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The Rebel Who Embraced Universalism

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Bangladesh celebrates the golden jubilee of its liberation from Pakistan on March 26, 2021, as a nation that came into its own after two upheavals. Fiercely proud of their Bengali roots, language, and culture, Bangladeshis however find the memories of the partition of 1947 blurred by the more recent bloody war of 1971. It is worthwhile recalling on this occasion the magnificent work of Bengal-born Bangladeshi writer, lyricist, and national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam including his famous poem “Bidrohi” (The Rebel) written hundred years ago but remains as relevant as ever. The versatile poet, lyricist, and writer known as ‘Bidrohi Kobi’ (Rebel poet) claimed that although he was born in Bengal he didn’t belong just to that society or region but to the whole world. Aruna Ravikumar writes about this visionary poet and the numerous attempts at translating his works into popular languages to reach larger audiences a century after they were written.

He was called ‘Dukhu Mia’ (sad fellow) after his father’s premature death forced him to become a muezzin of the mosque where his father was the Imam and take the responsibility of running his family. Born on May 24th, 1899 in Churulia village in Bardhawan in West Bengal Kazi Nazrul Islam did various odd jobs including joining a folk opera inspired by his uncle Bazle Karim where he was a performer and also began composing songs and poems. He later joined the army without losing his love for literature which he pursued after returning to Calcutta when his regiment was disbanded after the first world war. During this period, he is said to have extensively read works of Tagore, Sharat Chandra, and Persian poets Hafez, Omar Khayyam, and Rumi.
Nazrul’s themes were universal, speaking of human strife and its different facets imbued by his experience and observation of life’s vicissitudes to such an extent that he was accepted by both Muslim intellectuals and the Hindu literary establishment of Calcutta which was no mean feat. He believed in religious pluralism as evident from his editorial in a magazine where he wrote
Come brother Hindu! Come Mussalman!
Come Buddhist! Come Christian!
Let us transcend all barriers, let us forsake all smallness, all lies
All selfishness and let us call brothers as brothers.
We shall quarrel no more.
He wrote an anthology of short stories’ Byathar dan’ gift of sorrow, an anthology of poems ‘Agnibeena’, an anthology of essays called ‘Yugabani’ in 1922. His poem published in his revolutionary bi-weekly “Dhumaketu” (comet) led to its ban and one year’s rigorous imprisonment for him. A freedom fighter he joined rallies and meetings against the establishment and became a member of the Bengal Provincial Committee. Articulating the views of the poor and downtrodden his songs and poems filled with nationalistic fervour decried the ills of the system and exposed several hypocrisies that dominated social dialogue in his times. Several songs composed by him celebrating fraternity between Hindus and Muslims and the struggles of the masses established him as a composer of mass music.
He was also extolled as the innovator of the Bengali ghazal. His artistic temper and disagreements with the bride’s family led him to walk out on his bride on the day of his wedding. Later, in marrying a Hindu woman Pramila Devi, he led by example and proclaimed the underlying unity between religions. His involvement with the gramophone company ‘His Masters Voice’ as lyricist, composer, and trainer, led to the most well-known singers of his time singing his songs. His songs were in demand on stage as well and he published 10 volumes of songs with 600 songs based on classical ragas, 100 on folk tunes, and about 30 patriotic songs. He had a long relationship with various broadcasting companies and the Calcutta radio and the over 3000 songs that he wrote became hugely popular as ‘Nazrul Sangeet’ or ‘Nazrul Geethi’. Out of these songs over 500 are related to Hindu devotional music and his Agamanis, Bhajans, Shyama sangeet and Kirtans are extremely popular. Songs on Shiva, Shakti, Brahma, Saraswati, Radha, and Krishna are replete with devotion dwelling on the Hindu philosophy. So are his songs on Islam. He however took objection to the manner in which the moulvis and pundits appropriated religion without getting its essence.


The poet who was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore had his fan moment when Tagore dedicated his ‘Bashanto’ (spring) opera to him stating that Nazrul had ushered in ‘Spring’ in the nation. He was accorded the ‘Padma Bhushan’ by the government of India in recognition of his literary genius. The poet who was troubled by sorrow all his life not only lost his voice but was treated for mental health in an asylum before he breathed his last in Bangladesh where he was shifted to on request by the Bangladeshi government. A humanist who protested against bigotry, injustice, fascism, exploitation, and oppression his works are universal. They are beyond the narrow confines of region, religion, or nation. Love, compassion, creativity, and freedom professed by him are qualities that represent the human spirit in its resplendent glory. Despite such accomplishment, many critics feel that Nazrul’s radical poetics prevented him from becoming as well-known as a Rabindranath Tagore outside Bengal.
A few lines from Bidrohi depict the poet’s great concern for the oppressed and muffled voices crushed by the mighty and the powerful
“Weary of struggles, I, the great rebel,
Shall rest in quiet only when I find
The sky and the air free of the piteous groans of the oppressed.
Only when the battlefields are cleared of jingling bloody sabres
Shall I, weary of struggles, rest in quiet,
I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world and,
High, ever erect and alone (English translation by Kabir Chaudhary)

The sincerity of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s thought and the truth behind his reflections ensures that his songs and poems continue to touch many hearts all over the world. Far away from Bengal where he was born and Bangladesh which proclaimed him as ‘national poet’, an all- Bengali women’s team (Sudeshna Gupta, Navanita Lahiri, Supriti Chakraborty, Chandana Khan Chandana Chakraborty, Aditi Chakraborty, and Rita Bhattacharya) recorded Nazrul’s poems in English and Hindi.


In the city of Hyderabad known for its confluence of culture referred to as the Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb under the supervision of young Somerita Mallik, founder of ‘Chayanat’ Kolkata, 61 poems of Nazrul were recorded. Enthused by the response to a programme on Nazrul geet held here, she set about getting the works translated and recited. An eminent musician herself Mallik has been working on Nazruls’ poetry for 12 years now. The recitations will be part of a CD she plans to release in Hyderabad in May around Nazrul’s birthdate since all the women who are part of the project are from Hyderabad. ‘Nazrul’s works are beautiful and have important messages for society. He was a progressive who questioned various inequalities and was particularly against gender discrimination” she opines.
Nazrul questions the system, the denial of rights to the meek, and the entitlement of certain sections that ever widens the gap between the haves and the have nots says Supriti Chakraborty from the team. “They are beautiful thoughts that are relevant to today’s society too” she says. Navanita Lahiri, involved with this project having rendered some powerful Nazrul poems including “Bidrohi” is fascinated by the confluence of multiple cultural streams in Nazrul’s work which clearly outlines the fact that religion has been used as a tool of manipulation by vested interests. “Morality changes but Humanity doesn’t. Nazrul was clear in his thoughts and insights. In his mind there was no conflict” she declares.
Kazi Nazrul’s Islam’s multi-faceted genius, his angst, his concerns, and his innate desire for the unity of all humanity is sure to enrich non- Bengali speakers as well through authentic translations. The poet lives on through his immortal works striking a chord in hearts that resonate with the power and beauty of his verses.