Remembering Kazi Nazrul Islam: Syncretic secularism in face of a communal divide

In memory of beloved Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul, artists and intellectuals from India and Bangladesh come together to celebrate cultural unity


Eager to appreciate cultural unity amidst growing communal chaos, India’s cultural group Pratidhwani honoured Bangladesh’s national poet during the ‘Remembering Kazi Nazrul Islam’ event on June 20, 2021.

Organiser Prabhat Kumar Basant spoke about Kazi Nazrul as a singular poet, who combined Urdu and Persian words in Bengali works to draw similarities between Hindu and Islamic cultures. He challenged the then political atmosphere of communal divide.

“There are many more reasons to remember Kazi Nazrul. [However] today’s gathering shows how certain concerns keep us together. The current India is one where communal divide is prevalent. This divide is the easiest way of getting votes and power. And so, we celebrate this particular moment to remember Kazi Nazrul,” said Basant.

Basant talked about the well-known poem Bidrohi (The Rebel) that captured the spirit of youth cultures that characterised modern society. He praised how Bidrohi portrayed every generation’s struggle to break out of the framework created by its previous generation. He argued that this poem, unique from all poems in Hindi, English and Spanish literature, should have made Nazrul an icon of world literature.

Locating Kazi Nazrul in South-Asian history

Writer and activist Professor Harjinder Singh, otherwise known as Laltu, spoke about the significance of this literary genius. Born in 1899, Kazi Nazrul grew up while nationalist consciousness spread across north and south India. Militancy also grew across the north.

At the time, the Brahminic Indian elite began recognising the colonisation of their land and attempted to sanskritise Indian languages, simultaneously engaging in a sectarian attitude. This is where Kazi Nazrul played a major role, said Laltu.

Raised in Churulia village of Bardhaman district of (now) West Bengal, Nazrul went to a maktab for primary education. When he was 10 years old, Nazrul began to work at the rural theatrical group Letor Dal and learnt about literature and music. Later, he enrolled in the British Indian Army’s Bengal regiment and went to Mesopotamia where he learnt Persian and English. In 1920, he became a journalist in Kolkata and published Birdohi – an anarchist expression of creative talent with religious metaphors, said Laltu.

“Bidrohi was syncretism at its best. It voiced the anti-colonial spirit of the times when militancy was around. Yet, the poem is highly anti-militarist as well. It says ‘I will rid the military from the entire world’ that he will remove kshatriyas from this world,” said Laltu.

He praised Nazrul’s talent to challenge militarist sentiments when even nowadays people are scared to criticise the military. In the poem, he used military expressions like “my head will be high forever” while presenting an ultimate softness of love with words like “I am not just the militant warrior, I am also the love in a young girl.” The poem stated how Nazrul will be pacified only when the world is rid of all forms of oppression.

Kazi Nazrul and his works

Comparing Nazrul and Tagore, Laltu said the latter was the sun of Bengali literature. However, Nazrul, hailing from an impoverished background, was called ‘dukhumiya,’ dukh meaning sorrow.

He used Persian and Arabic words and represented two-thirds of West Bengal’s population that is Muslim. Meanwhile, the Brahminic elite were trying to introduce Sanskrit words in the Bengali language that didn’t even exist in conventional Sanskrit. In retaliation, Nazrul reworked the language to defy the artificial bulldozing of the language.

His poems not only used Islamic metaphors but referred to Bengali identity and the history of militant movements in Bengal. This ability to identify such cultural aspects earned him the title of the ‘national poet of Bangladesh’ in 1972. However, Nazrul wrote and composed the tune for the country’s national march ‘Notuner Gaan’ in 1928 during the prime of his literary days. Better known by its first line “chol chol chol” (march, march march,) experts praise how each word fits the music beats beautifully.

As for syncretism, he responded to the communal divide in the nationalist movement every once in a while, through his creations. For example, in a marching poem ‘Durgom Giri Kantar Moru,’ he called people to the battlefield to liberate themselves. Further in the poem he questions “Who talks of Hindus and Muslims? My motherland is crying for its children. We are not Hindus and Muslims. We are united together.”

In another poetry play glorifying Turkey’s first President Kemal Ataturk Pasha, Nazrul mixed Bengali with North-Indian and Persian languages to narrate how Kemal turned his land into a secular state. Such works showed the significance of Kazi Nazrul as a personality in Bengali literature.

Controversies of Nazrul and Bengali literature languages

Teacher and researcher Saswata Ghosh said that the poet’s active intervention in the Bengali literary field brought in various dimensions: the reintroduction of Persian words; juxtaposition of Islamic imagery and iconography with Hindu counterparts without drawing on religious import; masterful use of meter.

He called it a reintroduction because Persian was not foreign to Bengali culture even 100 years before Nazrul. A Persian periodical was brought out by Rajaram Mohan Roy Miratul-Akbar in 1822.

Yet after Sanskritisation in the nineteenth century, some literary groups opposed Nazrul’s syncretic ideas. They represented the angst of the so-called Bengali elite towards the so-called islamisation of the language. This conflict showed the power structure of the day. He proved his and his work’s mettle by playing to both communities’ literary initiatives from the beginning. Ghosh remembered how he used to wonder at some words used in Bidrohi.

“Much less did I know then how big a controversy [one] particular usage [had caused] that asserted the Bidrohi spirit aspired to break through the seat of Allah. In the same breath, he unapologetically invoked the audacious rebel view of the Hindu hero who dares to mark his footsteps on bhagwan,” said Ghosh.

The researcher praised Nazrul’s aesthetics that transcended the purposefulness of political propaganda. Till the end of his active literary life in the early 1940s, Nazrul acted towards both sides of the divide. During a Bengali Muslim Literary Society convention, he drew upon two Hindu icons Krishna and Durga despite heavy criticism of Islamic clergy and accusations of polytheism.

“Kazi Nazrul said that he will come back [be reborn] as a servant of the one and only indivisible God that is above Hindus, Muslims, nations and creeds. That can be taken as his final testament on what can be called his syncretic secularism,” said Ghosh.

Despite secular notions, Kazi Nazrul’s ideas did not appeal to the Bengali intelligentsia that turned towards Leftism around this time. His close friend Muzaffar Aaman, who extensively wrote on his work, also expressed unease at Nazrul’s propositions of this nature.

However, Ghosh argued Nazrul’s creations are still relevant in their efforts to bring the two communities together. These efforts were also observed in Nazrul’s early life when he edited a bi-weekly magazine called Dhumketu that sought to remove the chasm between Hindu-Muslim unity. According to Basant, this chasm still exists which is why remembering poets like Kazi Nazrul is important.

The event was not only a series of talks. To honour the great poet, artists from both India and Bangladesh performed at the event. According to Basant, this is in line with Nazrul’s wish to move beyond national boundaries.

Classical singer Sankumay Debnath and groups from Assam and West Bengal performed Nazrul’s poems based on thumri folk songs. Similarly, Professor Afroza Yasmeen from Bangladesh presented the poet’s songs on monsoon to honour the current season. During her performance, she praised Nazrul for unparalleled and versatile skill in classical music.

Nazrul’s great grandson Ankan also attended the event and recited one of his ancestor’s prose work that he had translated in English. The ‘Haque shahib funny anecdote’ was a retelling of a series of stories collected Nazrul about Bengal’s premier. Organisers also played a video of Nazrul’s son Sabyasachi reciting Bidrohi.

Concluding the event, organiser Shubhendu Ghosh, who also performed Nazrul’s compositions based on Hindustani ragas, emphasised the importance of introducing younger generations with Kazi Nazrul in face of all that is happening in India.


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