More than a pastoral poet
Today—March 14—marks the 46th death anniversary of Jasim Uddin (1903-1976). Popularly called "palli kabi" (folk poet), Jasim Uddin is also considered a major Bangla poet. And by now he has been fully assimilated into the Bangla literary canon and the academy as well. Yet, his work remains marginalised—and sometimes even gets gruffly dismissed—in contemporary Bangla criticism. I think this has to do with a certain "aesthetic elitism"—to use the African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o's term—predicated as it is on the contention that Jasim Uddin's characteristic preoccupations with everything rural or pastoral, accompanied by his inattention to the complexities of urban life, do not make him "modern" enough to merit attention.
But I will argue that consciously running against the grain of the literary modernism of the 1930s—represented by such poets as Sudhin Dutta (1901-1960), Amiya Chakravarty (1901-1986), Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974), Bishnu Dey (1909-1982), and, to an extent, Jibanananda Das (1899-1954)—Jasim Uddin's work articulates a particular version of alternative, anticolonial modernity. And, thus, he comes close to Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), their different thematic concerns and stylistic dispositions notwithstanding. I'll return to the question of Jasim Uddin's anticolonial modernity later. Let me now make some quick observations about a few aspects of his life and work that I find significant for a partly introductory piece like this one.
Poet in the first place—but also lyricist, composer, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, memoirist, folklorist, teacher, researcher, music critic, and even travel writer—Jasim Uddin was born on January 1, 1903 in a village called Tambulkhana in the district of Faridpur in present-day Bangladesh. His rural upbringing had a lasting influence on the development of his work. By his own admission, his rural life brought him profoundly close to poor peasants, making him live and breathe their own songs and stories that remained in his blood. As a university student, Jasim Uddin worked with his mentor Dinesh Chandra Sen (1866-1939)—the famous educationist, folklorist, and literary historian—under whose guidance he collected folk songs and poems. He ended up collecting more than 10,000 folk songs, some of which are available in his famous compilations called Jaari Gaan (1968) and Murshidi Gaan (1977). And, of course, what has come to be famously known as the Purbabanga Geetika—a collection of folk ballads from Mymensingh, Netrakona, Chattogram, Noakhali, Faridpur, Sylhet, and Tripura—owes much to Jasim Uddin's compilation. Thus, early on in his life, his intimate and intense immersion in Bangladesh's folk traditions significantly contributed to the formation of his poetic sensibility.
Jasim Uddin's phenomenal productivity spanned more than six decades. He started writing poetry at school. While in Class 10, he wrote the proverbial poem "Kabar" (Grave). This poem immediately catapulted him into fame, and it was soon included in college textbooks. I think Jasim Uddin is most popularly associated with this singular poetic achievement—a doleful dramatic monologue in which an old man, pointing at his wife's grave, addresses his little grandson. I recall how my own grandfather—who was a primary schoolteacher in a village—recited that poem to me when I was 12 or 13. I immediately felt the poem had a gripping voice, a sad tale to tell, and a musical cadence of its own. A story has it that Jasim Uddin's mentor Dinesh Chandra Sen cried while reading "Kabar." So did I.
Jasim Uddin is also popularly associated with his two masterpieces—his two trailblazing ballads—named Nakshi Kanthar Math (The Field of the Embroidered Quilt), published in 1929, and Sojan Badiar Ghat (The Place of Sojan, the Gypsy) that appeared in 1933. These two works distinctly diverged from the very lyrical tradition dominated by Rabindranath Tagore himself (1861-1941). And Jasim Uddin's ballads seemed to hark back to the mediaeval tradition of verse narratives represented by such figures as Chandidas (1370-1430), Krittibas Ojha (1381-1461), Maladhar Basu (c. 15th century), and even Kashiram Das (16th century), although he by no means returned to mediaeval theocentrism as such. In fact, poor peasants characteristically remain at the heart of his creative enterprises. And, of course, his ballads have their own lyricism and musicality; while Jasim Uddin did not abandon the lyrical tradition altogether, he later decisively returned to it.
Jasim Uddin's first collection of poems called Rakhali appeared in 1927 (which included the poem "Kabar"). Some of his poetic works include Baluchor (1930), Dhankhet (1933), Hashu (1938), Matir Kanna (1951), Beder Meye (1951), Sakina (1959), Ma je Jononi Kande (1963), Holud Barani (1966), and Padma Nadir Deshe (1969). And some of his dramatic works include Padmapar (1960), Beder Meye (1951), Modhumala (1951), and Gramer Maya (1952). He also wrote a novel called Boba Kahini (1964)—a work in which he remarkably depicted the struggles of two generations of poor peasants against the colonial-feudal order of things represented and reinforced by the Permanent Settlement of Bengal. Jasim Uddin wrote several memoirs, among which particularly significant is Jibankatha (1964). He also wrote a number of travelogues, among which his Je Deshe Manush Boro (1968) at least implicitly reveals his otherwise lifelong predilection for socialism.
And Jasim Uddin—who remained organically connected to the tradition of what is called "kabi gaan" since his childhood—composed numerous songs, embracing such genres as aul, baul, sari, jari, marafati, murshidi, among others. He exemplarily energised and intensified the bhatiyali tradition, in particular. Indeed, Jasim Uddin's own musical works—extraordinarily rich and revealing as they are—call for an extended discussion. But, for now, suffice it to say that the musical and the poetic remain profoundly indivisible in Jasim Uddin's work, while this almost Nazrul-like quality constitutes one of the forces of Jasim Uddin's own "modern" sensibility that remains opposed to the derivative modernist aesthetics of the 1930s and colonialism's divisive literary and cultural logic.
Now, overall, Jasim Uddin's work—in which the narrative, the dramatic, and the lyrical variously intersect and interpenetrate—abundantly reveals his concerns with the common, the ordinary, the insignificant, the neglected, the marginalised, and even the invisible. His avowedly anti-canonical—and anti-colonial—position prompted him to say that he learnt mostly from his "first teachers," who are his country's "uneducated and half-educated poets"—Jadab, Parikshit, Ismail, Hari Patani, and Hari Acharya. Respectful as he was of Madhusudan Dutta, Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam, he made it a point that he would never imitate any one of them. And in the era of the free verse movement, it was Jasim Uddin who both excelled and revelled in reinventing and reusing the payar cadences and couplets that even remained a universal constant in his poetic work.
Dinesh Chandra Sen ardently asserted that no modern poet in his time could simply match up to such an intimate knowledge of rural life as Jasim Uddin had. And his English translators Barbara Painter and Yann Love rightly pointed out, "The heroes of his poems are farmers, fishermen, boatmen, weavers, cowherds, even roadside barbers, wandering gypsies, palmists, and astrologers." But one should also underline Jasim Uddin's passionate concerns with poor, rural women. Many of his titles themselves clearly ascribe centrality to women, as a number of his works—his major ballads included—significantly foreground their suffering and marginalisation, and struggles at more levels than one, although one also notices his limitations in terms of questioning and unsettling male domination in the final instance.
In closing, let me say a few words on his two masterpieces, his two groundbreaking ballads, mentioned earlier—Nakshi Kanthar Math and Sojon Badiyar Ghat. Both—unforgettable stories of love as they are—are also remarkable for capturing conflicts, tensions, struggles, rhythms of living, human and even vegetal subjectivities, and life worlds that characterise the totality of rural life. This is more than radical pastoralism for Jasim Uddin. His choices of sites, subjects, scenes, and even signs in his richly structured and textured ballads—and his sensuous rootedness in rural Bengal—are all significantly political and anticolonial, marking his brand of modernity in oppositional terms, at a time when many of his contemporaries remained high on Western aesthetics and poetics.
As for Sojan Badiar Ghat in particular—a poem that fiercely dramatises the "dangerous," suicide-inviting romantic relationship between a Muslim man named Sojan and a Namasudra woman named Dulali—Jasim Uddin's own modern sensibility offers an explosive tale of love on the one hand, and on the other, a tempestuous site of the interplays between communalism, colonialism, and casteism, all of which Jasim Uddin contests as an artist. Owing to space constraints, I cannot go into further details here, but I think rereading Jasim Uddin's work at this conjuncture will not only enable us to re-examine the relationship between the politics of art and the choice of our subjects and sites, but will also make us see why he continues to remain relevant as a truly great poet.
Dr Azfar Hussain is interim director of the graduate programme in social innovation, and associate professor of integrative, religious, and cultural studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, US. He is also the vice-president of the US-based Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).