Republished from DT archive: Tribute to Nazrul
History bristles with paradoxes and ironies. One such irony is that Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) is our “national” poet. For our national ruling classes and their allies have long come to stand in for almost everything—every system of oppression—Nazrul himself continued to confront, challenge, and combat: capitalism, colonialism, communalism, racism, and patriarchy. Indeed, to re-read Nazrul today is to re-assert the three distinctly pronounced principles of our own unfinished National Liberation Movement of 1971—equality, justice, and dignity. These principles, I argue, deeply inform Nazrul’s entire work. His own line—“Of equality I sing”—constitutes a leitmotif in a number of his poems. But Nazrul is more than a didactic poet of principles. He is one of the major Bengali poets and one of the greatest revolutionary poets in the world, one who manifestly declares in “Dhumketu” [The Comet]: “I’ve come now for the great revolution.” Given that this is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, it is relevant to recall that this very revolution serves as Nazrul’s fundamental inspiration throughout much of his work.
I cannot help recalling two conversations surrounding Nazrul’s work in places outside Bangladesh. In January this year, I met a group of black communists in Havana, Cuba. I shared with them Nazrul’s poems that are both explosively political and intimately lyrical. Their immediate response registered their solidarity: “Nazrul is our poet—a Cuban poet as well.” I also had the chance to discuss Nazrul with the great Kenyan writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Pullman, Washington, back in 2005. Ngugi wondered if I was talking about a “Kenyan poet.” That Nazrul might sound like a Cuban poet and a Kenyan poet at the same time cannot be reduced to a matter of mere well-meaning solidarity or appropriation. Nazrul was not familiar with either Cuban or Kenyan poetry. But the fact that his lines resonate with other revolutionaries from the "third-world" instructively points to the very character and content of Nazrul’s own work. Such work underlines his internationalism and universalism—a “universalism from below,” to use the Caribbean Marxist CLR James’s phrase. Nazrul is the only major Bengali poet to have come from the rural proletariat, one who effortlessly relates to the oppressed of the world. In his poem “Coolies and Laborers,” just to take one example, Nazrul raises his usual question: “How long will the oppressed be treated like this/ throughout the world?”
But Nazrul’s universalism is no erasure of the particular. It is the other way around. It accentuates, clarifies, extends, and accounts for, the particular. Also, universalism itself is not exclusively the property of the European Enlightenment. It has long remained in indigenous, Islamic, and revolutionary traditions in different parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is not for nothing that the major Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko eagerly endorses Marx’s articulation of a revolutionary universalism, in the tradition of which, I argue, Nazrul can surely be situated. To see this point, one only need look at his 1925 collection of poems tellingly titled Sammayabadi [The Communist], not to mention his powerful and beautiful rendition of the communist anthem “The Internationale” in Bangla.
But then Nazrul is first and foremost a poet of his own people—peasants and workers. Organically rooted in his own land, Nazrul offers words and works that are decisively forged in the fire of his people’s struggles against oppression and injustice in colonial India.
Nazrul takes poetry itself as a charged site of actions and interventions against different forms and forces of oppression and exploitation. As we would see, he takes poetry as an anti-colonial intervention in particular, given the determinate contradictions of the very historical moment that produced his work.
Even his early stories, with which Nazrul began his writing career, at least partly attest to that intervention. But his voice as a whole can by no means be characterized quickly and one-sidedly, given his phenomenal productivity and the diversity of his passions, practices, and styles. Of course a poet and a musician in the first place, Nazrul is also a short-story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, theorist (even a theorist of “world literature”), translator, film-maker, editor, journalist, even a drummer, and an actor. And he was a revolutionary activist, one for whom the borderlines between poetry and politics continued to dissolve at the battlefronts of history. But Nazrul’s productivity and preoccupations spanned a relatively brief period of twenty-four years between the two World Wars—from 1919 to 1942. Of those twenty-four years, Nazrul gave only twelve to poetry, and later increasingly moved on to the world of music, inaugurating—one might argue—an excitingly experimental chapter in the global history of music itself. His musical accomplishments are beyond the scope of this relatively short essay. But I intend to call attention to a few significant aspects of his work that revolutionized Bangla poetry.
His enormous literary significance notwithstanding, Nazrul continues to remain ignored in contemporary studies of what’s called “World Literature” and even in postcolonial literary criticism today. Furthermore, comparative literary criticism in our parts of the world has hardly done justice to Nazrul's poetic interventions, hellbent as they are on blasting open the continuum of colonial history, while remaining committed to the emancipation of humanity in its entirety. I have pointed out elsewhere how the protocols of comparative literature—the ones that figures like Buddhodev Bose and Sudhin Dutta as well as their acolytes have mobilized—have proven not only outrageously misleading but also terribly Eurocentric. After all, comparison is no neutral thing. Comparison may mystify and even reinforce and reproduce unequal power relations among different subjects and sites and scenes. For instance, it is still customary to compare Nazrul Islam to Byron and Shelley and to even Rudyard Kipling, as Buddhodev Bose so uncritically did, so as to be able to account for Nazrul's “greatness,” while of course making the point that the West is the measure of all things literary and artistic.
But if one has to make connections between Nazrul and other poets—no, a poet is not a solitary figure in the final instance—one might begin by placing Nazrul in the company of his own predecessors such as Nanok and Chandidas and Lalon on the one hand, and, on the other, in the company of such “third-world” revolutionary poets as Nazim Hikmet from Turkey, Pablo Neruda from Chile, Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Julia de Burgos from Puerto Rico, Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Pakistan, Roque Dalton from El Salvador, Otto Rene Castillo from Guatemala, Kim Chi Ha from Korea, Mahmud Darwish from Palestine, Jose Maria Sison from the Philippines, to name but a few. Comparison here—by making connections and zeroing in on historical specificities—may serve as a means to forging the kind of anti-colonial and insurrectionary solidarity Nazrul's own revolutionary universalism ardently accentuates on more occasions than one. I guess had Che Guevara known Nazrul's volcanic poem “Bidrohi” [The Rebel], Che would have probably kept it in his pocket all the time, where he almost always kept his favorite Neruda poems.
Let me return then to Nazrul’s most famous poem called “Bidrohi” [The Rebel] to see its aesthetic and political significance at this conjuncture.
I take “Bidrohi” as a revolutionary signifying intervention on behalf of the toiling masses in particular. Nazrul’s lines keep throbbing and pounding relentlessly like tidal waves in the space of this poem. In fact the entire poem moves at a whirlwind pace without losing its architectonic integrity, aesthetic beauty, and political vision. Nazrul seems to be taking to heart Marx’s famous injunction to writers: “Rub your conceptual blocs together in such a way that they catch fire!” “Bidrohi” to me is a fiery, blood-boiling poem of negation, rupture, assertion, affirmation, inauguration. The poem itself is a dialectical dance of the insurrectionary imagination in the high noon of British colonialism in India.
An example of both literary and political rebellion, the poem unsettles an entire set of poetic or stylistic norms on the one hand and militantly confronts the oppressor of humanity on the other. One hardly finds a work in Bangla literature that formally and politically anticipates “Bidrohi”—a poem that combines in unprecedented ways a variety of metrical patterns and lexical resources. True, in “Bidrohi,” Nazrul seeks to confront and combat oppression of all forms. True, Nazrul was even sent to prison for writing poetry that fiercely fights the dominant. It is in this context also that one can place Nazrul in the company of some of those “third-world” revolutionary poet-activists I mentioned earlier—Hikmet , Dalton, Castillo, Faiz, Darwish, Kim Chi Ha, and Maria Sison—who all had to go to jail or prison because of their activist poetry that continues to threaten and unsettle the powerful and the dominant.
While Nazrul’s poetry took him to prison, the language of his poetry ends up breaking the walls of that prison and even sets him free in a certain sense. “Bidrohi” dramatizes and mobilizes his accumulated resistance to the “prison-house of language.” Given this resistance, then, one can also place Nazrul in the tradition of his predecessors I already mentioned—Chandidas, Nanak, and Lalon Fakir—who all radically explore the power and limits of language, while seeking to evolve a new one by advocating the freedom of humanity.
Also, in terms of literary rebellion, one might compare Nazrul to Michael Madhusudan Dutta, who inaugurated a decisive rupture with the literary tradition preceding him. Yet Nazrul is strikingly different from Madhusudan. Unlike him, Nazrul remains firmly, even organically, tied to his own people—poor peasants and workers. Thus one can easily take Nazrul as an example of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual,” who is different from a “traditional intellectual.” Like a true organic intellectual, then, Nazrul internalizes, articulates, and advances the cause of the oppressed—their aspirations, their nightmares and dreams, their struggle at more levels than one. As Nazrul maintains symptomatically in “Bidrohi:” ‘I am the pain and sorrow of all homeless sufferers/ I am the anguish of the insulted. . ."
Surely “Bidrohi” can be read as an exemplary anti-colonial text—the kind of text that is animated and energized by opposition and resistance to colonialism. One may certainly profitably compare Nazrul’s “Bidrohi” to Yeats’s poetry of decolonization; Aimé Césaire’s anti-colonial poetry; Frantz Fanon’s liberationist counter-narrative of anti-imperialist resistance, and the works of other “third-world” writers that Edward Said catalogues and values in his Culture and Imperialism: José Martí, José Carlos Mariátegui, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Amilcar Cabral, among others. In fact, in his Culture and Imperialism, Said theorizes the very culture of opposition and resistance at some length, and maintains, “One of the first tasks of the culture of resistance was to reclaim, rename, and reinhabit the land. And with that came a whole set of further assertions, recoveries, and identifications, all of them quite literally grounded on this poetically projected base.”
“Bidrohi” can certainly be read as a poem of assertions and identifications in the Saidian sense. Nazrul—as an act of identification and assertion—foregrounds, accentuates, enacts, repeats, and even renders ubiquitous the “I” of the poet. The “I” is used more than a hundred times. Also, he uses it with such force and fury that one gets the impression that Nazrul keeps exploding his verbal bombs one after another at the roots of colonialism—in fact at all forms and forces of oppression. Thus “Bidrohi” seems to be anticipating the spirit of one of the opening statements Fanon makes in The Wretched of the Earth: “Decolonization is a violent phenomenon.” And in his penchant for decolonization, then, Nazrul resorts to linguistic counter --“violence” in order to withstand and even completely do away with colonial violence itself in the very interest of building what Nazrul himself calls in the poem a “new universe of joy and peace.”
But it is unfortunate that while Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism—particularly in its chapter called “Resistance and Opposition”—invokes a number of anti-colonial poets and writers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, he does not mention our Kazi Nazrul Islam at all. Said commends Rabindranath’s progressive take vis-à-vis nationalism, while rather uncritically placing him side-by-side with the Black theorist-writer-activist WEB Du Bois. But Nazrul remains absent in Said's otherwise massive undertaking. Probably this absence has to do with Said’s own lack of familiarity with Nazrul’s work in English translation. But one can surely argue that a reading of Nazrul’s work could have significantly contributed to the strength of Said’s chapter on anti-colonial resistance and opposition.
As a text of resistance and opposition, “Bidrohi” first identifies a series of contraries and then morphs them into an aesthetically and politically strategic unity of opposites against colonialism and “communalism.” That strategic unity is particularly signaled and enacted by a movement from the “I” to the “We,” a movement that releases a radiant burst of a collective revolutionary subjectivity towards the end of the poem.
Also, Nazrul’s style of bringing together different and disparate elements is revealing and instructive. He yokes together certain elements of Hindu mythology with those of Islam. The ways in which Nazrul brings together those different and even apparently contradictory elements do not, however, attest to an unproblematically orchestrated unity of Islam and Hinduism as such. But they strategically point to the tensions and transactions between the two in response to what Fanon calls the “perverted logic” of colonialism that is characteristically divisive. Also, at other levels, Nazrul’s language offers a frequent interplay between the poetic and the prosaic, between the lyrical and the dramatic, between the indigenous and the foreign. Nazrul combines lexical resources drawn from Arabic and Persian and Bangla in ways in which he inaugurates certain exciting relations of language in Bangla poetry itself. He chooses words and even localized idioms from rural Bangladesh, while using Sanskritized words on certain registers. Indeed, Nazrul creates a language that is markedly different from that of Rabindranath Tagore on the one hand, and, on the other, from the language of Bangla literary “modernism,” represented differently by such poets as Jibanananda Das, Sudhin Dutta, Amiya Chakravarty, Buddhadev Bose, and Vishnu Dey.
Finally, Nazrul remains alive and relevant as long as his lines continue to resonate with the wretched of the earth, with the oppressed of the world: “I, the great rebel,/ shall rest in quiet only when I find /The sky and the air free of the groans of the wretched of the earth.” Indeed, it is in the interest of our anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal struggles that we need to re-read, remobilize, and even re-invent Nazrul.
Azfar Hussain is Vice-President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and GCAS Professor of English, World Literature, and Interdisciplinary Studies. He is also Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies within the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University, Michigan and Summer Distinguished Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He writes in both Bangla and English.