He is the Rebel Poet. And he is more. He is our national poet. And yet he is far above that.
A moving spirit worked incessantly in Kazi Nazrul Islam. He was a poet, of course. But more than that, he was symbolic of huge energy, for there was completeness in his being. You tend to ask what might have happened in our literature, how much more creativity and therefore substance he could have brought into our literary perspectives had he not fallen silent in the 1940s. He lived for more than three decades following the onset of his affliction, a period in time when he truly would have soared, infinitely higher than he already had.
It remains our particular cultural and historical tragedy that Nazrul was deprived of the powers of newer creativity at a time when such creativity could have worked wonders for our political psyche. We refer, of course, to the Indian state of mind as it was in those heady and yet darkening days of the 1940s. Rabindranath Tagore, poet and philosopher and incorrigible humanist, was dead. And Nazrul had succumbed to silence. Simply put, the voice of passionate poetry had been silenced, first by the laws of mortality, as in the passing of Tagore; and then by the inexplicable workings of fate, as in the illness visited upon Nazrul.
You could legitimately argue that just when the country — in that moment before communalism took over, to the regret of millions, and drove the knife into national unity — needed poetry to calm the tempers being raised to steamy and seedy heights by politics, Tagore and Nazrul went out of our lives. So much more could have happened, so must waste of human energy could have been prevented had poetry had a voice in those difficult times.
And yet, for all this lament over what might have been, Nazrul remains that embodiment of the human will to explore the diversity of life, to give it newer shades of meaning. And who better than he to inform a politically conscious people that life could be lived on a higher plane, that for such a plane to be scaled it was often necessary to give oneself to rebellion? And that is when songs like ‘durgomo giri kantar moru’ come our way. Patriotism was an integral part of the Nazrul psyche; and into that patriotism he injected the spirit of resistance through such songs of grandeur as ‘ei shikol pora chhol moder ei shikol pora chhol’.
Poetry for Nazrul subsisted on a level higher than the idealistic. It had to be lived from day to day. And that for him, as for millions of his countrymen, was the reality of eking out a bare existence under British colonial rule, a phase in life that needed to be put an end to through determined resistance. Or call it militancy. You spot that militancy in the high notes of ‘chol chol chol’. In Bidrohi, it is a clear, unambiguous call to divinely ordained rebellion on the part of the poet. The gods appreciate causes underpinned by an awareness of justice.
Nazrul's genius was in many ways a reflection of the myriad qualities of the Bengali soul. The Bengali was nothing if not an embodiment of the fundamental characteristics of the human personality. In his poetry, love came in waves, sometimes in the placidity of ripples. There is that primordial desire to see the beloved in all the raiment of beauty, which is when you hear the song ‘mor priya hobe esho rani / debo khnopa-e tarar phool’. It is melody where the poet takes care to adorn his lover in every aspect of poetic charm he can bring forth. And then hear the poet sing ‘Laily tomar eshechhe phiriya’ or ‘mora ar jonome hongsho mithun chhilam’. You will not miss the ripples meshing into the waves, or the waves passing peacefully into the state of being happy ripples.
The versatility in Nazrul is all. Every poem and every song is tinged strongly with vibrancy; and that includes his thoughts on religion. His speeches on different occasions were proof, endlessly, of the profound scholarship which informed his works. In 1937, at an Eid reunion, he held forth on such difficult subjects as literature, life and youth. And, sure, he gave praise where it was due. Not one to genuflect before power, Nazrul was forever ready to describe reality for what it truly was. His spell in prison, one of those rare times when a man given to producing verses is sent into incarceration, was one of the earliest signs of the spirit of rebellion which would characterize his personality all his productive life.
The story of Kazi Nazrul Islam is essentially the tale of a struggling soul. There are all the images of despair, of deprivation you associate with the poet. Poverty dogged him for nearly the entirety of the early phase of his life. He acted as imam in a mosque to meet his needs. And he worked in a bread shop to keep himself going. And yet there was in him an absolute sense of self-esteem and confidence which would not let him submit to anything that demeaned the individual. Poetry came naturally to him. He could set tunes to a song on the spur of the moment. His Islamic ghazals, like the songs he fashioned on various Hindu religious aspects, demonstrated the natural flair and vigour he brought into an expression of his literary sensibilities.
Nazrul lived life in all the intensity of romance. He shaped his poetry in the piercing sounds of thunder. He saw in women, all women, a pristine epitome of beauty. And he loved them. And sadness he knew from up close, through death in the family. Remember that piercing number, ‘shunyo e buuke pakhi mor aaye / phire aaye’?
We celebrate Nazrul. And yet it was Nazrul who celebrated us, the collective spirit in us, long before we knew what poetic rebellion and active resistance to authority were all about. Why, then, must we not hum the old song, ‘amar aponar cheye apon je jon / khunji tare aami aponaye’?
He was ours, as we are certain we will always be his.
(Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on 24 May 1899 and died on 29 August 1976)