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In light of ‘the anxiety of influence’

  • Published at 10:56 pm January 5th, 2018
  • Last updated at 07:42 pm July 19th, 2018
In light of ‘the anxiety of influence’

When Kazi Nazrul Islam was imprisoned for publishing “Anandomoyir Agomone,” a satirical poem, Rabindranath Tagore dedicated his verse drama Basanta (The Spring) to Nazrul. The two pinnacles of Bangla literature had a lifelong correspondence – strained by a portion of Kolkata literati for some period – that was reciprocal and replete with exchanges of letters, dedication and literary discussion. Niaz Zaman, a distinguished academic, translator and writer, has put together eight essays in her new book Anxieties and Influences: Essays on Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Published by Writers.ink, it takes a psychoanalytic look at aspects of literary interaction between Tagore and Nazrul. 

The collection opens with the essay, “Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and ‘The Anxiety of Influence.’” Nazrul, the younger poet, developed an affinity with Tagore through his reading of the great precursor poet. In light of Harold Bloom’s theory, known in the academia as “the anxiety of influence,” Niaz observes that “poets are ‘influenced’ in their creative process by the ambivalent relationship that they have with powerful precursor poets.” While serving the army in the newly formed 49th Bengal Regiment, Nazrul contributed prose and poetry to Kolkata periodicals regularly. In these early pieces and in his first epistolary novel, Badhon Hara (Unfettered), the influence of the precursor poet is evident. The protagonist Nuru in the novel mentions Gurudev (Tagore’s honorific sobriquet) and “ponders over the power of the poet to move countless people.” In his second novel, Mrityukshudha (Hunger for Death), Niaz goes on to say, Nazrul “seems to reflect Tagore’s concerns with education,” though he didn’t quote the precursor poet directly. But by the time Nazrul published “Bidrohi” (“The Rebel”), he had already established himself as “one of the greatest voices of the century,” distinct even from his Gurudev. From then on things began to assume a new shape. When Tagore wrote a soothing poem, “Esho Hey Baisakh” (“Come, Come, O Month of Baisakh”) on the first month of the Bengali year, celebrating the new and wiping away the old, Nazrul contradicted Tagore in his poem, “Proloyullash” (“The Ecstasy of Destruction”), written on the same topic. “Not satisfied with a gentle pleading with Baisakh to cleanse the world, the poet revels in the destruction brought by the stormy month,” Niaz observes aptly. 

However, Tagore greeted the young poet and dedicated a piece of verse to him, saying “Come O Come, O Come, yes, / Build a bridge of fire in this darkness.” The poem was printed on the first page of the daily Dhumketu, where Nazrul started working after his stint with Nabajug. Their relationship, however, was tarnished by a portion of Kolkata’s literati that envied Nazrul’s increasing popularity and seemed to have influenced Tagore, too. At a reception in the Presidency College, Tagore “was quoted as objecting to the use of Arabic and Persian words such as ‘khoon’ in Bangla poetry.” Nazrul responded with a piece of essay, “Boror Piriti Balir Bandh” (“The Love of Great Ones Is Built on Sand), where he traced the reasons behind this tension with Tagore, due to ill-conceived notions nurtured by a small coterie.  

In “Rabindranath Tagore and the Creation of National Identity,” Niaz explores Tagore’s oeuvre to contextualise the national anthems of Bangladesh and India: “Amar Sonar Bangla” and “Jana Gana Mana.” The former mourns “the partition of Bengal” while the latter celebrates “the annulment of that partition.” It also addresses the controversy that Tagore wrote “Jana Gana Mana” for George V, king of the United Kingdom, also emperor of India. In response, Niaz notes, Tagore said he’d never committed “such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.” 

The literary journey of Kazi Nazrul Islam started when he joined the 49th Bengal Regiment. His early development in the army is adequately discussed in “Kazi Nazrul Islam of the 49th Bengal.” Although he never saw active fighting, he rose in rank from corporal to havildar (sergeant), and served as quartermaster for his battalion. In his leisure he wrote poems and fiction. His first poem “Mukti” and prose piece “Baunduler Atmakahini” were published during this time. 

That Nazrul married Ashalata Sengupta, a young Brahmo woman from Comilla and was shunned by both Hindus and Muslims is examined in the essay, “The Religious Strain in Kazi Nazrul Islam.” Nazrul was “acutely conscious” of the divide between Hindus and Muslims, and “attempted to bridge it by stressing the essential oneness of human beings.”

The other articles on Nazrul are “Love and Desire in Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Novels,” “Women in Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Novels” and “Oedipal Complexes in Kuhelika” while on Tagore there is another essay, “Strong Women in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Laboratory’ and ‘Mussulmanir Galpa.’”

Niaz’s book is a scholarly approach to the studies of Tagore and Nazrul, casting a fresh psychoanalytic look at how they helped each other grow. Most importantly, it addresses some of the ill-informed debates and misconceptions about them, putting them in the right perspective.  


Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters.