup (near Guwahati). He was a Major Subedar in the Gorkha Rifles Regiment in the British Indian Army. One of his many children was Gopal Chandra, my grandfather. When Soniram Musahari and his wife passed away, (Soniram while serving in Udalguri, now Bodo Territorial Region), the young Gopal Chandra, my grandfather, was adopted by Chandbar Rabha, a family friend, and thus my grandfather became Gopal Chandra Rabha. Gopal too served the British Indian Army in the Assam Rifles Regiment and his son, my father, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, was born in Dacca (now Dhaka, Bangladesh) on January 31, 1909.

After school and some higher studies in Calcutta (now Kolkata), my father Bishnu was sent to study at Cooch Behar, a princely estate to attend Victoria College (now ABN College) where he studied Arts. Not many know that my father was also a brilliant sportsperson. He was the captain of the Cricket team at Ripon College (now Surendranath College) in Calcutta, and played across the subcontinent. Football teams from all over Assam and the Eastern zone would hire him as a center-forward and goalkeeper. In lower Assam he was famously called Babri Wallah, for his long hair- revered for his exceptional sportsmanship. At the time, he also became involved with the struggle for Independence from the British, and came to be known as a troublemaker for the Police – in particular a graffiti he painted against the Indian feudal lords and the Colonisers, on the wall of a Dewan (minister) in Calcutta caught their attention. It said- 
                                             Raijye ase duiti patha
                                             ekti kalo ekti sada
                                                 rajyer jodi mongol chao
                                                 duiti patha boli dao

Translated to -”There are two exploiters of the country, One is the white and the other is the brown. For the betterment of the country, we must destroy them both.”  The police came after him and he fled to Rangpur in East Bengal, (now in Bangladesh) and found admission in Carmichael College. There too his activities didn’t stop and was hunted by the police frequently – in the end he gave up his academic career and committed to the freedom struggle completely.  My father was highly influenced by Srimanta Sankardeva’s ideology where he saw glimpses of socialism, and later became interested in ideas of Marxism. Eventually, for him freedom from the British rule wasn’t enough. He desired for all, freedom from capitalism, poverty and all social evils. 

Throughout his life, be it in exile, prison or out in the fields, my father spent a lot of time painting, writing plays and songs, books, essays and was deeply interested in other forms of art. In the early 1930s, he began making the first Assamese film Joymoti under the Banner of Argo Pictures Corporation in Calcutta, but financial constraints stalled the production. Dhiren Ganguly, the famous filmmaker of Bengal sought his script to restart the film, but my father declined and invited Jyoti Prasad Agarwala to work on the film instead. Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, closely advised by my father succeeded in making Joymoti (1935), the first Assamese film. In 1942, my father also became a member of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

When India attained Independence in 1947, my father was not satisfied, and famously hoisted a black flag instead of the national flag, with the slogan-“Yeh azaadi jhuthi hai” (“This independence is a lie”)-  He believed that until the poor sections of the country were economically and socially independent, its ‘independence’ was a farce.  As a member of the newly formed ‘Revolutionary Communist Party of India’ he doubled down on his beliefs, which annoyed many. With the exception of the masses whose hearts he had touched with passion and empathy – they adored him. 

In the 1950s, the Assam Government under Bishnuram Medhi cracked down on Communists, and my father became a ‘Most Wanted Man’ with a bounty of Rs. 10,000 on his head, to be brought in dead or alive. My father kept moving from state to country lines under the radar across the region, Myanmar, Bhutan, Tibet and present day Bangladesh, hiding himself among the people, while also earning their trust and faith.  While he was a heavyset man, he was agile enough to sprint off when police were in sight. One time in Bokpuri (now Bodo Territorial Region) when the police closed in on him, he bounced off heaps of hay, entered a house and emerged disguised as a local village woman, with a mekhela (upper garment) wrapped around his chest, and a gamusa (head cloth) around his head, holding a jakoi and a khaloi (Bamboo fishing tools). The police in pursuit asked him “Baideu (Ma’am) have you seen Bishnu Rabha pass through here?” He replied in the local dialect – “Who Bishnu Rabha ? I don’t know anyone by that name,” and walked off.  Obviously, It was too late before the police realised that they had been hoodwinked. But events did not always turn out well for him, his friends and associates like Rajni Boro and Janki Teron sacrificed their lives, dying of injuries of torture and interrogation by the Police who demanded my father’ whereabouts. 

It was during this period of exile, that my parents met. The frenetic life had taken a toll on my father and my mother Kanaklata Medhi tended to him. In 1952, both of them, along with a few associates were caught and they spent the next four years in prison. In 1956, when they were released, my parents got married and I was born four years later in 1960. When my mother passed away from illness in 1962, the public demanded he remarry so that my brother and I would have a mother, and my father could focus on his cause for the people. So, Mohini Rabha became my second mother in 1965.

My father’s life was so full of genius, and passion that a single book cannot encapsulate his story. He has left an enviable legacy – He is still an immensely popular legend amongst the people, especially the poor and exploited masses – cultivators and workers who remember his work for them. Known as Comrade, Kalaguru (master of culture and Arts), Xoinik Xilpi (the artist who took up arms) and the Da Vinci of Assam, he lived many lives in one- all rooted in his purpose to work to create an independent and beautiful culture. From innumerable pieces of art, books, songs, scripts, the first Assamese film to recognising many great talents such as young Bhupen Hazarika, my father has had a huge role in forming the Assamese culture in the past century. However, we are yet to have a museum or an archive that presents his inspiring contributions. While Tezpur is known as the cultural capital of Assam, I don’t believe we have contributed enough since these masters, though we enjoy the fruits of their labour like interest off of a huge principal. Time will show us that there is a lot more to be done, or we shall be left behind.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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