While learning how to subtract and multiply, a boy surprised his uncle, Kazi Abul Hossain, by discovering the rules of division in advance. Later, this young boy gained fame as the first statistician, scientist, educator, chess player and prominent literary figure of Bangladesh. He is none other than Professor Qazi Motahar Hussain.
He was called by different names by different prominent figures. Our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam used to call him “Motihar”. And in the words of Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, he was “an upright, humble person and a man of wisdom and virtue”. Everyone close to him used to call this brilliant mind “Qazi Shaheb”. He was a rational, religious and outspoken man with a dynamic talent in the fields of science, research, literature, culture, music, sports, etc.
The writings of Bangkim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and Pramoth Chowdhury created a novel dimension in Bengal that we consider as thoughtful or literary essays. Although the style of Kazi Motahar Hossain was not completely similar to theirs, we still can easily put him in this category because he didn’t write exactly philosophical essays, nor systematic works, but research projects. He and his contemporary friend-writers were trying to turn “essays” into “literature”. In this case, the collective success of that generation has never come back again in Bangladesh.
Qazi Motahar Hossain was born on July 30, 1897, at Lakshmipur village of Bhaluka (now Kumarkhali in Kushtia district) of Nadia district, in Matulala. His ancestral residence was in Bagmara village of Pangsha Upazila in the Rajbari district. During the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the ancestors of Motahar Hossain were appointed as religious advisers and judges in the Delhi court—thus he was designated “Qazi”.
His father Kazi Gowharuddin was a government service holder and Motahar Hossain was the eldest of eight siblings. That is why it was not possible for his family to fully pay for their children’s education. But Motahar Hossain received scholarships from the beginning of his education life. He used to teach in various educational institutes—sometimes on tuition or on long-term basis—to support himself. He struggled with poverty but did not give up on studying.
This struggling life taught him to be stronger. He was influenced by his teachers, Jyotindranath Roy and Jatindra Mohan Biswas, in the field of science. Jatinbabu was a secular, liberal teacher. But his ideology had inspired Kazi Motahar Hossain throughout his life. Even his literary journey had been influenced by Jatinbabu. There was a competition held on the occasion of “the chariot journey of Kushtia”. That was the first time he wrote an essay with the support of Jatinbabu.
His literary journey was glorified with his wonderful work. Some of them are Shancharan (1937), Nazrul Kabya Porichiti (Introduction to Nazrul’s Poetry, 1955), Gonit Shastrer Itihas (History of Mathematics, 1970), Alok Bigyan (Optics, 1974), Nirbachito Probondho (Collected Essays, 1976) and many others. When his first essay book was published, it caught the attention of many readers. Rabindranath Tagore, among many others, praised the book for its “conspicuous language, the boldness of speaking and for its mastery of thought”.
Kazi Nazrul Islam was a close friend of his. The friendship between the two of them was intense. Their relationship was so deep that Nazrul wrote a long poem called “Dari-Bilap” about Motahar Hossain’s beard. Motahar Hossain also had a special relationship with Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay. And Sharat Chandra’s story “Mahesh” was based on a conversation he had with Motahar Hossain.
His professional career was filled with great achievements. He had a doctorate (Ph.D) degree from the University of Dhaka in “Design of Experiments”. One of the examiners of his thesis was Sir Ronald Fisher, a renowned statistician. He was highly praised for this paper. Later, one of the statistical methods invented by Motahar Hossain was known as “Hossain’s Chain Rule”. And, one of his biographers, Abdullah Al-Mutti, called him a “truly Renaissance man”.
On January 3, 1920, a progressive literary organisation, “Muslim Sahitya Samaj”, was established in Dhaka and he was deeply involved in it. The annual pageantry of the “Muslim Sahitya Samaj” was “Shikha”. Qazi Motahar Hossain was the editor in the second and third years of “Shikha”, where he dreamed of creating a progressive social structure that would provide them the opportunity to practice independent thinking.
Qazi Motahar Hossain was a devout man, not a fanatic. He wanted to experience life with his own eyes. In his writing, he had no place for religious fanaticism or superstition. When Kazi Abdul Oud or Abul Hossain made a comment about the followers of Kazi Motahar Hossain, he said, “We do not want to fight against Islam—we want to eliminate the superstition and the accumulated rubbish of the current Muslim society.”
Qazi Motahar Hossain became the voice against language reforms, change of letters (writing the Bengali language in Urdu), and the irrational Rabindra antagonism of capitalism. He also showed dissatisfaction with the attempt to impose Urdu as a state language, which was likely to end the East-West affiliation. Later, his prophecy came true.
He came forward to celebrate the birth anniversary of Rabindranath. For the first time in Dhaka, he presided over the death anniversary of the renowned author Maxim Gorky. He protested whenever the language, literary works, culture, or science studies were criticised. This is why Annadashankar Roy said this about him: “a liberal Muslim as well as a patriotic Bengali and an honest man overall.”
Motahar Hossain was also famous for playing “chess”. His interest in sports was immense, and when it came to chess, he was profoundly involved. His chess companions were well-known people like Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Kisanlal, Satish Chandra Addi (All-India Champion), and others. He became the first to compete in the “All India Chess Brilliancy” in 1925. Grandmaster Kazi Motahar Hossain was the founder and lifetime president of the “Bangladesh Chess Federation”. He was also talented in football, tennis, high jump, swimming and badminton. He became Dhaka’s lawn tennis champion in 1951.
Many from this generation don’t know very much about him. People know the popular detective series “Masud Rana” by Kazi Anwar Hossain, who is a worthy son of this great man—and was encouraged by his father to write it.
Being a progressive and pioneer educator, literary person, mathematician, scientist, musician, etc., Motahar Hossain became one of the guardians of the intellectual, progressive, and open-minded people of Bangladesh. Today, Bangladesh stands on the foundation that people like Kazi Motahar Hossain created. So, on this day, let us remember him as the legendary, versatile figure that he was.
Hasan Al-Mahmud was a Fulbright TEA Fellow, Fall 2018, Montana State University, USA.