Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899 – 1976) was a Bengali polymath, poet, writer, musician and revolutionary. Popularly known as Nazrul, his poetry and music espoused Indo-Islamic renaissance and intense spiritual rebellion against fascism and oppression. Debjani Chatterjee gives an account of the influence of his poetry on her life and career as a poet whose work creates a bridge between two continents.
Brothers, I am no prophet of the future; I am a poet of today.
Call me a poet or not, in silence I’ll bear whatever you say….
… We raise grand slogans to bring about independence.
Heedless of the hunger of millions of children….
A child is snatched from the mother’s breast and we appeal to the tiger to eat grass!
Her child’s corpse lying in her hut, she goes begging from door to door.
Friends, I can say no more: poison burns in my breast.
All I’ve seen and heard have made me mad, so I say whatever comes to mind.
Shedding my blood alone is useless,
So I keep writing in blood’s ink.
[Extracts from ‘Amar Koifiyot’ or ‘My Justification’, trans. by Debjani Chatterjee]
Nazrul is a great literary hero, poet, dramatist, essayist, novelist, journalist, singer, actor, soldier, and revolutionary, who used his pen to fight colonialism, fascism, religious fundamentalism and elitism.
He was the world’s most prolific songwriter-composer and some of his most productive years were spent working for All India Radio. With passionate zeal, he championed Hindu-Muslim solidarity and equality for women, youth, the disabled, the poor and all who are oppressed.
Born in India, he died in Bangladesh, and, in his latter years, received many honours from both countries. Both countries have educational institutions named after Nazrul and Bangladesh declared him their national poet. Yet his writings continue to be little known in the West.
Nazrul is best known in the Indian subcontinent as ‘the Rebel Poet of Bengal’. But this great writer claimed world citizenship: ‘I don't belong to just this country (Bengal), this society. I belong to the world." [Nazrul Rochonaboli, Bangla Academy, Vol. 4, p. 91]
In the 1990s my translations of individual poems were published in reputable journals like Agenda but I couldn’t find a British publisher willing to support a book of translations. I approached Survivors’ Poetry (SP) who were attracted by my alternative proposal of producing a pack of bilingual poster-poems to celebrate Nazrul’s birth centenary.
SP Director Victoria Field asked only that one poster be a biographical one introducing Nazrul and that I provide an accompanying pamphlet of teaching notes for teachers. The resulting packs of six bilingual A2 colour poster-poems plus pamphlet were finally published in 2001 and targeted at Key Stage 3 and GCSE pupils of English and English as a Foreign Language.
My interest in Nazrul began in 1960 and 1961 when my father was posted to the Indian High Commission in East Pakistan. As a seven-year-old, I saw people marching in the streets, demanding the right to use their mother tongue. I little knew that I was witnessing the historic Language Movement, which began in 1952 and grew into a full-fledged Freedom Movement, culminating in Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.
My Anglo-Pakistani school did not teach Bengali - we were punished if we spoke it. But, outside, I heard my mother tongue everywhere. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then an opposition party leader, constantly in and out of prison, who later became Bangladesh’s first PM, was our neighbour and family friend in Dhaka's Shegun Bagicha district.
People were fired by passion for justice and for the Bengali language, and their two greatest inspirations were the poets Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Having spent much of my childhood in Japan, I was illiterate in Bengali, but the words of Nazrul's 'Bidrohi' ('The Rebel') made a powerful impression.
O rebel-hero, speak.
Say: I tear the fabric of the universe,
I outrun the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars.
Beyond the throne of God Himself
I rise, a perpetual wonder!
Alone I stand, in the wide world I tower.
I am unvanquished, an arch rebel forever.
[2 extracts from 'Bidrohi' or ‘The Rebel’, trans. by Debjani Chatterjee]
Nazrul was 22 when he wrote ‘Bidrohi’, his most famous poem. It won him the popular title of 'The Rebel Poet'. In this and many other poems and songs, Nazrul attacked colonial tyranny and other forms of oppression. His impassioned verse inspired the freedom movement in India and led to the British Raj imprisoning him and banning many of his publications.
His childhood nickname Dukhu Mia ('Mr Sorrow'), was given to ward off bad luck, but tragedy followed him all his life. When his father died, 9 year-old Nazrul had to take his job as muezzin of the village mosque. Later he worked at a roadside tea-stall. As a writer, Nazrul would later write movingly about poverty:
... Poverty is intolerable,
yet it comes daily as my wife and child
and cries at my door!
Even today on awakening I hear the same
shahnai’s yearning cry – “Nothing, there is nothing!”
[2 extracts from ‘Daridro’ or 'Poverty', trans. by Debjani Chatterjee]
‘The Rebel’, ‘Poverty’ and ‘Woman’ are among Nazrul’s most famous poems. In 2008 my translations of Nazrul’s poems and songs won First Prize in the Muse India Poetry Translation Competition, but I still await a publisher interested in bringing out a book of my translations.
In spite of having little formal education, Nazrul had an excellent grounding in Bengali and read avidly. He was also literate in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and English. In 1917 he joined the army, where he learnt Farsi from the regiment’s moulvi (Muslim cleric), and began to get published. His first poem was ‘Mukti’ (‘Freedom’).
After the First World War, Nazrul left the army and in 1920 became co-editor of a daily called Nabjug (‘New Age’). He was sentenced in 1922 to a year’s rigorous imprisonment for his ‘seditious’ writing in the magazine Dhumketu (‘Comet’). In jail, he wrote ‘Rajbandir Jabanbandi’ (‘Deposition of a Political Prisoner’) and went on hunger strike to protest against the mistreatment of political prisoners.
Nazrul, a Muslim, married a Hindu and was a staunch advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity. Many of his patriotic poems and songs challenge religious bigotry and exhort Hindus and Muslims to stand together as sons and daughters of the same motherland. He wrote such popular songs as ‘We are Two Flowers on the Same Stalk’:
We are two flowers on the same stalk - Hindu and Muslim.
The Muslim is the jewel of its eye, the Hindu is its life.
…We breathe the same land’s air, we drink the same land’s water
[Extract from ‘We are Two Flowers on the Same Stalk’, trans. by Debjani Chatterjee]
Nazrul was a humanist and a secularist in the Indian sense of the term. Far from rejecting religion, Nazrul accepted all religions with respect. As a Bengali poet, he appreciated the richness of Hindu mythology and drew from it in his own writing. He was also heir to the treasures of Persian and Arabic literatures, and pioneered the ghazal in Bengali. The Holy Quran and the Indian epics were both sources of inspiration, as were the folk songs and village theatre of his childhood. His literary output includes a sizeable body of both Hindu and Muslim devotional poetry that I particularly admire. I also love his poems for children.
Most of Nazrul’s poetry dates from the 1920s and his songs from the 1930s. His last speech in 1941 was prophetically titled: ‘If the flute plays no more’. In 1942 he fell seriously ill and spent his remaining 34 years in silence - verbal and creative. His wife had become semi-paralysed in 1939, nevertheless she cared for him devotedly until her death in 1962. Nazrul had a rare dementia called Pick's Disease, but it went undiagnosed for many years and he spent time in mental asylums. Symptoms include progressive loss of speech and memory, anxiety, and socially inappropriate behaviour, all of which are isolating. Most patients die within a few years of diagnosis, but Nazrul lingered until 1976, dying aged 77. His literary legacy lives on - a gift to the world.
Debjani Chatterjee has been called an Indian-born ‘poet full of wit and charm’ (Andrew Motion), and ‘Britain’s best-known Asian poet’ (Elisabetta Moreno).
She has written and edited over 60 books for children and adults. Her collections include Namaskar: New & Selected Poems, I Was That Woman and most recently Do You Hear the Storm Sing? Her prize-winning anthologies include The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry, Barbed Lines and Rainbow World. She has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and chaired the National Association of Writers in Education and the Arts Council of England’s Translations Panel. She is Co-Chair of Hyphen 21... and a patron of Survivors’ Poetry.
A survivor of cancer and mental distress, Debjani runs ‘the Healing Word’ support group and strongly believes in the healing power of writing and art. Some writing residencies have been at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Ilkley Literature Festival, York St John University and Leeds Trinity University. Her poems and translations have won major prizes. Sheffield Hallam University awarded her an honorary doctorate ‘for outstanding contribution to Literature, the Arts and community service’.
In 2008 she received an MBE and in 2012 she was an Olympic Torchbearer. More at: www.debjanichatterjee.moonfruit.com