NAVANIL BARUA pays an emotional tribute to singer Khagen Mahanta who he fondly called Dhan Mama
(Photo by Utpal Datta)
As I begin to write this piece, I am undecided. Who do I write about, Khagen Mahanta or Dhan Mama? My association with him started the day I was born. He was my father Luit Konwar Rudra Barua’s principal pupil in singing. The day after I was born, he went to Delhi with my father to become the first Assamese artist on national television. The ceremonial fish meal on the birth of a male child was had on the train! Since Khagen Mahanta knew my mom from before her marriage, she remained a baidew and never graduated to a bou. Thus, he remained our Dhan Mama and not khura though he adressed my dad as Dada. I know him as a part of our family as long as I can remember.
Since I was too young in our Shillong days, most of the anecdotes of those days were either told by Dhan mama himself or by my parents. However, my memory of him from our Guwahati days are vivid. I could write pages after pages on he coming to our house with songs and my father infusing tunes into them or he being taught those songs by the rigorous task master that my father was.
One song which will remain forever etched in my memory is the timeless “boroxunor botorot, moina nuthe motorot”. I remember Dhan mama coming one day with a piece of paper and handing it over to dad saying that Bhindew (referring to late Keshav Mahanta) wrote that and asking for a tune to be composed. Since I was a child, it appealed to me like anything for I did not understand the other songs that they sung. Years later, on a rainy day, I was driving to Cherrapunjee and wife suddenly put an unlabelled cassette into the car player and the same song started! Till the days of cassettes were in, I used to play the same song while operating to kindle the child in me.
The other aspect of Dhan mama was his uncompromising leftist ideals. He was without a job and my father was trying everywhere to get him a job! He finally got a job and then fell in love with Polly mami who he went on to marry. Even the marriage was not without its attendant drama where my parents were in the thick of things. Yet, the couple is considered an ideal couple by one and all. Khagen Mahanta was a great conversationist and could hold sway on varying topics from sports to culture to gossip to anything under the sun. He would do great mimicry of various people we knew and narrate funny incidents. I personally, always enjoyed his company. In public performances, if he sees anyone of us, he would poke fun from the stage and let the whole world know our pet names – a habit picked up by Papon now.
Every event in the Mahanta household, be it his wedding, the childbirths etc had our family’s involvement in totality. This has continued till his death when my elder brother, in his official capacity, was involved in arranging the site of public homage as well as the site of cremation with myself coordinating with Papon. The other two periods of his life where I had to interact closely with him was after my father’s death. The first was when the whole family met with an accident. I being a medical student those days, had to do almost everything to facilitate proper treatment. After the treatment was over, Mami developed wound infection and there has been many days where I had done the dressing and then she would dress up to go and perform in Bihu.
Dhan mama had seen near death prior to that incident due to his cardiac problems and the period of sickness of mami and Papon was very disturbing for him. Yet, he never lost his sense of humor and would always be ready with his one-liners. The other period of distress was when he was ostracized during the Assam agitation. He would either come to our house or I would go to him. He would vent all his anger and frustration and tell us all about the machinations that others were indulging in. One day, he proudly showed me a pamphlet which asked for people to boycott his programe in a small town near Nagaon. He decided to take things head on and went to perform inspite of knowing the problem he was to face. He was stopped by the local students union lads. He got down with them and started to explain about his love for Assam and the dirty politics being played at Guwahati office of AASU. The local boys understood and then literally cheered and escorted him to the stage. During the period of his ban, Bihutolis were missing proper Bihu. He organized a bihu meet at AIR Guwahati and sang the famous Bihu “komal koi baanhore oi, lekesi lehuka….. ” what a performance it was!! The ban did not last long afterwards as people realized what they were missing. It is the same AASU which is the pall bearer of him today.
I can go on and on but that will become an essay about me. The later days was all about us meeting in our GNRC hospital. Our media became Papon as he would know about me from his son and me through the later. It was a matter of some consolation that I came to know that Dhan mama knew that my son Diptanil sings Papon’s as well as his songs before he died. For me, it is not just the demise of Khagen Mahanta but also of an era. For with him died the last person who sang my late father’s songs taught directly. I can now only imagine that late Keshab Mahanta peha has penned a new song, my father Luit konwar Rudra Barua composed the tune and waiting for Dhan mama in heaven to entertain the devlok with another timeless hit!
Dr Navanil Barua is Director Neurosurgery, GNRC hospitals. He graduated from Gauhati Medical College and specialized from AIIMS, New Delhi. Son of Luit Konwar Rudra Barua and actress Arati Barua, he was born in Shillong and grew up in Guwahati. Well-travelled and acclaimed professionally at various national and international levels, he has written professional as well as general articles at various forum and publications. Basically interested in life and nature.