Vol. 5 Num 1059 Fri. May 25, 2007  

Nazrul: An ardent lover of humanity

Nazrul once said, "Even though I was born in this country (Bengal), in this society, I don't belong to just this locale. I belong to the world". He may be considered a pioneer in the post-Tagore scene. He was by nature and conviction a people's poet. His work, full of vitality, brought a new note of robust optimism in Bengali literature.

Nazrul was keenly sensitive to the ongoing social injustice. His songs and poems are full of hope for the exploited and oppressed. He advocated the ideal of equality in a very vigorous manner. His works honestly represent the life he led -- his struggles with poverty, his intense patriotism, and bohemian life. The 'rebel poet' was crowned in 1972 as the National Poet of Bangladesh.

Nazrul made his mark as a revolutionary poet through poems such as Bidrohi (Rebel) and Bhangar Gan (The Song of Destruction). Nazrul's writings explored themes such as love, freedom, and revolution; he opposed all forms of prejudice, particularly fundamentalism and gender discrimination. The patriotic stance expressed in his publications like the Dhumketu (Comet), got him incarcerated, but even there he wrote fiery pieces such as Rajbandir Jabanbandi (Deposition of a Political Prisoner). He is best known for his songs, in which he pioneered new forms such as Bengali ghazals. Nazrul wrote and composed nearly 3000 songs, which constitute the body known as Nazrul Sangeet.

Nicknamed 'Dukhu Miah', Nazrul began attending the maktab, where he studied the Quran and other scriptures, Islamic philosophy and theology. After the sudden death of his father in 1908, at the age of ten, Nazrul had to start working to support his family. He later became the muezzem at the local mosque, leading the community prayers.

Unable to continue paying fees, Nazrul left his school and joined a group of kabiyals. Eventually he took up a job at a bakery and tea stall in the town of Asansol. In 1914, Nazrul joined the Darirampur School in Trishal, Mymensingh District. He spent several years there. Amongst other subjects, Nazrul studied Bengali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi literature and classical music under teachers who were impressed by his dedication and skills.

Nazrul read extensively and was deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, as well as the Persian poet Hafiz. His first prose work, Baunduler Atmakahini (Life of a Vagabond) was published in May, 1919. His poem Mukti (Freedom) was published by the Bangla Musalmaan Shahitya Potrika (Bengali Muslim Literary Journal) in July 1919.

Settling in Kolkata in 1920, Nazrul joined the staff of the Bangiya Musalmaan Shahitya Samiti (Bengali Muslim Literary Society). He published his first novel Bandhanhara (Liberated) in 1920. The initial works received critical acclaim, giving the young poet his first taste of fame.

In October 1921, Nazrul went to Shantiniketan with Muhammad Shahidullah and met Rabindranath Tagore. Despite many differences, Nazrul looked up to Tagore as a mentor and the two remained in close association. In 1921, Nazrul got engaged to Nargis, niece of a well-known Muslim publisher Ali Akbar Khan, in Daulatpur, Comilla. But on June 18, 1921, the day of the wedding, Nazrul suddenly left without any explanation.

Nazrul catapulted to fame with the publication of Bidrohi in 1922, which remains his most famous work. At the time of publication, no other poem since Tagore's Shonar Tori had met with such spontaneous acclaim and criticism for the radical approach. Set in a heroic meter, the verse invokes images from Hindu, Muslim and Greek mythology.

Published in the Bijli magazine, the poem caused a popular sensation. Nazrul stormed into Tagore's residence, jokingly declaring, "Gurudeb, I have come to finish you off". The rebellious language and theme found resonance with public consciousness of the time. Nazrul explores a synthesis of different forces in a rebel, destroyer and preserver, expressing rage as well as beauty and sensitivity. Nazrul followed up, and his first anthology of poems, Agnibeena in 1922, which enjoyed astounding and far-reaching success. He also published his first volume of short stories, the Byathar Dan (Gift of Sorrows) and Yugbani, an anthology of essays.

A political poem published in Dhumketu in September 1922 led to a police raid on the magazine's office. Arrested, Nazrul entered a lengthy plea before the judge in the court.

On April 14, 1923 he was transferred from the jail in Alipur to Hooghly in Kolkata. He began fasting to protest mistreatment by the British jail superintendent. Nazrul broke his fast more than a month later and was eventually released from prison in December 1923. Nazrul composed a large number of poems and songs during his imprisonment and many of his works were banned in the 1920s by the British authorities. The poet became a critic of the Khilafat struggle, condemning it as a hollow, fundamentalist movement. His stance earned him the fury of thousands of conservative Muslims.

It was during his visit to Comilla in 1921, when Nazrul met a young Hindu woman, Pramila Debi. They married on April 25, 1924. Pramila belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, which criticised her marriage to a Muslim. Nazrul in turn was condemned by Muslim religious leaders and continued to face criticism for his personal life and literary work.

Nazrul professed faith in the absolute gender equality, a view his contemporaries considered revolutionary. In his poem Nari (Women), Nazrul repudiates what he sees as the long-standing oppression of women, proclaiming their rights. He stunned the society with his poem Barangana (Prostitute), in which he addresses a prostitute as 'mother'. Nazrul explored woman's emotions eloquently in many of his popular songs like Mor Ghumoghore Elay Monohor.

Nazrul was shaken by the death of Rabindranath Tagore on August 8, 1941. He spontaneously composed two poems dedicated to Tagore's memory, one of which was Rabihara. Within months, Nazrul's physical condition worsened and he gradually began losing his ability to speak. His behaviour became erratic and spending recklessly, he found himself in financial difficulties. He became embittered by the sudden loss of his active life.

He was living a reclusive life with no care in a shabby, over-crowded cottage in Calcutta. West Bengal government did not even arrange a bed in any recuperative home for the poet who was suffering from irreversible brain damage. On June 30, 1962 his wife Pramila died. Nazrul remained in intensive medical care. He soon succumbed to his long-standing ailments on August 29, 1976. In accordance with a wish he had expressed in one of his poems, he was buried next a mosque on Dhaka University campus.

Nazrul remains a symbol of youth, valour, creativity, liberation and indomitable human spirit, and most importantly, an ardent lover of humanity.

The author is a lecturer at Department of English, Metropolitan University, Sylhet.