Kazi Nazrul Islam: Some Questions and Concerns
In his voice we continue to hear the cadences, inflections, and accents of resistance and even revolution. And his syntax continues to morph into what the Irish anti-colonial writer James Joyce calls "sin-talks," disturbing and disrupting the literary Establishment—even the "existing social and political order of things."
And it is he who could "shout himself hoarse in Calcutta football matches and spend silent hours over the chessboard," as one of his contemporaries, Buddhadeva Bose, observes. And "he had once started a gramophone shop and even acted in a play and a film; he has been loved by every notable contemporary, and numerous unnotables; he has been a living denial of everything that withers the heart; his name has been a synonym for charm," as Bose further tells us.
And it is he who rubs his words and images and tropes such that they catch fire. And it is he who proclaims that he is Krishna's throat; that he drinks poison from the ocean of sufferings and pain; and that he is at once the Om of Ishan's horn and the sound of Israfeel's war-bugle. And it is he who stages an unprecedentedly dramatic juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime, the abstract and the concrete, the general and the specific, in the dialectical dance of his imagination.
And it is he who in a poem characterizes himself as the "rebel, the rebel son of the mother-earth." I am speaking here of none other than our Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899--1976)—known as our rebel poet, undoubtedly a major voice in the history of Bangla literature. But also, by his own admission, Nazrul is more than a rebel poet; he's a revolutionary. He declares in his famous poem "Dhumketu" [The Comet]: "I've come now for the great Revolution!"
The leading French philosopher Alain Badiou maps out a global revolutionary tradition of poetry in The Age of the Poets (2014) thus: "In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists. In an explicit or formal way, for example, the following poets were committed to communism: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Edoardo Sanguineti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But we could cite a very large number of other names in other languages, throughout the world." One can surely place Nazrul in the constellation of the poets Badiou lists here. Nazrul even anticipates some crucial insights mobilized by some of those poets, as I have argued elsewhere.
Nazrul takes poetry itself as a charged site of actions and interventions, even as an anti-colonial and revolutionary praxis. His major poem "Bidrohi" [The Rebel] is but only one example, not to mention his collection of poems instructively titled Sammyabadi [The Communist]. Even his early stories, with which Nazrul began his writing career, at least partly attest to that praxis, although his voice as a whole can by no means be characterized quickly and one-sidedly, simply given his phenomenal productivity and the diversity of his passions, practices, and styles. Indeed, a poet and a musician in the first place, Nazrul is also a short-story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, theorist (even a theorist of "world literature"), translator, film-maker, editor, journalist, even a drummer, and an actor. And he was a revolutionary activist in his own right. He is the only major Bengali poet to have come from the rural proletariat, one who drew
energy and inspiration from the trinity of the revolutions of his times—the Irish Revolution, the Turkish Revolution, and, above all, the Russian Revolution of 1917.
I cannot even quickly traverse the entire range—staggering as it is—of Nazrul's oeuvre here; nor do I intend to rehearse well-known positions vis-à-vis his work. But I want to call attention to only a few significant tracks and trajectories in his work that have received little or no attention in contemporary Nazrul criticism. For instance, first, Nazrul is one of those rare poets who could effortlessly translate some of the basic tenets of even Marxian critique of political economy into the idiom of poetry without losing aesthetic integrity. One can readily mention his poems "Coolie Majoor" and "Kishaner Gaan"—among many others—as effective examples. In all this, Nazrul invites comparison with the German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht, the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, and the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Of course, Nazrul is no mechanical Marxist. But his deep veneration of Marx is explicitly spelled out in his largely-unread essay on "world literature." He came to know The Communist Manifesto via his closest comrade Muzaffar Ahmad (1889--1973)—one of the founders of the Communist Party of India—and particularly via his good friend Saumyendranath Tagore (1901--1974)—grand-nephew of Rabindranath Tagore and the founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India as well as the first translator of The Communist Manifesto itself in the subcontinent. Nazrul's Sammyabadi serves as a compelling example of how he creatively internalized and mobilized some of the Manifesto's ideas, while variously zeroing in on the question of what Marx himself calls "universal human emancipation." Nazrul is indeed an exemplary revolutionary humanist both in the communist tradition and in the indigenous one that can be traced back to Chandidas, Nanok, and Lalon Fakir, for instance.
Second ,Nazrul's reflections on what is called "world literature" remain largely unheeded. In his superb essay titled "Bortoman Bishshya Sahittya," Nazrul astonishingly comes to articulate—as early as the second decade of the twentieth century—his anti-Eurocentric internationalism that, I argue, can be effectively pressed into the service of decolonizing comparative literature today. Of course, there's a distinction between internationalism and today's trendy, free-floating cosmopolitanism. Internationalism is profoundly political; it designates a committed and even a combative position that is acutely attentive and opposed to all forms and forces of oppression across the world. An internationalist in this sense, Nazrul comes to demystify—in his own way—the unequal exchange betweenthe "East" and the "West" in the domain of literature as such, while valorizing the "universal" and emancipatory content of literary works themselves.
Third, Nazrul's creative multi-lingual interventions and first-rate works of translation have hitherto received very little attention. Nazrul knew at least 6 languages: English, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit. The inaugurator of the ghazal form in Bangla poetry and music, Nazrul even ended up writing some "ghazals" in Urdu and some "bhajans" in Hindi. Nazrul had a profound love and knowledge of Persian poetry in particular; he was deeply drawn to such Persian poets as Sheikh Sa'adi, Hafiz, Rumi, Jaami, and Omar Khayyam. We know Khayyam's "rubayyiat" has been profusely translated into Bangla. But, in my reckoning, no attempts can match up to Nazrul's beautiful translations of Khayyam. Equally beautiful and even powerful are Nazrul's translations of not only Hafiz's "ghazal"s but also his "rubaiyyat" (for which Hafiz is of course less known than Khayyam in our part of the world). Nazrul even ventured to translate into Bangla more than 30 Quranic verses. I think we would amply benefit from undertaking a comprehensive study of Nazrul's works of translations.
Fourth, not much attention has been paid to how Nazrul revolutionizes the field of metrical experiments by appropriating in his poetry with unusual effects at least five different Arabic and Persian meters such as Motaqarib, Motdarik, Hajaz, Rajaz, and Mashaqel. His poem called "Dodool Dool"—composed in Motaqarib—is a metrical tour de force, a poem that seems to be anticipating even some of the textures and valences of today's hip-hop and rap. Nazrul also studied ancient Sanskrit poetry, and he uses in Bangla such Sanskrit meters as Anushtup, Totok, Mondakranta, and even Shardul Brikrityo, clinching the point that even the experimental appropriation of meters is by no means a politically and ideologically innocent practice.
Last, but by no means least: Although it's customary to compare Nazrul to Byron and Shelley and Whitman, I think we would also do well to explore both aesthetic and ideological connections between Nazrul and certain revolutionary poets from what Che Guevara once called the "tri-continent"—Asia, Africa, and Latin America—in the very spirit of Nazrul's own critical stance vis-à-vis "world literature." One may trace exciting and useful parallels between Nazrul and a whole of host of poets from the "third world"—the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the Latin American poets Roque Dalton and Otto René Castillo, the Korean poet Kim Chi Ha, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish, for instance—all of whom were fiercely opposed to such systems of oppression as capitalism, colonialism/imperialism, and racism, among others, and all of whom deeply believed in revolutionary politics. To put it bluntly: to rediscover Nazrul in our times is not to depoliticize him but to rediscover a revolutionary aesthetic and politics in the interest of the "total emancipation of humanity," to use the African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral's phrase.
Azfar Hussain teaches Liberal Studies/ Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University, USA. Currently, he is visiting ULAB as the Summer Distinguished Professor.