March 2012. It was a memorial concert for Dr Bhupen Hazarika in Shillong a few months
after his demise. Organized by the North Eastern Service (NES) of AIR. Waves of applause
had greeted the announcement of the song Shillongorey Monalisa Lyngdoh by the maestro’s brother Samar Hazarika.
What is it about this song that continues to pull the crowds forty years after it was first sung, I
remember thinking. A cult classic that is loved by Assamese and Khasi-Jaintias alike…
That’s when I decided to tell the story of Monalisa. The beautiful Khasi maiden from
Shillong, who captures the heart of an Assamese youth. And the imagination of successive
Monalisa with her guitar, immortalised by Dr Bhupen Hazarika in this much-
loved song : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ErjPZvYWok
This story got told in September 2015 when AIR marked the birth anniversary of the Bard of
Brahmaputra with a feature titled “MONALISA – A GIRL, A SONG AND A DREAM”.
Shillongorey Monalisa Lyngdoh is a symbolic love song between an Assamese boy and a
Khasi girl, a plains man and a hill maiden, a nontribal and a tribal, and a Hindu and a
Christian. The story of sundering of romance between the pair is an allegory for the
separation of a political kind – the carving out of Meghalaya from “Undivided Assam”. On
the other hand, it is also at the same time, a song of harmony, of hope that the separation
between the communities will end one day. Written in 1972 against the backdrop of the
trauma and upheaval of the division of states.
There was only one name in my mind for the feature’s script writer - noted English author,
classical vocalist and music critic Mitra Phukan from Guwahati. Luckily for me, Mitra
baideo (elder sister) was happy to come on board. “The times that Hazarika lived through
were some of the most momentous in the history of India’s North-east,” she wrote, “with
fragmentation and gory, long drawn feuds being a part of the chronicles of the
times. Singlehandedly, Hazarika strove to build bridges between the feuding factions, through
his lyrics, music, stage presentations and cinema.”
Bhupen Hazarika’s younger brother, late Jayanta Hazarika, had been the lead singer. His wife
Monisha Hazarika had an interesting anecdote to share on how the song got written “within a
few minutes”. At the two-storied house which served as HMV’s temporary recording studio
in Guwahati those days. After standing up Jayanta and the musicians for the whole day at the
studio, Bhupen Hazarika had strolled in at 8pm, asking, “Are we all ready to record?”
“What do you mean, ready?” Jayanta is said to have burst out. “You never gave the song to us!"
"Okay, okay,” said Bhupen. “Let me write it and you shall set it to music.”
Sitting on the ground floor he wrote four lines which were then sent up to Jayanta on the first
floor, who set them to music. The exercise was repeated for the next four lines, and the next...
A 19-year-old JP Das was sitting by his friend Jayanta’s side that day. With his guitar. JP Das
was one of that generation of people who were displaced suddenly by the division of states.
Who was steeped in western music, “specially the Beatles” - his inheritance from the little
Rock and Roll town called Shillong.
The whistling that precedes the song and the harmonizing – an alien concept in Assamese
music of that era – were his contributions to the song, JP Das tells me.
A retired Assistant Station Director of AIR Guwahati, JP Das can look back on a successful
music career today. He is still singing the song at concerts and get-togethers in both states.
The young crowds are still lapping it up, he informs me.
“Monalisa Lyngdoh, you who live in Shillong, keep on playing hillbilly music with the guitar
in your hands…” goes the opening bars and refrain of the song.
The song will continue to play on, as Padmashri Dr Helen Giri, a stalwart in the realms of arts
and culture in Meghalaya tells us. “Monalisa Lyngdoh needs to play on and on and on,” she stresses.
The radio feature “MONALISA – A GIRL, A SONG AND A DREAM” was awarded the
Public Service Broadcasting Award on November 12 this year. In the true spirit of public
service broadcasting, which seeks to integrate a variety of people in the sutra of enlightened
togetherness and compassion, this programme salutes Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s stellar efforts to
knit the Northeast together and then meld the Northeast into the mainstream of this diverse
country. The feature is accessible on YouTube here:
As the singers extol the virtues of love transcending all boundaries, as evident from the image
of the two star-crossed lovers meeting in Nongpoh, the mid-point of the journey between
Shillong and Guwahati, the question arises, are we, the people of today, ready to take a step
forward and meet the ‘other’ half-way?
This is a contribution by Ms. Basudha Banerji, PEX, DG: AIR, Delhi. She won the Public Service Broadcasting Award 2015 for her feature “MONALISA – A GIRL, A SONG AND A DREAM". This award is given every year on November 12, which is observed as Public Service Broadcasting Day, to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's first and only visit to All India Radio on that date in the year 1947.