“I belong to the world . . .”
Such goes the strapping spirit and confidence of a poet: a poet of the Bengalis, Bangladesh, and the world as well, a poet who was a patriot, composer and a myriad minded writer. Nazrul once said, "Even though I was born in this country (Bengal), in this society, I don't belong to just this locale. I belong to the world". He was by nature and conviction a people's poet. His work, full of vivacity, brought a new note of robustness in Bengali literature. He was crowned the 'rebel poet' in 1972 as the National Poet of Bangladesh.
Kazi Nazrul Islam is acknowledged as one of the greatest Bengali poets of all time. He pioneered new styles and expressed radical ideas and emotions in a large collection of works. Scholars credit him for spearheading a cultural renaissance in the Muslim community of Bengal, 'liberating' poetry and literature in Bengali from its medieval mould. He is a personality full of love, romance and humanism. He is a symbol of ever fresh youth, valour, creativity, freedom and indomitable human spirit, and, most importantly, a wonderful, warm-hearted, loving human being.
Winston E. Langley, the first Western scholar to study the great eastern poet Kazi Narul Islam from a global perspective, wrote an important book, Kazi Nazrul Islam: The Voice of Poetry and the Struggle for Human Wholeness, in which he has placed Nazrul among the greatest minds of the world. Langley's interest in Nazrul grew when he had the opportunity, for the first time, to listen to a few Nazrul songs. Langley notes: "the theme of human unity as opposed to the 'clash of civilizations' is therefore one of his preoccupations. True human unity is not some artificial accretion to human evolution; it is, rather, the organic and natural flowering of a common rooting; it is the sought-after (often unconsciously) spiritual, political, and social culmination of an ever present human yearning".
Music was food for Nazrul's soul. In an address entitled "Songeet" (Music), delivered as the presidential speech in at the music conference on 20 December 1929, arranged by the Arts Department of Bengal Presidency Students' Association, Nazrul said, "I consider myself fortunate for getting the opportunity to quench my thirst for music. I'll request my friend-students that they try to increase interest in music and encourage the performers. …don't discourage those who amongst you practise music. The accompaniment of music during heavy wars makes sorrows pleasant and welcoming." (Hossain and Das in Kazi Nazrul Islam, Speeches tr., 24-25). Nazrul composed about three thousand songs. Karunamaya Goswami reveals in his Aspects of Nazrul Songs, "He was a poet of the highest order, was a lyricist and composer of outstanding genius. His several thousand songs were on varied themes, forms and mood."
Nazrul made his mark as a revolutionary poet through poems such as 'Bidrohi' (Rebel) and 'Bhangar Gan' (The Song of Destruction). His writings explored themes such as love, freedom and revolution; he opposed all forms of prejudice, particularly fundamentalism and gender discrimination. Priti Kumar Mitra says in his seminal work, The Dissent of Nazrul Islam: "A historic dissenter, he attacked a number of orthodoxies of the time with his fiery verses and convention-shattering practices." Mitra reveals the nature, purpose and consequences of Nazrul's historic disobedience.
The rebel in Albert Camus' (1913-60) description is an individual who refuses to obey an oppressive authority, suddenly turning to face the oppressor in defence of his own rights. For Camus, rebellion of the representative individual is a necessary condition of mankind's existence as a whole: "I rebel therefore we exist". (Mitra 7-8). Nazrul was a great rebel in the estimation of Camus.
Nazrul catapulted to fame with the publication of 'Bidrohi' in 1922, which remains his most famous work. At the time of publication, no other poem since Tagore's 'Shonar Tori' had met with such spontaneous acclaim and criticism for its radical approach. Set in heroic metre, the verse invokes images from Hindu, Muslim and Greek mythology. The poem made profound impression on the public mind. Nazrul stormed into Tagore's residence, jokingly declaring, "Gurudev, I have come to finish you off". The rebellious language and theme found resonance with the public consciousness of the time. He explores a synthesis of different forces in a rebel, destroyer and preserver, expressing rage as well as beauty and sensitivity.
A political poem published in Dhumketu in September 1922 led to a police raid on the magazine's office. Arrested, Nazrul began fasting to protest mistreatment by the British jail superintendent. He broke his fast more than a month later and was eventually released from prison in December 1923. He composed a large number of poems and songs during his imprisonment and many of his works were banned in the 1920s by the British authorities. Nazrul won the admiration of India's literary classes by his description of the rebel whose impact is fierce and ruthless even its spirit is deep.
'The Rebel' is a furious manifesto of the self-conscious against immorality. Sajid Kamal describes the poem thus: "A universal proclamation, an affirmation, an inspiration, an invocation, of 'The Rebel' within the hearts of each 'I' of the common humanity which lay oppressed, subjugated, exploited, resigned and powerless". It is said that Nazrul would have been Nazrul even if he hadn't written anything else but 'The Bidrohi'.
Nazrul's rebellious expression extended to Islam. He believed that medieval Islamic practices and religious conservatism were hurting good Muslims and keeping them backward, intensifying social and sectarian challenges. Nevertheless, he became active in encouraging people to agitate against British rule.
Nazrul assailed fanaticism in religion, denouncing it as evil and inherently irreligious. He devoted many works to expound upon the principle of human equality, exploring the Qur'an and the life of Prophet Muhammad. Nazrul has been compared to William Butler Yeats for being the first Muslim poet to create imagery and symbolism of Muslim historical figures. His vigorous assault on extremism and on mistreatment of women provoked condemnation from a section of Muslims, many of whom denounced him as a 'kaffir' (heretic). While his career was active, Nazrul received intense criticism from religious Muslims for his assimilation of Hindu philosophy and culture with Islam in his works and for openly denouncing many Islamic teachings. Although a Muslim, he gave his sons both Hindu and Muslim names: Krishna Mohammad, Arindam Khaled (Bulbul), Kazi Sabhyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha. His rebellious nature also earned him the epithet 'anarchist poet', as he criticized the main political parties and ideologies of the day.
Priti Kumar Mitra points out five orthodoxies Nazrul sternly dissented against: a) the British establishment in India b) the Gandhian mainstream of national politics c) Islamic fundamentalism and intellectual authoritarianism d) Hindu social prejudice and cultural chauvinism and e) the literary orthodoxy that had developed around the name of Rabindranath Tagore.
Nazrul professed faith in absolute gender equality, a view his contemporaries considered revolutionary. In his poem 'Nari' (Women), Nazrul repudiates what he sees as the long-standing oppression of women, proclaiming their rights. He stunned society with his poem 'Barangana' (Prostitute), in which he addresses a prostitute as 'mother. The first line of the poem goes: "Who calls you a prostitute, mother?" Nazrul explored woman's emotions eloquently in many of his popular songs like Mor Ghumoghore Elay Monohor.
"To Nazrul", as Langley affirms, "the distressed children of the earth (not of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Brazil or Poland, or the Americas) want a solution to their plight, and the full realization of their democratic entitlement must be a part of that solution." The universal calling for the establishment of sensibility towards equality and brotherhood is all-encompassing in Nazrul.
It was during his visit to Comilla in 1921 that Nazrul met a young Hindu woman, Pramila Devi. The two maintained regular correspondence. Falling in love, they married on April 25, 1924. Pramila belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, which criticized her marriage to a Muslim. Nazrul in turn was condemned by Muslim religious leaders and continued to face criticism for his personal life and professional works. As a result, Nazrul's works began intensely attacking social and religious dogma and intolerance. His poems also spoke in philosophical terms of romantic love, and the complete equality of men and women, and attacking the social and religious traditions of the time that ruled otherwise. Nazrul came to identify the spirit of his thoughts and works as inherently rebellious.
By the time he passed away in Dhaka on 29 August 1976 having spent 34 years in paralytic torment he had become a legend, the exemplar of a religious sensibility that was not bounded by abstract definitions, but defined itself in the acts of devotion, empathy and creativity. Around the age of 44, Nazrul began losing his voice and memory. He progressively lost his mind and lived the last thirty years of his life mostly in the dark.
We can appraise Nazrul through his song 'I will go afar eternally, yet I won't let myself efface (Ami chira tare dure chale jabo, tobu amare dibona bhulite).