“...aami chiro-bidrohi bir,/
Bishwo chharai uthiyachhi eka,/
Chiro unnoto shir.”
(I am the eternal rebel,/
I raise my head beyond this world,/
High, ever erect and alone!)
- ‘Bidrohi’, Kazi Nazrul Islam
In 1922, when the Rebel Poet’s ‘Bidrohi’ was published, it unleashed a fierce spree of ruthless nationalism in the hearts of the young Indians, and bred deep fear in the minds of the British. Kazi Nazrul Islam and the sobriquet that he is best known by today, is a remnant of that very cult that the poet had given birth to with his poem ‘Bidrohi’. Till date, it is lauded as his most famous work, and till date he remains best known as Bidrohi Kobi (The Rebel Poet).
For a human being who is as prolific a writer as Kazi Nazrul Islam, fame came knocking at his door only during the time when he had already fallen victim to aphasia and amnesia, an illness now referred to as Pick’s Disease. The lore of the followers of Nazrul still echo with beliefs of slow poisoning by the British as the cause of deterioration of the poet’s health, and any alternative explanation is shooed away. Nobody knows why a man of the stature of Nazrul had to live the last few days of his life in agony, in an alien land. After spending all his life in India, he relocated to the then-newly formed Bangladesh in 1972, and breathed his last there in 1976.
Kazi Nazrul Islam was younger than Rabindranath Tagore, and the greatness of the two are incommensurate. At the same time, however, there was hardly another soul in the country and in Bengal who could have achieved a feat almost equal to Rabindranath Tagore like Nazrul. If the signature of Tagore’s genius is to be found in the 5000 odd songs that he had penned, Nazrul’s 4000 songs are nothing short of healthy competition. But the genres are remarkably different, the messages of the two poets dissimilar, and the language nowhere the same.
A rebel who nursed an insurmountable hatred for oppression and fascism, a spiritual visionary who never bowed down in front of his detractors, a poet whose poems are nothing short of hurricanes; Nazrul was a man who had managed to invoke a deep phobia in the British with his overtly scathing lyrics and his unparalleled love for his country. His intense messages of spiritual rebellion are writ large over the hearts of anybody who has had the opportunity to come across them or their works.
Nazrul’s vision and philosophy, a deep-seated love for equality of men and women makes him one of the first vocal feminists that the country has ever known. He writes in his poem ‘Nari’ (Woman):
“I don`t see any difference/
Between a man and woman/
Whatever great or benevolent achievements/
That are in this world/
Half of that was by woman,/
The other half by man.”
And this – at a time when women were thought to have been born either to aid men in their way or to spend all their lives trying to rise to the expectations of men!
When a flame burns steadily bright within a soul and the unquenched thirst for the right pulsates in a heart, poetry dons a fierce mantle. The fire that Nazrul’s poems had let loose encircled the British rulers like a lasso and drove them to paranoia. The poet was imprisoned, and his works were banned. And the repressed only fuelled the fire of his fame. At a time when ‘fallen women’ were ostracised and kept out of the contours of the ‘clean’ society, the rebel chose to address a prostitute as ‘mother’. In his poem ‘Barangana’ (Prostitute), he writes:
“Who calls you a prostitute, mother?/
Who spits at you?/
Perhaps you were suckled by someone/
as chaste as Seeta.
And if the son of an unchaste mother is `illegitimate`,/
so is the son of an unchaste father.”
Had there been the necessity of a proof of Nazrul’s emancipated thoughts, this could easily have qualified as one. Thankfully, he has been stifled and his works have been banned so many times, that by now there can absolutely be no doubt about the fact that he was much, much ahead of his times.
His personal life was fraught with depressing realities and venomous pangs of pain. Losing both his sons to then-incurable illnesses, the dejected father sought shelter in music and poetry. He combined devotional music from Hinduism and Islam gave rise to a beautiful amalgam. Himself born a Muslim, Nazrul never believed in religious fanaticism. His works bear undying testimony to his absolutely secular loyalties, and he never left a stone unturned in his yet-unachieved goal of harmony between the two religions.
He synchronised Bengali music with folk, classical, Islamic devotional songs, Persian lyrics, Bhajans and Kirtans, and gave rise to a melodious symphony which struck the chord of every heart. Each of Nazrul’s songs (collectively known as Nazrulgeeti) is a baroque work of art. They are as unique as their creator, and encompass his immeasurable greatness.
Had he been alive today, at the age of 113, he wouldn’t have been a very happy man... the little stars that he had lighted in the dark firmament of the Hindu-Muslim relations have largely been enshrouded by the dark clouds of reality. Says the poet, “Come brother Hindu! Come Musalman! Come Buddhist! Come Christian! Let us transcend all barriers, let us forsake forever all smallness, all lies, all selfishness and let us call brothers as brothers. We shall quarrel no more.” (Joog Bani, 1920)
The poet lives on. So do the undying shouts of rebellion that he had implanted in every heart. So does the hope of seeing “one great union of humanity”.