Prof. Rafiqul Islam

Translated from the original in Bangla by Dr. Shaukat Hossain

Courtesy: Nazrul Album [Nazrul Institute, 1994], pp. 23-26

Kazi Nazrul Islam, known as the Rebel poet in Bengali literature and the Bulbul or Nightingale of Bengali music, was one of the most colourful personalities of undivided Bengal between 1920 and 1930. His role in freeing modem Bengali poetry from poor and unsuccessful imitations of Rabindranath Tagore was significant. He may be considered a pioneer of post-Tagore modernity in Bengali poetry. The new kind of poetry that he wrote made possible the emergence of modernity in Bengali poetry during the 1920s and 1930s. His poems, songs, novels, short stories, plays and political activities expressed strong protest against various forms of oppression- slavery, communalism, feudalism and colonialism- and forced the British government not only to ban many of his books but also to put him in prison. While in prison, Kazi Nazrul lslam once fasted for forty days to register his protest against the tyranny of the government.

In the 1000-year history of Bengali music, Nazrul was perhaps the most original creative talent. By fusing the elements of north Indian classical music with a tradition whose basis was primarily folk, and not merely because of the large number of songs that he wrote, Nazrul made Bengali music a part of the longer tradition of the music of the Indian sub-continent. His lyrics and melody freed Bengali music from its earlier medieval mould. Like modern Bengali poetry, Nazrul was a pioneer in modem Bengali music as well.

Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on May 24, 1899/11th Jaishthya 1306 (Bengali era) in Churulia village, Bardhawan in West Bengal, India. The second of three sons and one daughter, Nazrul lost his father Kazi Fakir Ahmed in 1908 when he was only nine year old. Nazrul's nickname was Dukhu (sorrow) Mia, a name that aptly reflects the hardships and misery of his early years. His father's premature death forced him, at the age of ten, to take up teaching at the village school and become the muazzin of the local mosque. This early exposure to the principles and practices of Islam was to have a significant impact on his later literary endeavors.

Later, Nazrul joined a folk-opera group inspired by his uncle Bazle Karim who himself was well-known for his skill in composing songs in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. As a member of this folk-opera group, the young Nazrul was not only a performer, but began composing poems and songs himself. Nazrul's involvement with the group was an important formative influence in his literary career.

In 1910, at the age of 11, Nazrul returned to his student life enrolling in class six. The Headmaster of the school remembers him in the following words: He was a small, good-looking boy, always the first to greet me. I used to smile at him and pat him on the back. He was very shy. Again, financial difficulties compelled him to leave school after class six, and after a couple of months, Dukhu Mia ended up in a bakery and tea-shop in Asansole. Nazrul submitted to the hard life with characteristic courage. In 1914, Nazrul escaped from the rigours of the tea-shop to re-enter a school in Darirampur village, Trishal in Mymensingh district. Although Nazrul had to change schools two or three more times, he managed to continue up to class ten, and in 1917 he joined the Indian Army when boys of his age were busy preparing for the matriculation pre-test examination.

For almost three years, up to March-April 1920, Nazrul served in the army and was promoted to the rank of Battalion Quarter Master Havildar. Even as a soldier, he continued his literary and musical activities, publishing his first piece The Autobiography of a Delinquent (Saogat, May 1919) and his first poem, Freedom Bangiya Musalman. Sahitya-patrika, (July 1919), in addition to other works composed when he was posted in the Karachi cantonment. What is remarkable is that even when he was in Karachi, he subscribed regularly to the leading contemporary literary periodicals that were published from Calcutta like, Prabasi, Bharatbarsha, Bharati, Saogat and others. Nazrul's literary career can be said to have taken off from the barracks of Karachi.

When after the 1st World War in 1920 the 49th Bengal Regiment was disbanded, Nazrul returned to Calcutta to begin his journalistic and literary life. His poems, essays and novels began to appear regularly in a number of periodicals and within a year or so he became well known not only to the prominent Muslim intellectuals of the time, but was accepted by the Hindu literary establishment in Calcutta as well. In 1921, Nazrul went to Santiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore.

Earlier in 1920, the publication of his essay, Who is responsible for the murder of Muhajirin? In the new evening daily Nabayug, jointly edited by Nazrul and Muzafar Ahmed, was an expression of Nazrul's new political consciousness and one that made him suspect in the eyes of the police.

In 1921, Nazrul was engaged to be married to Nargis, the niece of a well-known Muslim publisher Ali Akbar Khan, in Daulatpur, Comilla, but on the day of the wedding (18th June, 1921) Nazrul suddenly left the place. This event remains shrouded in mystery. However, many songs and poems reveal the deep wound that this experience inflicted on the young Nazrul and his lingering love for Nargis. Interestingly, during the same trip, Nazrul met Pramila Devi in the house of one Birajasundari Devi in Comilla. Pramila later became his wife.

On his way to Calcutta, Nazrul spent a fortnight in Comilla where he became involved in the non-co-operation movement against the British government. He composed and sang several memorable and inspiring patriotic songs; the amateur lyricist and composer had found a new voice to express his patriotic fervour. Later in Calcutta the same year (1921), an inspired Nazrul composed some of his greatest songs and poems of which The Rebel is perhaps the most well-known. The 22-year old poet became on overnight sensation, achieving a fame unparallel in the 1000-year history of Bengali literature.

In 1922, Nazrul published a volume of short stories Byather Dan (The Gift of Sorrow), an anthology of poems Agnibeena, an anthology of essays Yugbani, and a bi-weekly magazine, Ohumketu. A political poem published in Ohumketu in September 1922 led to a police raid on the magazine's office, a ban on his anthology Yugabani, and one year's rigorous imprisonment for the poet himself. On April 14, 1923, when Nazrul lslam was transferred from the Alipore jail to the Hooghly jail, he began a fast to protest the mistreatment by a British jail-superintendent. Immediately, Rabindranath Tagore, who had dedicated his musical play, Basanta, to Nazrul, sent a telegram saying: Give up hunger strike, our literature claims you, but the telegram was sent back to the sender with the stamp addressee not found. Nazrul broke his fast more than a month later and was eventually released from prison in December 1923. A number of poems and songs were composed during the period of imprisonment.

On 25th Apri11924, Kazi Nazrul lslam married Pramila Devi and set up household in Hooghly. The Brahma Samaj of which Pramila was a member, frowned upon this marriage and started a campaign to vilify Nazrul through a column in the monthly magazine, Prabasi. An anthology of poems Bisher Banshi and an anthology of songs Bhangar gan were published later this year and both volumes were seized by the government. Nazrul soon became actively involved in political activities (1925), joined rallies and meetings, and became a member of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee. He also played an active role in the formation of a workers and peasants party.

From 1926 when Nazrul settled in Krishnanagar, a new dimension was added to his music. His patriotic and nationalistic songs expanded in scope to articulate the aspirations of the downtrodden classes. His music became truly people-oriented in its appeal. Several songs composed in 1926 and 1927 celebrating fraternity between the Hindus and Muslims and the struggle of the masses, gave rise to what may be called mass music. Nazrul's musical creativity established him not only as an egalitarian composer of mass music, but as the innovator of the Bengali Ghazal as well. The two forms, music for the masses and ghazal, exemplified the two aspects of the youthful poet: struggle and love. Nazrul injected a revivifying masculinity and youthfulness into Bengali music. Despite illness, poverty and other hardships Nazrul wrote and composed some of his best songs during his Krishnanagar period. While many others were singing and popularizing his songs in private musical soirees and functions and even making gramophone records, Nazrul himself had yet no direct connection with any gramophone company.

Throughout 1927 Nazrul was assailed on the one hand by non-Muslim members of the Brahma Samaj, and by conservative Muslims on the other. A couple of progressive, secular magazines came to his defense. Nazrul even became involved in an acrimonious controversy with Tagore regarding the use of a Persian word in Bengali. The monthly Mohammadi also adopted an anti-Nazrul stance which was strongly countered by writers in the weekly Saogat, foremost amongst whom were Ismail Hossain Siraji and Abul Kalam Shamsuddin. The latter hailed Kazi Nazrul Islam as a pioneer, an epoch-making poet and the national poet in Bengal.

From 1928 to 1932 Nazrul become directly involved with His Master's Voice Gramophone Company as a lyricist, composer and trainer and a good number of records of Nazrul songs sung by some of the most well-known singers of the time were produced. The newly established Indian Broadcasting Company also enlisted Nazrul as a lyricist and composer and he remained actively involved with several gramophone companies and the Radio till his last working days. Nazrul songs were in great demand on the stage as well. He not only wrote songs for his own plays, but generously provided lyrics and set them to tune for a number of well-known dramatists of the time.

A colourful national reception accorded to Nazrul in 1929 in Calcutta and attended by the scientist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Barrister S. Wazed Ali, Subashchandra Bose and others was a demonstration of his rising fame and popularity.

In the midst of these productive activities, tragedy struck twice in rapid succession: first, his mother died in 1928; a year later, his four-year son Bulbul died of small pox, five months after the birth of his second son Sabyasachi. By 1931, the bulk of Kazi Nazrul Islam's literary works had been published; subsequent anthologies mostly included his songs. According to a contract with the Megaphone Record Company many Nazrul lyrics were set to music by others, and it became a practice adopted by the H.M.V. Company subsequently. Devotional songs with an Islamic content (Murshidi, Marfati, etc) were part of the tradition of Bengali folk music. By composing songs dealing with various aspects of Islam (Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat, etc. ) Nazrul for the first time introduced Islam into the larger mainstream tradition of Bengali music. The first record of Islamic songs by Nazrul was a commercial success and many gramophone companies showed interest in producing these. But an even more significant impact of Nazrul's Islamicization of Bengali music was that it forced a conservative Bengali Muslim community: averse to music, to turn a willing ear to listen to Islamic Bengali songs by the Bulbul of Bengal and others. One of the foremost exponents of this new music was the singer Abbasuddin Ahmed. Nazrul also composed a number of notable Shyamasangeet, Bhajan and Kirtan, combining Hindu devotional music. Between 1930 and 1933 Nazrul's creative energy was devoted mostly to song-writing and music.

In 1933 Nazrul published one of his most important essays entitled Modem World Literature. This essay demonstrates his acquaintance with the literature of different languages. He draws a distinction between two trends in current literature. One trend is similar to that of Shelley's Skylark reaching heavenwards above this dusty earth; the other clings to this earth with passionate devotion. In 1934 Nazrul first became associated with the film world. Right at the beginning he played an important role as song and music writer, music director and even actor. Between 1928 and 1935 he published 10 volumes of songs containing over 800 songs of which more than 600 were based on classical ragas, almost 100 were folk tunes after kirtans and some 30 were patriotic and other songs. Thus during the thirties, Nazrul established a firm classical foundation for the Bengali song.

In 1936 the film Vidyapati was produced based on Nazrul's recorded play. In the same year Rabindranath Tagore's novel Gora was filmed with Nazrul as its music director and included one of his own songs. In June 1936, Sachin Sentupta's important play, Serajuddoula was staged. The songs and music were written and directed by Nazrul. The play and songs met with such unprecedented success that a gramophone recording was made, which at that time could be commonly heard in most households in Bengal.

In October 1939 Nazrul's relationship with Calcutta Radio was formalized, and a large number of musical programmes were directly broadcast under his supervision. Worth mentioning are the critical and research oriented programmes such as Haramoni and Navaraga-malika. From 1939 to 1942 (the time of his illness), the music programmes broadcast on radio are an important chapter in the history of Bengali music. One novel development during this period which illustrates Nazrul's originality are the songs based on the raga Bhairav whose diversity is remarkable.

During 1939 different recording companies issued a total of over 1000 records, 1648 of which were Nazrul's songs. The total number of his unrecorded songs is perhaps twice as much. Nazrul's songs were broadcast also from Dhaka Radio. During 1939-40 the richness of the music programmes of Calcutta Radio deriving from Nazrul's prolific creativity defies comparison. This trend continued throughout 1941, with songs based on many different ragas and narrative ballads. Apart from these Nazrul occasionally took part in recitation and commentary of the Holy Ouran. From 1939, when he first joined Calcutta Radio up to his illness in 1942, an extraordinary development of his music took place through countless radio programmes. Nazrul had a bitter experience when someone else set his songs to music, and insisted that his songs be broadcast only with his own tunes. This was observed up to his illness in 1942.

At the beginning of 1941 Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Huq commenced re-publication of the daily newspaper Nabayug (New Age). Nazrul was its Chief Editor returning to the world of journalism at the final stage of his active life. Interestingly enough he had started his journalistic career at the Nabayug. It was while he was staying in the College Street office of the Bengal Muslim Literary Society that he began his literary journalistic career. His farewell speech at the silver jubilee anniversary of the Society at which he presided is probably the most significant and important speech he ever made. Entitled If the flute plays no more the speech is like a swansong in which he bids farewell to a sorrowful world.

Four months later, on 8 August 1941, Rabindranath Tagore died. Nazrul spontaneously composed two poems in Tagore's memory, of which one was broadcast and recorded on gramophone. Within a year Nazrul himself fell seriously ill and gradually lost his power of speech. Thereafter from July 1942 to August 1976, the poet spent 34 years in silence.

Despite treatment Nazrul,s palsy and speech deficiency gradually increased. Two months of homoeopathic treatment at Madhupur, no results. Later, ayurvedic treatment yielded some initial results, but soon mental dysfunction set in and as a consequence he was admitted to a Mental Hospital in October 1942. There he stayed for four months without improvement. For the next 10 years his existence becoming gradually forgotten, though in 1945 he was awarded the Jagattarini Gold medal by Calcutta University. Then in 1952 he was transferred to the Ranchi Mental Hospital from where he was sent to London for treatment at the initiative of the Nazrul Treatment Society. Several eminent physicians in London including Sir William Sargent, were all of the opinion that his initial treatment had been inadequate and incomplete. Thereafter Nazrul was taken to Vienna where his condition was diagnosed as incurable. He and his family returned to India in December 1953. The rest of his life was spent in that condition. Earlier his wife had become ill in 1939 and though paralysed from the waist down, she spent the next 23 years of her life caring for her husband until her death at the age of 54 on 30 June 1962. At her wish she was buried at her husband's birthplace, Churulia. Nazrul's sons, Aniruddha died in 1974 at the age of 43, and Shabyashachi in 1979 at the age of 50.

Nazrul had come to Dhaka in December 1940 to attend the first anniversary of the Dhaka radio station. In 1971 the Government in exile of Bangladesh continued to pay the pension due to him by the Government of East Pakistan. After the liberation of Bangladesh, at the request of the Bangladesh Government the government of India agreed to allow Nazrul to be taken to reside in Bangladesh with his family. He arrived on 24 May 1972 as guest of the Government of Bangladesh and was accorded due honours. The President and Prime Minister paid their homage to him. In 1974 the Dhaka University awarded him the degree of Doctor of Literature. In 1976 the Government awarded him the Ekushey Padak.

On 22 July 1975 Nazrul was transferred to the Post Graduate Hospital for continuous medical supervision. He spent the remaining one year, one month and eight days of his life there. Towards the end of August 1976 his condition deteriorated, his temperature shot up to over 105 degrees, and on 29 August 1976 he breathed his last at 10:10 a.m.

As soon as Nazrul's death was broadcast over Radio and T.V. the news spread like wild fire and plunged the Bengali nation in profound gloom. Life came to a standstill in Dhaka as thousands of men and women lined up to have a last glimpse of the rebel poet's mortal remains in the Teacher-Students-Centre of the University of Dhaka. At 5 p.m. Kazi Nazrul Islam was buried with full state honour beside the Dhaka University mosque. Now almost two decades after his death, Kazi Nazrul Islam lives on in the hearts of millions of Bangladeshis as their national poet. Emerging from the overall backwardness of the Muslims of Bengal in the 1920s Nazrul injected the community with a much-needed sense of self-confidence. Almost single handedly, Nazrul brought about a renaissance amongst Bengali Muslims, and led them into modernity. The genius of Nazrul achieved the impossible and the Bengali nation remains eternally indebted to him. Bangladesh honoured itself by honouring Kazi Nazrul Islam with the citizenship of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.