In November of 1922, the young poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976) was arrested in Calcutta, India, accused of sedition by the British government. He had recently published the poem “Anandomoyee Agomone” (“The Coming of Anandamoyee”), invoking the Hindu goddess Durga, who is beloved and celebrated with particular verve across Bengal. In the poem, however, Nazrul summons the warrior goddess to fight against imperial rule, denouncing the “butchery” of colonization, describing the ways in which Indians were “whipped” and “hanged,” and calling on Bengali youth to sacrifice their lives to overthrow the British.
Anti-colonial sentiment was spreading across the subcontinent, and it was especially fierce in Calcutta, which had been the capital of British India until 1911, when it was moved to New Delhi because of rising nationalism. Nazrul’s language, nonetheless, came in stark contrast to both the ethos of Gandhi’s nonviolent Satyagraha movement and the lyricism of the traditional “high” Bengali of his contemporaries, such as the revered Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Furthermore, though Nazrul, as he remains known, was born Muslim, his supplication of Durga was emblematic of what was already at the crux of both the controversy and the power of his work: the embodiment of Hindu-Muslim unity in letter and spirit.
In response to his sedition charge, Nazrul further shocked the British and the Bengalis alike by representing himself in court, reading aloud from what became the essay “Deposition of a Political Prisoner.” Contrasting the tyranny of colonial rule with the divine “truth” of the poet, who “expresses the unexpressed,” he conjured, too, the image of a dhumketu, a comet. Dhumketu was also the title of the literary journal Nazrul then edited, in which “Anandomoyee Agomone” originally appeared (translation by Rajbondir Jabanbandi): “On one hand is the crown of the state and on the other is the flaming comet. One is the king with the mandate to convict. The other is the truth, bearing the truth of justice.” Nazrul was imprisoned for a year.
“He would prove himself revolutionary, igniting both Bengali literature and its politics.”
Nazrul’s opposition to British rule had been galvanized when he served in the British army during World War I, in the all-Bengali 49th regiment based in Karachi. There, he encountered the cultural richness of pan-Islamic history, including the writings of the eleventh-century Persian poet Omar Khayaam and the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez, both of whose work, along with portions of the Koran, he would later translate into Bengali. Nazrul was also introduced to the ghazal, the poetic form that would later influence his own writing. At the same time, he was appalled that the victory of the Allies resulted in the widening of European colonization across North Africa and the Middle East, fracturing much of the Muslim world.
After the war, Nazrul returned to his native Bengal determined to write and rally against foreign rule. In doing so, he also sought to prevent Hindu-Muslim violence. Seeing, too, the abuse of the poor at the hands of wealthy Bengali landowners, known as Zamindars (Nazrul himself had been born into a rural farming family), he advocated against class and caste oppression. In the process, he would prove himself revolutionary, igniting both Bengali literature and its politics.
A year before his sedition charge, Nazrul published what remains his most celebrated poem, “Bidrohi” (“The Rebel,” translated below by Sajed Kamal), which emphasizes interdependence. Again integrating Hindu deities with Muslim references, the poem builds into a fury that defies not only religious pigeonholing, but also the flattening or separation of human experience:
I’m the madness of the recluse,
I’m the sigh of grief of a widow,
I’m the anguish of the dejected,
I’m the suffering of the homeless . . .
I’m the eternal Rebel,
I have risen beyond this world, alone
With my head ever held high!
Known ever since as the Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet,” Nazrul endures as a household name on both sides of the Bengali border, in the Indian state of West Bengal and in Bangladesh, where he remains honored as the national poet. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote over 3,000 songs, which Bengali children have been learning for generations. Despite this familiarity, however, much of the radical heart of Nazrul’s larger oeuvre, including his work as a freedom fighter, has been overlooked.
I was first introduced both to Nazrul’s work and to the elusive nature of his legacy while living in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) on a research fellowship. Bengali culture is vibrantly literary—Kolkata hosts the largest annual book fair on earth, with an average of over 2 million visitors—and it was common to find plaques and pictures of Nazrul alongside of those of Tagore, who remains something of a patron saint. But even as the pleas for compassion and equality that made Nazrul controversial a century ago felt increasingly urgent in light of the current persecution of Muslims and critics of the ruling Hindu nationalist government, translations of Nazrul’s writing were often difficult to find. The fact of which a dedicated international community of literary scholars has been working to change.
Illuminating the historical context of his writing as well as its importance in the twenty-first century, academics, writers, and musicians from around the globe recently convened (virtually) to honor Nazrul's life and work. The World Nazrul Congress 2020 on Equality, Human Rights, and Fraternity showcased lectures and performances from Bangladesh, India, Iran, South Africa, Germany, Canada, Spain, the UK, and the US.
As someone who has been teaching remotely since March, I had been initially reluctant to spend more time on Zoom. But over the course of three days in late December, early each snowy morning on the East Coast, evening in India, I opened my computer exhilarated by the eagerness of so many people, from so many places, to reflect on why Nazrul matters and on why poetry matters, especially during this dark time.
The poet Subodh Sarkar, who recited “Of Equality I Sing” (“Sammobadi”) in English and Bengali, described Nazrul as the first “Bengali voice to popularize notions of poetry beyond borders,” and characterized him as a writer rooted firmly in the language and place of Bengal. Dr. Ehsan Ghabool, Zooming in from Mashhad, Iran, put Nazrul into dialogue with thirteenth-century Rumi, exploring parallels in both poets’ efforts to underscore that “seeking peace results in delights in life.” Dr. Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English at King’s College London, spoke of Nazrul’s language of resistance, which combines Indic imagery alongside Persian terminology and pronunciations, reifying Muslim and Hindu Bengal as inseparable.
The diversity of the presentations, in both scope and focus, extends beyond what I can do justice to in this short essay. But given the ongoing isolation of the pandemic, not to mention the impossibility of travel, it was at once intimate and transporting to hear Bengali, Persian, and Arabic, along with performances of Nazrul-Giti (“Nazrul’s songs”), before and after each day’s talks.
“Nazrul’s significance extends far beyond the academic sphere.”
The event was organized by the Nazrul Center for Social and Cultural Studies, based at Kazi Nazrul University in Asansol, India, near the village where Nazrul was born. As Dr. Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, one of the organizers, explained, the university was established in 2012 to begin to give the poet his “due place” alongside the many institutions dedicated to Tagore.
According to Dr. Purakayastha, during Nazrul’s life, much of the upper-caste and upper-class Bengali intelligentsia considered him too “lowbrow.” In his use of local vernacular as well as in his focus on the struggles of everyday people, Nazrul departed from what was then a “literary preoccupation with aesthetics.” He “directly engaged with social issues,” Purakayastha said, solidifying his role as a “people’s poet,” and yet was marginalized from mainstream recognition as a result. Along with Dr. Swati Guha, director of the NCSCS, Purakayastha, a postcolonial scholar, is now focused on “Indianizing” and “globalizing” Nazrul. While someone in South India, the two explained, might “know Nazrul’s name,” they don’t necessarily know his work. Meanwhile, in broadening international exposure to Nazrul, they are also hoping to honor him as one of the “important pathfinders of South Asia, such as Tagore and Gandhi.”
As part of the hundredth-year anniversary of the original publication of “Bidrohi,” NCSCS has paired with Delhi University to translate the poem into one hundred languages. “We have thirty-three so far,” Dr. Guha said. In general, providing translations, in English and Hindi, of Nazrul’s novels, essays, editorials, and songs, in addition to his poetry, is a priority of the Center, which will also compile Nazrul’s archives.
But Nazrul’s significance extends far beyond the academic sphere. Last year, India saw the passing of an anti-Muslim citizenship law as well as a violent crackdown on the subsequent protests. Writers and intellectuals who speak out against Hindutva, the political ideology that envisions India as an exclusively Hindu country, have been attacked as anti-nationalist and, like Nazrul, accused of sedition, jailed and worse as a result. According to the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2020 Global Impunity Index, India was ranked twelfth, and Bangladesh tenth, among the most dangerous countries in the world for writers. Last month also saw the first arrest of a Muslim man under a new anti-conversion law aimed at reducing what Hindu nationalists refer to as “love jihad,” an act they purport is an organized effort to convert Hindu women to Islam by marrying Muslim men. A century ago, Nazrul married a Hindu woman, giving their children Hindu and Muslim names, for which he was widely criticized. In this way, for both what he wrote and how he lived, Nazrul remains a comet of light. As Dr. Purakayastha said, “Nazrul is not the only answer, but he provides a big answer.”
Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, from Bangladesh, is a writer and publisher who was seriously injured in a machete attack by Muslim extremists in Dhaka in 2015. Later awarded the International Writer of Courage award by Margaret Atwood, Tutul, as he is known, now lives in exile in Norway. Though he missed the conference for health reasons, he later told me over email that of the many absences that fill a life in exile, one has been the loss of his private library, which included a handful of Nazrul’s books owned by Tutul’s family, as well as a collection of Nazrul’s poetry he’d won in a recitation competition as a boy. “There are many ups and downs in exiled life,” Chowdhury wrote. “Nazrul’s own life and writing act as an inspiration and strength.”
With the rise of authoritarian rule not only in India, but worldwide, Dr. Dilip Menon, who was brought up in Kolkata but now lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa, echoed what Nazrul believed was perhaps the most fundamental human right. “Everyone deserves democratic rights,” Menon said, “including the right to rebel.”