Nineteenth century was the true renaissance of Bengali literature. During this era, people of the subcontinent witnessed the literary jewels from Rabindronath Tagore, Sharat Chatterjee, Bankim Chatterjee, Ishwarchandra Gupta, Allama Iqbal and many others. But these people, oppressed by hundreds of years of colonial rule, probably were dreaming of a literary messiah who would raise his voice for the proletariat and against the rulers, a patriot who would speak for the equality of all, irrespective of religion and class, who would fight for an egalitarian society.
The dream came true and the apogee of Bengali literature was fulfilled with the birth of Kazi Nazrul Islam.
The Emergence of a Rebel
Nazrul's struggling and uncertain but brilliant early life proved that Dukhu Mia (his nickname) would not be just another head in the crowd. Since he was 11, Nazrul had been struggling for his survival. He had pursued many professions– Imam of a mosque, simple worker in a bread factory, cook or even pleasure boy in a local opera group. From his intensely diversified adolescence, he managed to experience the real taste of life. With his inborn talent, he turned his survival experience into an egalitarian sagacity which bejewelled all of his immortal creations.
His adventurous poetical life started with his decision to terminate formal education despite brilliant results throughout his school life. He enjoyed full scholarship in all the classes for his meritorious performance but he didn't appear in the matriculation exam, rather he joined the army. His youthful romantic inclination to respond to the unknown took him to Karachi Cantonment with the 49th Bengal Platoon.
Another reason for his joining the army was that there was a common belief that the “Bengalis are not fit for war”. The then government was hesitating to entrust Bengalis as a fighting force. Learning that, Nazrul left his studies and decided to enlist himself in the army as a protest.
In the cantonment life, he got the opportunity to get drowned into the ocean of Persian, Arabic and sub continental literature. He learned Arabic and Persian languages from the regimental Punjabi Moulovi. He got a deeper insight on the ongoing oppression of the colonial rule. Life in cantonment changed the course of the rest of his life.
He left the army. Instead of fighting for colonial lords, he took the pen to fight against their oppression.
His first literary effort was to launch a magazine called Navayug (The New Era) on 1920. He launched it with the help of famous revolutionary Comrade Muzaffar Ahmed. The magazine was patronised by Sher –E- Bangla AK Fazlul Huq.
But by the end of the year 1920 he left the magazine and devoted himself to writing. He authored some fabulous poems such as Shat- El- Arab, Kheya Parer Tarani (The ferry Sampan), Muharram which were published by the Moslem Bharat, the most renowned literary magazine published by the Muslim community of the sub-continent. In 1922, this magazine published his famous poetry Bidrohi (The Rebel) and Kamal Pasha. His popularity went viral across the sub continent after the publication of these poems, mainly Bidrohi (The Rebel). The then famous weekly The Bizly reprinted this poem in January, 1922.
The spirit of rebellion is brilliantly depicted in Bidrohi, a poem admired by literary buffs all over the world. His description of a rebel famed him as an icon of rebellion. The rebellious language and theme of the poetry coincided well with the Non-Cooperation Movement, one of the first mass civil disobedience campaigns against the British rule.
February 1976. The then President of Bangladesh Justice Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem awards Kazi Nazrul Islam with the Ekushey Padak, one of the most prestigious civilian awards of Bangladesh. Photo Courtesy: Chironjeeb
Poetry and Persecution
With popularity the rebel poet also gained the wrath of the colonial lords. His anthology of essays Yugvani (1922) was banned for spreading revolutionary message against the British rule. In the same year his first anthology of poems Agnibina (Lyre of Fire) and Bethar Dan (Gift of Sorrow) were published.
On August 12, Nazrul launched a magazine called Dhumketu (The Comet). By now British authorities started to bug Nazrul's movement. He was arrested for his political poem Anandomoyir Agomone, which was published in the Dhumketu magazine. But his revolutionary voice could not be stopped. He told the British judge, “My voice is but a medium for Truth, the message of God... I am the instrument of that eternal self-evident truth, an instrument that voices forth the message of the ever-true.”
He was sentenced one-year's imprisonment on January 8, 1923. In the prison, he started a 40-day hunger strike to protest the mistreatment of the prisoners by the British jail superintendent. Rabindranath Tagore and politician Chittaranjan Das requested him to break the strike. In December he was freed and was welcomed by his fans from all walks of life.
In 1924, his poem Bisher Banshi (Flute of Venom) was banned by the government. In 1930, he was again convicted of sedition for his book Pralayshikha. His book was banned and he was imprisoned again. Later, following the Gandhi-Arwin treaty, he was freed from the prison.
Political harassment had made his life unstable and uncertain. Despite his popularity, his personal life was always riddled with poverty because of his poetical and adventurous nature. He never wrote for money or fame. As a poet, he always ignored the earthly gain and regarded himself as a preacher of truth and equity. So his personal life was not an easy one. His first marital engagement with Nargis was broken. Later during his visit to Comilla he married Pramila Devi, a Brahmo lady. But he was misunderstood and criticised by the then Muslim leaders for marrying a Hindu woman. He had to live his whole life in poverty.
There are many stories regarding his struggling life. One day, his wife informed him that there was nothing to eat at home. He hurried to his publisher with a taxi. But his publisher failed to give him anything as all of his books were confiscated by the government. Then he wanted some papers from his publisher. On those papers he instantly authored the famous anthology of children rhymes called Chandrabindu. His publisher became very happy with the charming poems and gave him some money. But suddenly he recalled that he forgot to see off the taxi he hired. He went to the taxi driver and discovered that the meter displaying the fair equalled exactly the amount he was given by the publisher. Then he gave all his money to the driver and returned. This was the life of our Poet Laureate.
Yet he never left the path of revolution. He praised poverty as the mentor of his creations. He said in his poetry,
O Poverty thou hast made me great
Thou hast made me honoured like Christ.
The first Bengali Muslim film director
Nazrul also adorned the path of the rising Indian film industry. In fact, Kazi Nazrul Islam is the first Muslim film director of Bengali films. His film Dhruva Bhakta was released in 1934. He was the director, music composer and also an actor in the film. The film Vidyapoti was based on his recorded play. He also worked as the music director of some prominent films such as Gora of Rabindronath Tagore and Siraj ud Daula of Shachin Sen Gupta.
Islam and Humanism
Nazrul was the true symbol of humanism. His staunch belief and love for Islam and his tolerance and respect for other religions was quite uncommon during that time. He has authored poems like Omar Faruk, Allah Amar Provu, Amar Nahi Kono Bhoi (Allah is my Lord so I have no fear). His works on Prophet Muhammad's (Peace be Upon Him) life has been immortalised by his unfinished poetry Moru Vashkor (The sun of the Desert). He has also translated some surahs of the holy Quran into poetical Bengali which were praised by all Muslim scholars. On the other hand he also authored some Shyama Shangeet (Hindu worship songs) of great literature value. Nazrul expressed his vision of religious harmony in an editorial Joog Bani :
“Come brother Hindu! Come Musalman! Come Buddhist! Come Christian! Let us transcend all barriers, let us forsake forever all smallness, all lies, all selfishness and let us call brothers as brothers. We shall quarrel no more.”
Later life and Sudden Illness
Nazruls' life was never easy. But two sudden losses shocked him gravely. In 1939, his wife Pramila Devi became paralysed from waist down. And in 1941, Rabindranath Tagore passed away. Nazrul wrote a classic eulogy on Tagore's death named Rabihara (The Loss of Robi). On July 10, 1942 the rebel poet fell seriously ill. His illness got worse and he became mentally dysfunctional. He was admitted to an asylum in the same year. His admirers formed a group called “Nazrul Treatment Society”, which raised fund and sent Nazrul and his wife to London, then to Vienna for better treatment. Renowned neurosurgeon Dr Hans Hoff diagnosed that Nazrul was suffering from Pick's disease. His condition was judged to be incurable. Nazrul and his family returned to Calcutta on 1953. His wife Pramila died on June 30, 1962.
By 1971, a new nation called Bangladesh emerged on the world map through a great struggle and with the flag of equity and indiscrimination for which Nazrul strived all along his life. So, in 1976 Nazrul was given Bangladesh's citizenship, along with the recognition of Poet Laureate and DLit from Dhaka University, the Oxford of the East. He was brought to Dhaka in 1972. On August 29, 1976 the rebel poet and the voice of Bengal against oppression succumbed to death, leaving the corporeal life forever.
In his short working life, Nazrul had created a unique world of literature including song, poems, music, ragas, stories, dramas, cinema--everything that is related to art and literature. Nazrul composed more than 2000 songs, many of which were based on classical ragas. His diversified use of different languages in his works has enriched Bengali vocabulary. But unfortunately, many of his works have been lost. Through his works the global literature has witnessed the voice of Bengali courage against exploitation and oppression.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org