Nazrul’s genius, of course, is multifaceted. But his main identity is as a poet, though many have said he’ll make a lasting impression rather for his songs. Nazrul himself believed he’d made significant contribution to music. However, that he is a poet strikes me as his main identity. His poetic spirit is evident even in his songs and prose. Now the question is what kind of a poet he is.
Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest poet of all, had known Nazrul’s worth as soon as he emerged in the scene. Tagore dedicated Basanta, his lyrical play, to the incarcerated Nazrul. When Nazrul started his hunger strike inside the prison, Tagore sent him a telegram, saying “Our literature demands you.” It is interesting to note that Nazrul was only 24 then and most of his brilliant poems were yet to be published. General readers took an instant liking to his poems and his popularity has remained so, even to this day. That popularity is a barrier to literary perfection is not a universal truth, especially when literature transcends topicality.
“I’m the poet of the present and I’m not the prophet of the future” Nazrul himself made such declarations; he went as far as saying, “I don’t care if I am dead or alive after the craze of the time passes.” He surely was a poet of his time, and embraced the tides of his time in his poetry, but the ultimate truth is that he is still alive, forty years into his death, and will remain so in the future as well. It is because his poetry is imbued as much with aesthetic beauty as with philosophic depth. He restrained uproar and tumult with the grace of art and with his inherent intuition he could clearly see the present and the future. He could play the bamboo pipe and the war drum in impeccable mastery at the same time.
Who is a poet? Answering this question, Michael Madhusudan Dutta has rightly said a poet does more than just marrying one word with another; a poet uses his imagination to turn his words into poetry. That's what Nazrul precisely does; by using his imagination he turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Contemporary politics, drinking tea, shaving a friend’s beard, disturbance caused by the excessive growth of water hyacinth, a little girl’s quarrel with a squirrel -- all these apparently trifling matters are elevated to the level of poetry in his hand. The state authorities, however, saw danger in his talent and banned seven of his books, one after another, as soon as they were published. They even thwarted the publication of the paper he edited. They didn’t stop there; they put him in prison.
This surveillance and ban on his writing was caused as much by the content as by the appeal it had to the people at large. Because there was excellent unity of content and aesthetic articulation, his writing instantly appealed to most readers. The man who bravely ignored state rule did give in to the rule of art. He has written, “That which does not find a place in world literature does not last forever. It is tended with love at best for two days, then it dies.”
What Nazrul had sought to achieve was not just state freedom, he had actually sought to bring about a fundamental social change, in other words, social revolution. We need to keep this social revolutionary self of Nazrul in mind for two reasons. First, it flows through his existence like blood through the veins. Secondly, it helps us understand his life and works. He is a poet of love, and immensely so, and at the same time, he is a poet of hatred. Those two contrarities go hand in hand: without hatred love does not grow deep. His friends and foes are clearly defined: foes are capitalism and imperialism, and friends are the oppressed classes.
It is this revolutionary self of his that aroused in him a sense of internationalism. In this respect, he even exceeded his contemporary modern poets who were overwhelmed by the surface at the expense of the inner conflict. His internationalism was not a matter of the surface; it was rather a matter of intuition and perception. Say, for example, his poem “The rebel”: its articulation is specific to a culture and place but its metaphoric meaning is international.
In the context of history, his magazine, Langol, could foresee the advent of the Shudras, the lower castes. “From now on the society will act according to the Shudras’ needs and not the other way round.” He always had faith in the working class people that they would build a new society out of the old one and that there would be no retrogressive elements in this journey. He spoke of breaking down the existing society, even asked for a storm and a crowbar to execute it, but it was for building a new one in place of the old, not to create anarchy.
Scientists are warning us today about the green house effect, which is actually the result of capitalism’s unfettered growth and profiteering. However, when capitalism was dependent only on coal, and oil and gas were yet to be discovered, Nazrul wrote in an editorial of Nabajug, “Seeing the way ice is melting and, for lack of water, the way the atmosphere is changing, it seems, the doomsday is coming closer.”
Nazrul’s contemporary modernists fell into the trap of the west’s decadence and reactionary taste. But his modernism was appropriate as his mind was free and he never showed any interest in enslaving his taste.
Nazrul will live on, to enhance the joy and aesthetic beauty of our life, and to be a fellow traveller in our struggle. The British charged him with treason and the communal state of Pakistan was busy identifying the incendiary elements in his writing. If there comes a time when a social revolution is not far away, maybe the state then will be embarrassed with his poetic utterances, but the society, ultimately, will get him as someone very close to their heart.
Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury is our foremost Marxist intellectual and historian.
(Translated by Ranjan Banerjee)