Maria Helena Barrera-Agarwal
In our days, so pervaded by false celebrity, how many poets can assume to be loved by their countrymen? How many can be certain that their works will inspire their fellow citizens? How many, indeed, can anticipate that their verses will be repeated, with unchanged fervor, for generations to come? Few, very few poets are able to reach such heights. Kazi Nazrul Islam can be counted among such privileged. Even today - four decades after his death, seven decades since an unknown illness brought his literary labors to an end - Nazrul's words and example remain ever important wherever the Bengali language is esteemed.
Unlike Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul's name is not well known within Spanish-speaking circles. I happened to discover his work one day, in a cab, in New York City. The driver was listening to a tune that I could not identify - whose indelible quality continues to accompany me to this day. 'What are you listening to?' I asked. 'Ah, these are the songs of a great poet', he replied. During the rest of the cab ride, he was generous enough to instruct me in the most relevant features of Nazrul's life, quoting verses from memory in their original, harmonious Bengali, and commenting on them in English. Further exploration took place at the New York Public Library, where copies of Nazrul's works are available, including the essential publications of Dhaka's Nazrul Institute.
Nazrul's poetry was a revelation for me. His voice was different from Kobiguru's. His concerns were certainly more immediate. His passion for freedom was timeless and universal. The concepts he put forward are as valid today as they were during his lifetime, the passage of time having done nothing to diminish their original appeal. This is a poet whose strength is to combine the humblest life experiences with the most crucial ethical principles. This is a writer who proclaims the equality of human beings and condemns all prejudices caused by fortune, religious differences, and gender. This is a versatile artist, who could work with equal ease as a composer, as a filmmaker, and as a social activist. Most admirably, Nazrul was no armchair idealist. He could have sold his talent in exchange for a comfortable, bourgeois life. Instead, he chose to face imprisonment, hate and poverty for his beliefs.
1. The crucible
Nazrul lived in exceptionally hard times. English colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent was a pervasive reality, seeping through every deed and relationship. Anyone wishing to endeavor creative activities was subjected to great disadvantages: the empire did not encourage original thought which could, naturally, become subversive. Few could evade the obstacles imposed by such a reality. As the examples of Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy, in mathematics, and Tagore and Yeats, in poetry, demonstrate, sometimes talent and humanism were able to forge links above colonial barriers. This, however, was rare. The vast majority of intellectuals and artists endured a dual burden: their condition was affected not only by the overall prejudice, but also by the colonial policies directed to bridle freedom of expression.
Writers who harbored nationalist aspirations were forced to act with extreme caution. Some chose self censorship, limiting their works to that which could not be labeled as seditious. Others used pseudonyms to pursue dangerous career paths. A good illustration of this is the great writer Dhanpat Rai, who was forced to take the pseudonym Munshi Premchand to evade police prohibitions. The price of dissent was high: fines, confiscation and destruction of books, imprisonment, and newspaper closures were common repressive measures. Vaikom Basheer's numerous jail terms were not the exception but the rule. Paradoxically, such severity pointed to the British Crown's fear of the influence that artistes could wield in the struggle for independence.
These fears were justified. Poetry, in particular, was to play a leading role in the quest for self determination. Survival of the national spirit in the subcontinent had been, for millennia, closely linked to poetic expression. Under British rule, the work of poets such as Ram Prasad Bismil, Chinnaswami Subramanya Bharati and Ajit Singh was to kindle great pride and patriotic fervor - sentiments that could inspire action. One the martyrs of independence, Bhagat Singh, went to the gallows singing a composition of Bismil, the glorious 'Mera Rang De Basanti Chola' ('O Mother! Dye my robe the color of spring'). In Bengal, Kobiguru and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay spearheaded the patriotic lyrical dawn. Tagore conceived two poems that eventually would become the anthems of India - 'Jana Gana Mana' - and Bangladesh - 'Amar Shonar Bangla'. Chattopadhyay's 'Vande Mataram' became India's national song par excellence, used in many different contexts as a patriotic statement.
2. Freedom's poet
In that context, Nazrul's destiny was to create a special sense of patriotic yearning, predicated on an uncompromising quest for freedom. No one could have anticipated this: Nazrul started his career as a young man of twenty-three. He lacked the money and the protection that a wealthy and influential family could provide. Having lost his father at a young age, he had worked in the most diverse and humble realms. His formal studies had been frequently interrupted by the need of earning a living. These and other deep disadvantages mattered little. From his very first publications, Nazrul deployed what will be later known as his trademark virtue: he was a fearless visionary who spoke truth to power. In a word, he was Bidrohi.
His rare aptitude is already in full bloom in 1922, when he published his first few works, which were quickly suppressed by the British government. Among these is included the remarkable poem 'Anandamoyeer Agomoney' ('The Coming of the Goddess Durga'), which cost him a year in prison. It is this hardship which inspired his 'Rajbandir Jabanbandi' ('The Testimony of a Political Prisoner'), a piece of remarkable audacity and scope. Read almost a century after the facts, the testimony of Nazrul is not only a personal statement. It speaks of a mind which, even in the most critical personal situation, is able to draw abstract propositions relevant to humanity as a whole.
The poet contemplates the subcontinent's plight, and explains why justice and God are on the side of the subjugated and why imperial power is a misguided enterprise. He goes further, and dares to imagine transposing the condition of subjugated people into the colonial masters. It is a view without precedent: If India was the colonial power and Britain the colonized country, the British would revolt and fight as we Indians do now, he claims, and they would be justified in doing so. One can imagine the effect of such a comparison on the Empire's agents, educated to relish their superiority at all times. It is a direct challenge to the aberrant frame of mind inherent in colonialism and prejudice: It dwells on the common humanity shared by the oppressor and the oppressed, and calls for everybody to inhabit the place and the condition of the "other" - the foreigner, the outsider, the enemy - before assuming righteousness.
The same capacity to empathize is found in Nazrul with regard to other, equally complex subjects. Essential to the imagery of his poems and his prose is a deeply felt call to overcome religious differences. He produced a superb body of works dedicated to Islamic themes, based on a profound knowledge of his faith. Additionally, he was familiar with the Hindu tradition, used its symbolism in his poems, and expressed his belief in the need for tolerance and respect in matters of belief. Such a show of unity had to be particularly disturbing in the eyes of the British authorities. They had applied a 'divide and conquer' policy to rule India; anything that threatened the success of that system was deemed dangerous. Nazrul's views were not limited to that problem. He wrote against every symptom of oppression, including prejudices of caste and class, contempt for women, and abuse of authority, exercised as a game of narrow, personal interests. His concerns were those of humanity, unimpeded by bigotry.
3. A voice for the world
I have attempted to translate Nazrul's poetry into Spanish. It has been an enlightening task, as difficult as rewarding. From the very beginning, I have been aware that no translation can transpose the virtuosity of his style, or reflect but in a small degree the reverberation of his verses. Nevertheless, I feel it was indispensable to try and offer to the Spanish-speaking public the wonders of poems such as The Rebel - one of the pinnacles of Bengali poetry. Declaimed in its original language, it is not just a protest; it is, in itself, a cry that invokes freedom and embodies freedom. Bursting with energy, Nazrul's composition uses symbols which favor the sublime over the mundane. Religious and secular elements from various traditions are claimed to subvert the reader's expectations. Written when the poet was only twenty-two, it shows already an astonishing mastery, a mind open to the most dissimilar influences, capable of transmuting a host of varied materials into a wholly original text.
The poet's voice in Bidrohi is, at the same time, singular and collective. It incarnates itself, at times, within the individuality of ordinary beings, whose life experience is invoked in all its hidden value. In other instances, the spirit of the poet takes on mythic proportions, appropriating divine and natural forces, and inhabiting them. For these and other details, the importance of the influence of Walt Whitman on the work of Nazrul has often been stressed. There is evidence, in the writings of the Bengali poet, of his knowledge and admiration for the American. However, in light of the Nazrul's history, I believe Leaves of Grass should be considered one of the many sources of inspiration for The Rebel, not the most decisive.
It is imperative to remember, in this regard, the circumstances in which Bidrohi was created, to better appreciate its originality. Whitman produced his verses as a citizen of an autonomous country, a man who had led a life in which basic civil rights were his natural due. The circumstances were different for Nazrul. He writes in a context of unspeakable subjugation, which involves the imposition of both material and spiritual oppression by a foreign power. His rebellion projects, therefore, aspects that are nonexistent in Whitman. It is imbued with an immense anger, with desire for freedom that is not joyful, but poignant. An anger that comes from personal experience, sublimated into one of the most memorable poems ever written.
I sincerely hope that Nazrul's voice and genius reach, in Spanish as in other languages, the audience it deserves. It would be only fair. Poet Mohammad Nurul Huda has written that "Nazrul was - and remains - a poet of the world." This is a great truth, which echoes the words of the poet himself. A passionate defender of literature as a universal art, he insisted in proclaiming that "literature is for all humanity, not for a single person." He also wrote that "the heart of the literati, writers and poets should be open as the sky." His heart was certainly open to humankind; it is only fair that more people get the opportunity to dwell on his legacy.
(Maria Helena Barrera-Agarwal (born in 1971) is an Ecuadorean poet and essayist who writes on Asian and European literature for a Spanish audience. She has written about Tagore and Qurratulain Hyder, among others. She is at present engaged in translating Nazrul's poetry into Spanish.)