Kazi Nazrul Islam
Any discussion on Bengali poetry must revolve around the names of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. While the former attained international recognition through his 1913 Nobel Prize for literature, the influence of Nazrul in the Bengali psyche is in many senses no less than that of Tagore.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was born in Churulia village near Asansol. He came to the literary spotlight at the age of 23 with his poem of the unstoppable rebel hero, Vidrohi (Rebel, 1922), which is the uplifting voice of the iconoclast. Set in a heroic meter and invoking images from both Hindu and Muslim mythological canons, the rebel is destructive, unrepentant, hard, but also unspeakably soft and gentle ("sleep smothered like the flute of Orpheus"):
I am unstoppable, irresponsible, brutal
I am Nataraja, I destroy the universe
With my metered dance.
Like a cyclone, I blow fear into the hearts of men
I crush underfoot all rules and traditions
Fully laden boats I sink, a dark menace:
A torpedo, a floating mine.
My hair dishevelled, I am the untimely storm
Unpredictable. I am the first raindrop
Tenderly I kiss the parched soil.
Rebel Incarnate I have come
From the womb of Mother Universe.
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Protest and Incarceration
Other poems in this angry rebellious vein, such as Pralayollas (Destructive Euphoria) and Kamal Pasha, found resonance in a land erupting under the oppression of British rule. His first book, the hugely popular Agniveena (Fiery lyre, 1922), led to the popular moniker "rebel poet" (Vidrohi Kabi). By the end of the year, however, Nazrul was arrested for writing a thinly veiled political allegory, and underwent imprisonment for one year.
Nazrul came of age under the shadow of Tagore, whom he admired, and who was fond of him as well. The morning after composing Vidrohi, he ran to Tagore's house and read the poem to the maestro. But Nazrul's is a forceful independent voice, sometimes the swaggering rebel, talking in military staccato, and sometimes the gentle creative poet, lilting cadences dancing through his song. In addition to his poetic corpus, Nazrul, who was a talented musician, also composed more than three thousand songs, which constitute a complete genre in Bengali music today, under the name of nazrul-geeti, and remains immensely popular, with a large number of artistes and an active recording industry, both in West Bengal and Bangladesh.
At the age of eighteen, Nazrul was a student of class ten in Raniganj (in today's West Bengal), when he came under the spell of the distant First World War. He joined the new Bengali regiment and was posted in Karachi. Although the regiment never faced battle, and was disbanded in 1920 after cessation of hostilities, the cadence of the soldier's parades and marches permeates much of his writing from this time.
Nazrul-Geeti: Oeuvre in Song
After the success of his early poetry, and his increasing stature in literary and political circles, in the late 1920's Nazrul started composing his songs to music. Some of this corpus, especially many love songs, are particularly notable, like this song which never fails to resonate with anyone who has experienced the monsoon breaking with its towering dark clouds:
In this dark cotton cloud rain
The forest has spread out green
Beyond its boundaries
O where are you
In this dark cotton cloud rain. . .
However, here too, his fiery patriotic songs are notable; the postage stamp pictured above contains the lyrics of his famous song, "chal-chal-chal":
Breaking down the doors of dawn
We shall bring the morning on
Shredding darkness with our song
We shall overcome.
He became associated with the Kallol literary group and also continued his political activity, running for election in 1926. For a period, a large number of his writings were banned. Other notable books of poems and songs from this period include Dolonchampa(1923), Bisher Bansi (The poisonous flute, 1924), Bhangar Gan (Songs of break-up, 1924), Puber Haoya (The east wind 1925) and Bulbul(1928).
Nazrul lived in divisive times. Religious communalism was on the rise, possibly fuelled by elements in the British administration. Muslims felt disenfranchised and alienated in the majority Hindu culture. There were a number of Hindu-Muslim riots, culminating in reckless carnage during independence when the Empire was divided into three parts on religious lines. Through all this, Nazrul remained committedly non-communal, writing both Shyama-Sangeet in praise of Kali, as well as Pakistani style Hamd songs. He married Pramila Devi, a Hindu lady, and chose Sanskritic names for his sons. In later years, his liberal views on religion came under attack from the Muslim right.
In 1942, Nazrul fell seriously ill, and despite many attempts at treatment, he gradually lost his voice and memory. He entered a world of increasing isolation, untli 1972, when the newly formed nation of Bangladesh rediscovered him and he was honoured as the national poet. He passed away in 1976. According to a wish expressed in one of his poems, he was laid to rest beside a mosque in the campus of the University of Dhaka.
Today, Nazrul's legacy continues to energize the Bengali people, and his poems are part of the rites of passage for each generation of Bengali youth. Talk of Nazrul to a blue-blooded Bengali, and you will be invariably rewarded with a few lines from some favourite poem. Unfortunately, not enough talented translators have gathered to his cause, and Nazrul's reputation lives on only within the bounds of his language.
Yet there is a recklessness about him, both in life and in song, that never fails to attract the truant imagination that is the eternal hallmark of youth.
See Complete Works of Kazi Nazrul Islam for a list of all his writings.