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Kazi Nazrul Islam: Poetry, Politics, Praxis

“[…] rub your concept blocks together so that they catch fire. “
– Karl Marx

The only great Bengali poet from the rural proletariat and the first to have publicly raised the demand for the total independence of colonial India in 1922, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) enacts insurrectional breaks and breaks with certain ancient traditions of poetry Bengali while ushering in new ones. Because of his explosively anti-colonial poem titled “Bidrohi” (The Rebel, 1921) – characterized by unprecedented rhetorical, linguistic and even metric energy as well as thematic and structural novelties – it is customary to call Nazrul a ” rebellious poet. “

But I have argued elsewhere that Nazrul is more than a rebellious poet; that he is, most significantly, a revolutionary poet by his own admission – one who repeatedly mobilizes the new idiom of revolution in his work. As he states in his famous poem “Dhumketu” (The Comet): “I come in every age / I come again and again / Now I came for the great Revolution” (all translations of this play are mine) .

French philosopher Alain Badiou maps a global tradition of revolutionary and communist poets in his book The age of the poets (2014), where he says: “In the last century some great poets, in almost every language on earth, were communists. Explicitly or formally, for example, the following poets engaged in communism: in Turkey, Nazim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti, in Italy, Edoardo Sanguineti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But there are many, many other names that could be cited in other languages. “

One can certainly cite Nazrul and place him in that exceptional constellation of poets that Badiou mentions, given that the two great collections of poems of Nazrul called Sammyabadi (The Communist) and Sarbahara (Les Dépossédés / Proletariat) – published in 1925 and 1926 respectively – clearly testify to Nazrul’s commitment to “communism” in its creative, even indigenous, way. And a theme that persists in most of Nazrul’s works is that of human emancipation while the first poem published by Nazrul is called “Mukti” (Liberation).

Although first and foremost a poet, Nazrul is also a musician-songwriter, short story writer, novelist, playwright and essayist. He became passionately involved in editorial journalism; he wrote both poetic and political editorials, opening a new chapter in the global history of journalism itself. He sang compulsively and even danced from time to time. He was the first Muslim director of a Bengali film, in which he even played the role of an important character. He was also a drummer. And a die-hard activist, Nazrul – along with his comrades – even founded and led a short-lived political party (the Labor Party-Swaraj), writing a revolutionary manifesto in his name.

And, as a person, Nazrul was dynamic, sociable, cheerful, friendly, charming. He was also known for wearing colorful shirts, writing in red ink, chewing betel leaves, drinking tea nonstop, and for the repeated, loud bursts of his warm laughter – a laugh that simultaneously revealed his soul and his soul. political (I still think how the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky once described Lenin’s big laugh). In almost everything that Nazrul did, poetry, politics, and performance intersected deeply, all in the interest of confronting and combating systems of oppression such as capitalism, colonialism, racism and the patriarchy, as interconnected as they are.

Indeed, when the works of Nazrul began to burst onto the literary scene in the second decade of the twentieth century, it was Rabindranath Tagore who was among the first to recognize the poetic genius of Nazrul and to salute him as a great poet. Jibanananda Das – one of the greatest Bengali poets and slightly older than Nazrul – was even initially influenced by Nazrul himself, while Jibanananda later came to characterize Nazrul as “the poet and friend of the people. “, recalling the similar characterization of Pablo Neruda. in Latin America. Buddhodeva Bose – another notable contemporary of Nazrul and an avant-garde modernist passionate about Western poetry and aesthetics – cared about Nazrul and even engaged with him, but failed to account for his revolutionary importance. in the last instance.

Nazrul was even sent to prison for his fiercely anti-colonial and anti-establishment writings; six of his books – collections of poems, prose plays and songs – were banned by the British colonial government in the second decade of the 20th century! It was indeed an unprecedented event in the history of “world literature!”

Now, due to space limitations, it is impossible to do justice to the full range – huge as it is – of Nazrul’s work. In this short article, however, I intend to draw attention to a few areas that I think have been systematically bypassed in mainstream criticism of Nazrul. For example, to begin with, little attention has been paid to Nazrul’s anti-Eurocentric conception of so-called world literature, as expressed in his sub-committed essay titled “Bartaman Bishshya Shahittya” ( Contemporary World Literature), a play in which Nazrul deploys the metaphors of “earth” and “sky” to accentuate his unwavering commitment to the “worldliness” of poetry as such. He thinks that poetry, like theory, can certainly become a real material force if it takes hold of the masses.

Connected to his premium placed on worldliness and the materiality of poetry remains Nazrul’s own robust version of revolutionary internationalism and universalism – analogous to black Marxist CLR James’ notion of a “universalism from below. – which remains opposed to the kind of tendency, derivative, the fetishistic “cosmopolitanism” of the aesthetic represented by Buddhodeva Bose and Sudhin Dutta, the modernists of the thirties. In fact, inspired by a trinity of revolutions – the Turkish Revolution, the Irish Revolution and, above all, the Russian Revolution – Nazrul goes in the direction of envisioning an alternative, oppositional modernity of anti-colonial character and content. Unfortunately, this Nazrul remains relatively ignored in contemporary literary criticism.

Moreover, is it not instructive that Nazrul composed in an exemplary manner “ghazals” not only in Bengali but also in Urdu, and that he even composed “bhajons” in Hindi? I think Nazrul’s multilingual creative interventions (he knew at least six languages: Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, English) – including his unprecedented contributions as a translator – were not sufficiently discussed in the contemporary criticism. In fact, he is by far the best translator of Persian and Arabic poetry into Bengali. He translated the great rubaiyyat of the Persian poet and polymath Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and also of the ghazals and rubiayyat by another Persian poet – Hafez (1315-1390) – while Nazrul even translated some Sufi poems by Hazrat Ali (RA). In addition, Nazrul beautifully translated more than 30 Koranics suras in Bengali.

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s unprecedented metric adventures in Bengali poetry also deserve more attention than they have received so far. Realizing that rhythm itself is Being, and that we ourselves are multiple rhythms, sliding and traveling in space and time, Nazrul experiments with Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit meters in his own works, producing superb rhythmic effects and even revolutionizing the field of creation. metric interventions. Some of the Arab and Persian meters that Nazrul adapts in his poetry are called motaqarib, motdariq, hajaz, rajaz, and mashaqel. And the Sanskrit meters he dexterously deploys include totak, ananga shekhar, shardul brrikrita, etc. And I think that even such metric adventures cannot be divorced from Nazrul’s anti-colonial and revolutionary policies as a whole.

Finally, the poems and songs of Kazi Nazrul Islam were a true inspiration to our freedom fighters in 1971. In fact, our National Liberation Movement of 1971 was animated, energized and animated by its three well-defined principles:equality, Justice, and dignity– which were already the three permanent themes of all of Nazrul’s work. Indeed, Nazrul remains resonant and relevant as long as – to use his own words in the English translation – “the sky and the air remain [filled] with the cries of the oppressed. And to honor the legacy of Nazrul is to continue to fight all forms and forces of oppression and injustice.

Dr. Azfar Hussain is currently Director of the Graduate Program in Social Innovation and Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious and Intercultural Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He is also vice president of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, New York, USA.

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