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  Volume 10 |Issue 23 | June 17, 2011 |


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Discovering Nazrul in the West

Manzoor Ahmed

Some 15 years ago in Boston, in the Beacon Hill apartment of Dr Fauzia Ahmed a group of diaspora Bangladeshis and their American friends gathered to have an evening of “adda”. Fauzia asked Kazi Belal to bring along his harmonium. Belal, gifted with a divine singing voice and a passion for music, would have been a renowned singer, had he pursued singing as a vocation, instead of leaving for abroad at a young age.

As Gulsha Ara Kazi tells it, Belal, a versatile singer, began with the usual fare for these occasions, some of the popular modern tunes and few Tagore, and then he settled on Nazrul, Belal's personal favourite. The melodious voice filled the small living room. Even those who did not understand the Bangla lyrics, were enchanted by the semi-classical blend of rhythm and tune, rendered beautifully by Belal's baritone voice. Winston Langley was in that charmed audience.

In Gulshan's words, “Perhaps it was a mixture of the mood and the atmosphere. Belal sang Gobhir nishihte ghoom bhenge jae. ke jeno amare dake, shey ki tumi, shey ki tumi. (In the depth of night, I am awakened by a call. Is that you my love, is that you?). Winston whispered, how simple and profound at the same time! A long conversation followed afterwards. That was the beginning of a deep love affair for Winston.

Professor Winston E. Langley, Associate Chancellor and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has done single handedly, more than all others put together, to introduce Nazrul to the English speaking world. Langley's book, Kazi Nazrul Islam: The Voice of Poetry and the Struggle for Human Wholeness, was published by the Nazrul Institute in Dhaka in 2007. A second print was released in 2009.

As Professor Rafiqul Islam, Chairman of the Nazrul Institute Trustee Board, put it in the foreword of Langley's slim 184 page volume, “ Professor Winston E. Langley is the first Western scholar to study the great Eastern poet Kazi Nazrul Islam from a global perspective.” In the introduction and the first two chapters of the ten-chapter book, Langley placed Nazrul in the historical context and spoke about the significance and characteristics of the poetic voice.

Langley cites English Poet Shelley, to whom the poet is the unelected legislator of nations and his is the voice that unites the legislator and the prophet in the individual and collective pursuit of human moral development (p 24). Although in the post-modern era, many may object to this instrumental view of the purpose of poetry, Shelley's view of the poet's role, according to Langley, is personified in Nazrul.

The subsequent chapters elaborate on the distinctive literary imprint of Nazrul, indicated by the headings of the chapters: the spirit of rebellion and creation; the romantic, the modernist, and the post-modernist; the global citizen; a contemporary and a man of all seasons; development and globalism; and women.

During research for the book, Langley found that “assessments of Nazrul were burdened by limited conceptual treatment.” So he decided to write the book “in part as a way to inform myself and, as well as means to share my findings with others.” Langley's ambition is to produce two other volumes, “one focusing on a more detailed analysis of his poetry, especially the images he has so compellingly constructed, and that other a biography, which was what I have initially set out to do.” (Preface).

It is amply evident that the work on Nazrul that Langley has embarked on is a true labour of love. All readers and devotees of Nazrul will rejoice and await the fruits of Langley's labour.

Prof. Winston Langley will be in Dhaka on June 24-25 at the international conference on Nazrul to be hosted by the Nazrul Institute (See box).

While Winston Langley continues his intellectual and academic endeavour, the couple - Dr. Gulshan Ara Kazi, an oncology drug development scientist, and Kazi M. Belal, a mediator for the dialogue project, in their day-time jobs - remain indefatigably devoted to the enterprise of bringing Nazrul's genius to the wider world.

The Kazi couple's entrepreneurship and determined efforts resulted in the setting up of Nazrul Endowment Funds at the California State University, Northridge, California, and the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut. The couple also has been the driving force behind organising periodic Nazrul conferences and symposia at various North American universities.

The Nazrul-Burns Centre (The Centre for East-West Arts and Cultural Excellence, Scotland) has been established in 2009 at the university of Glasgow in Scotland to promote “multicultural, secular Scottish life-style through diverse creative and innovative arts, cultural and leisure activities, including raising the profile of the great Bangladeshi National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) and the great Scottish national poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) towards greater understanding and mutual respect.”

Bringing the poet's work to non-Bengali readers in English translation, the only way the wider global relevance of Nazrul can be explained to the world, remains a sporadic and private effort.

The Nazrul Institute, an institution supported by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Bangladesh, has a general mandate of “promoting the study and conduct research of the works of the poet.”

Its aims do not specifically include compiling thematic collections of Nazrul's work and translating and publishing these in English. A good beginning would be to publish a volume of “Essential Nazrul” in English, along the line of “Essential Tagore”, published recently on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore.

The writer is Senior Adviser at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.

Upcoming events on Nazrul

June 24 and 25, 2011: International conference on Nazrul in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organised and hosted by the Nazrul Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Professor Winston E Langley (UMASS, Boston) has been invited to deliver the keynote speech. Professor Rachael S McDermott (Bernard College, Columbia University, New York) will also make a presentation at this special event.

September 30: Annual Nazrul Lecture at the California State University, Northridge, California. Jointly sponsored by Taranga of California and the Nazrul Endowed Program at California State University, Northridge, California.

October 1, 2001: Annual Cultural Event on Nazrul's songs, music, poetry, dances and drama, jointly sponsored by Taranga of California and the Nazrul Endowed Program at California State University, Northridge, California

October 5, 2011: Annual Nazrul Lecture, sponsored by the Nazrul Endowed Program, The Asian American Studies Program and the Asian American Cultural Center of Connecticut State University, Storrs, Connecticut.

Mohoshina Akter Khanom, Ph.D., (also known as singer Leena Taposi Khan) is expected to participate in the above events in USA.


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