Often the debate is centred on what exactly won India her freedom: was it the numerous militant protests? Some would answer yes. Was it a result of years of constitutional tussle? Some would answer yes. Was it the wreckage of the British economy post World War 2? Some would again answer yes.
The proper answer given by objective historians is it was a bit of all three, but it is reasonable that freedom came to India when the minds of young Indians started grasping the concept of freeing themselves from colonial rule. It is a well attested statement that ideas give birth to revolutions which in turn changes a society. These ideas can be generated in the form of music, inventions, literature, art but act as motivating forces to bring in change.
And if the idea of freedom and rebellion is credited to free India from colonial rule, then it is imperative that we must honor along with all eminent freedom fighters, the “Rebel Poet”- Kazi Nazrul Islam. His poetry, laced its lively rhythms and iconoclastic themes, motivated the youth of undivided Bengal to raise their voices against colonial tyranny.
Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on 24 May 1899 in the village of Churulia in Burdwan of present day West Bengal to a Muslim quazi (justice) family. His father Kazi Faqeer Ahmed was the imam and caretaker of the local mosque while his mother Zahida Khatun was a housewife. Nazrul had two brothers, Kazi Saahibjaan and Kazi Ali Hussain, and a sister, Umme Kulsum, all of whom sadly died in their childhood. When Nazrul turned nine, his father passed away leaving his family in severe poverty. At that tender age in order to support himself and his mother Nazrul took up his father’s job as a caretaker of the village mosque where he additionally functioned as the muezzin.
Because of the hardships the young Nazrul faced, he was nicknamed Dukhu Mia (Sad Lad) by the village community. He received his primary education in the village madrassa. But contrary to usual situation, the madrassa educated Nazrul was very much attracted to folk theatre, and enjoyed poetry, music and dance. These interests prompted Nazrul to leave the madrassa and join a travelling theatre troupe. During his time in the troupe, the minor Nazrul learned acting and wrote songs and poems for plays and musicals.
To hone his skills, he began reading works of Bengali folklore as well as Sanskrit works such as the Puranas. As a result, the ten year old Nazrul composed a good number of folk plays for the group, which included “The Killing of Shakuni”, “Kavi Kalidas (Poet Kalidas) and “Data Karna (Philanthropic Karna).
In 1910, Nazrul resumed his education, studying for some time at the Raniganj Searsole Raj School and then at Mathrun High English School. But he was not able to continue his studies due to financial constraints. To make ends meet, Nazrul worked as a cook at the house of a railway guard besides selling tea at Asansol station. During the year of 1914, Nazrul became familiar with a police inspector named Rafizullah, who gave him some financial assistance enabling the teen join Darirampur School at Mymensingh, presently in Bangladesh. But after finishing the tenth standard Nazrul did not appear for the matriculation pre-test examination.
Instead he enlisted himself in the British Indian Army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. By now the young adventurer although not formally educated, was well acquainted with works of Bengali, Sanskrit and English literature and had also acquired some talent in music.
His life in the army lasted from 1917 to 1920. As part of the 49th Bengal Regiment, he was posted to the cantonment in Karachi. During his stay at Karachi, Nazrul subscribed to some of the notable literary journals published from Kolkata like Prabasi, Bharatbarsa, Bharati, Manasi, Sahitya Patrika. Besides these journals, he extensively read the works of Rabindranath and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.
He also learned to read Persian poetry from the regiment’s moulvi, and practiced music as well. it was at Karachi cantonment that Nazrul’s literary works started to get noticed. The May-July editions of the Bengali Muslim Literary Journal published his prose work “Life of a Vagabond” and his poem “Freedom.”
From Sad Lad to the Rebel
After the conclusion of the First World War, Nazrul settled in Kolkata and began writing for the Bengali Muslim Literary Journal. The year 1920 saw the publication of his first novel Bandhan-hara (“Freedom from bondage”) as well as some of his poems like “Bodhan”, “Kheya-parer Tarani” and “Badal Prater Sharab.” All his works were well received by Kolkata’s literary society.
Through the Bengali Muslim Literary Journal, Nazrul became good friends with the leading personalities of contemporary Bengali art, literature, music and theatre like Kazi Abdul Wadud , Muhammad Shahidullah, Abanindranath Tagore, Charuchandra Bannerjee, Ustad Karamatullah Khan, Hemendrakumar Roy, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, and Nirmalendu Lahiri among others.
In July 1921, Nazrul had the fortune of visiting Shantiniketan and meeting Rabindranath Tagore. From their first meeting till Gurudev’s demise in 1941, Nazrul looked up to him as a friend and a mentor.
That same year Nazrul was engaged to Begum Nargis, the niece of one of his publisher Ali Akbar Khan. But on the day of the wedding upon public insistence by Ali Akbar Khan that the term “Ghar Jamai” be included in the marriage contract, Nazrul walked away from the ceremony.
In December 1921, Nazrul visited one of his friends in Comilla, which is presently located in Bangladesh. During this visit, Nazrul met a young woman, Pramila Sengupta who belonged to the Brahmo Samaj. They both fell in love and subsequently got married on 25 April 1924. Nazrul was damned by the Muslim religious leaders for marrying a non-Muslim without converting her.
In 1922, Nazrul earned the moniker ‘Rebel Poet’ following the publication of “Vidrohi” (Rebel). The mutinous language and imagery of the poem coincided with the non-cooperation movement, making Nazrul a household name among the rebellious youth of Bengal. Nazrul followed up this masterpiece by writing “Pralayollas” (“Destructive Euphoria”), and his first anthology of poems, the “Agniveena” (“Lyre of Fire”) which was also well received.
His popularity alarmed the British Authorities. As a result he was arrested in the September of 1922 and kept imprisoned till 1923. During his time in jail, true to his rebellious spirit, he penned the song ‘The Iron Gates of Prison,’ The lyrics are worth quoting:
Tear down those iron gates of prison; raze these blood-stained stony altars of slavery!
O youthful Ishan, blow your horn of universal upheaval!
Let the flag of destruction rise amidst the rubble of prison walls…..
Listen Oh mad Bhola, shake this prison with your stormy force.
Send your minions, play your drums beckoning death towards life.
As a mark of respect, Rabindranath Tagore dedicated to him his musical play Basanta (22 January 1923). Nazrul expressed his appreciation by composing his poem ‘Aj Srsti Sukher Ullase’ (In the ecstasy of creation).
Another famous poem composed by Nazrul during this time was ‘Kamal Pasha’. This poem articulated Nazrul’s opposition towards the hollowness of the Indian Khilafat movement. Nazrul hailed the leadership of Mostafa Kamal Pasha, who had overthrown the Caliphate making Turkey a secular republic. Nazrul was doubtful about the philosophies of both Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation and the Khilafat movement. He instead asked the youngsters to follow the principles of Kamal Pasha.
The 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia also influenced Nazrul as seen in his poems ‘Samyabadi’ and ‘Sarbahara’ . He translated the ‘Communist International’ under the title ‘Jago Anashana Bandi Utha Re Yata’ (Wake up and rise all the prisoners of hunger).
In 1925, His Master’s Voice (HMV) produced the first gramophone record containing two of Nazrul’s songs. Nazrul attended several political meetings of various parties calling upon his fellow countrymen to rise against foreign rule. In 1926 Nazrul started living at Krishnanagar with his wife and young son Bulbul. His work began to transform as he wrote poetry and songs that assailed the socio-economic norms that had brought misery in India.
At Krishnanagar, Nazrul also composed the very first ghazals in Bengali, which till then were written mainly in Urdu. A significant impact of Nazrul was to bring Muslims closer to the Bengali Arts (Muslim orthodoxy considers various forms arts to be sinful). But Nazrul the composer was not just limited to ghazals but also composed a number of notable bhajans and kirtans, combining Hindu devotional music. The songs written and composed by him were broadcast on radio stations across the country, earning him fulsome praises.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nazrul believed in the equality of women, as seen 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.
On 10 December 1929, Kazi Nazrul Islam was accorded a reception at Albert Hall, Kolkata. Officiated by Acharya Prafulla Ray, the most notable attendee was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Acharya Ray declared : It is my belief, by reading the poems of Nazrul Islam that each of our future children will become a superman.
Subhas Chandra Bose added: When we go to war we shall sing Nazrul’s war songs.When we go to prison, we shall still sing his songs.
That same year the poet’s third son Sabyasachi was born but this good news was followed by the deaths of his mother and two sons Krishna Mohammed and Bulbul. These tragedies changed the rebellious Nazrul as he became a recluse and turned towards spiritualism. The brunt of his attack was now on fanaticism in religion, which he denounced as evil and inherently repugnant. Between 1928 and 1935, Nazul composed and released eight hundred songs of which more than six hundred were based on classical ragas and almost hundred were kirtans .
Tragedy struck the poet again in 1939 as his wife Pramila Devi was paralysed from waist down. To provide for his wife’s medical treatment, he restarted writing in 1940 by working as chief editor for the daily newspaper “Nabayug” (“New Age”), founded by the Bengali politician A. K. Fazlul Huq.
Illness and last days
The death of Rabindranath Tagore on 8 August 1941 further devastated Nazrul and he spontaneously composed two poems in Tagore’s memory, one of which, (Without Rabi) was broadcast on the All India Radio. Within months, Nazrul’s own health seriously deteriorated as he progressively became mentally dysfunctional and had to be admitted to a mental asylum in 1942.
Spending four months there without making progress, Nazrul and his family began living a silent life in India. The once spirited rebel became a lying vegetable as India marched towards freedom.
In 1952, a large group of admirers who called themselves the “Nazrul Treatment Society” as well as prominent Indian statesman Shyama Prasad Mookerjee (a personal friend of Nazrul), raised funds to send both Nazrul and Promila to London for treatment.But doctors claimed his condition to be incurable, and Nazrul returned to Kolkata on 15 December 1953.
On 30 June 1962 his wife Pramila passed away leaving behind a paralyzed Nazrul who remained in intensive medical care. During this time he was often visited by the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. Bidhan Chandra Ray but Nazrul was unable to recognize him. On 24 May 1972, the Government of newly independent Bangladesh requested the Indian Government to send Nazrul to Dhaka and India consented. In January 1976, he was accorded the citizenship of Banglades
Nazrul’s evocative “Shall I, weary of struggles, rest in quiet, I the great rebel” rang true on 29 August 1976 when he breathed his last. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral. Bangladesh observed two days of national mourning and the Indian Parliament observed a minute of silence in his honor.
For long Nazrul was not widely known outside West Bengal where the supposedly ‘secular’ CPM government did not do anything constructive to preserve the memory and teachings of someone who was first to translate the ‘Communist International.’ From 2011, the Mamta Banerjee-led West Bengal government went on a massive spree naming streets and institutes after the ‘Rebel’ poet but it was tokenism at best and a superficial, vote-catching gimmick at worst.
As far as the Central government is concerned it was only during the NDA government’s rule that Nazrul received some attention. On 22August 2003, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee unveiled the portrait of Kazi Nazrul Islam in the Parliament.
Yet, it is not too late to disseminate the work, teaching, and the legacy of this great ‘rebel’ who did so much for the nation and its culture and died unsung. Given below are the translations of two of his most notable poems:
1. Oh Captain Beware
Remote mountains, a vast desert, an ocean great and infinite.
Travelers beware! As you have to cross through all this in a dark night.
The swelling water shakes the ship, causing the boatman to lose direction.
Who can take over the helm now? Who has the courage and dedication?
Oh youth, the future beckons you,
In spite of this heavy storm, the ship must sail through.
In this darkness, soldiers and leaders of the motherland beware.
Years of oppression have sparked up anger in the air.
The rundown souls have finally woken up with pride.
You should take them along, not leave them aside.
These hapless people are drowning for they cannot swim.
Tonight we shall see captain if your determination is bright or grim.
“Are they Hindu or Muslim?” who dare raise this question?
Declare captain: those drowning are my own mother’s children.
Over the hills thunder roars and lightning strikes.
Causing fear and doubt to rattle the traveler’s psych.
Oh captain does your mind quiver? Will you leave us in the lurch?
Remember captain, even in times of peril you must carry on the march.
Oh Captain remember Palashi’s field.
Where the blood of the Bengali was shed by Clive’s sword and shield
Into the Ganges the light of India drowned in pain
With our blood we will make the sun rise again.
Those who sang songs of victory while going to their execution.
They are watching and wondering, what sacrifice can be made by this generation?
This is your trial; will you save the nation or a community at this hour?
The swelling water shakes the ship, oh captain beware!
2. The Rebel
Proclaim o warrior
Proclaim High is my head
My head towers above the Himalayan peaks
Proclaim o warrior
Ripping through the sky,
Exceeding the moon, the sun, the planets
and the stars
Slicing through the earth and the heavens,
Shoving the Almighty’s sacred seat
Have I risen,
I, the irreversible marvel of mother-earth!
The angry Rudra shines on my forehead
Like a royal pendant of victory!
Proclaim o warrior
Proclaim Eternally High is my head
I am resolute, brutal and proud,
I am the Nataraj of the great upheaval,
I am cyclone, I am destruction
I am the great fear, the curse of the universe.
I am unstoppable,
I grind all the bonds, rules and disciplines!
I am disorderly and lawless,
I am Durjati, I am the sudden tempest of ultimate summer,
I sink cargo-laden boats, I’m the torpedo,
I’m the dreadful floating mine.
I am the rebel, the rebel-son of mother-earth!
Proclaim o warrior
Proclaim Eternally High is my head
I am the hurricane; I am the cyclone
I destroy that comes in my path!
I am the dance- adoring rhythm,
I dance to my own tune,
I am the independent joy of life!
I am Hambir, I am Chayanat, I am Hindole,
I am ever restless,
I move like a flash of lightning with turns and twists.
I swing, I leap and gambol!
I do whatever my heart desires.
I embrace my enemy and twist death’s hands.
I am angry, I am the tornado!
I am epidemic, dread to the earth,
I am the demise of all reigns of terror,
I am full of warm restlessness forever!
Proclaim o warrior
Proclaim Eternally High is my head
I’m ever uncontrollable, irrepressible.
My cup of elixir is always full
I’m the homa,
I’m Jamadagni, the keeper of the sacrificial fire.
I’m the yagna, I’m the priest,
I’m the fire itself.
I am creation, I am destruction,
I am habitation, I am the cemetary,
I am the end of night!
I am the son of Indrani
With the moon in my hand
And the sun on my temple
In one hand of mine is the tender flute
While in the other I hold the war bugle!
I’m Neelkanth,I’m Byomkesh, the Ganges flows freely through my matted locks.
Proclaim o warrior
Proclaim Eternally High is my head
I’m the ascetic, I’m the prince, my royal garb embarrasses even the most ostentatious.
I am the Bedouin, I am the Chengis,
I bow down before none but me!
I am thunder,I am Onkar
I am the mighty roar of Israfil’s bugle,
I am the great trident of Pinaki,
I am the staff of the king of truth,
I’m the Chakra and the Great Conch,
I am Vishwamitra’s pupil, Durbasha the furious,
I’m the fury of fire, to burn this earth to ashes.
I’m the ecstatic laughter, terrifying the creation
I’m the eclipse of the twelve suns on the Day of the Doom.
Sometimes calm, sometimes wild
I am in a frenzy at other times,
I am the new youth of dawn,
I crush under my feet the vain glory of the Almighty!
I am the fury of typhoon,
I’m the murmur of over-flowing water, Hindol dance of rolling waves! .
I am the maiden’s dark lustrous hair,
I am the spark of fire in her eyes.
I’m the state of tender love
In the sixteen year old’s heart,
I am the happy beyond measure!
I am the pining soul of the lovesick,
I am the bitter tears in the widow’s heart,
I am the piteous sighs of the unlucky!
I’m the eternal child, the eternal adolescent,
I’m the northern breeze, the southern breeze the callous east wind.
I’m the minstrel’s song, the music of his flute and lyre.
I’m the summer thirst, the scorching rays of sun.
I’m the softly flowing desert spring.
I’ve suddenly realized myself all the barriers have crumbled away!
I’m the rise, I’m the fall,
I’m the consciousness in the unconscious mind.
I’m the flag of triumph at the gate
of the universe
the triumph of humanity!
I traverse the heaven and earth like a hurricane
Riding Uchchaishraba and the mighty Borrak.
I’m the burning volcano,the wildest commotion of the subterranean ocean of fire.
I ride on lightning, and panic the world with earthquakes!
I clasp the hood of the Vasuki, and the fiery wing of the angel Gabriel
I’m the divine child, restless.
With my teeth I tear apart the skirt of Mother Earth!
I am Orpheus’s flute,
I bring sleep to the fevered world,
I’m the flute in the hands of Shyam.
When I fly into a rage and traverse the vast sky, the fires of Seven Hells and the hell of hells, Habia, tremble in fear and die.
I’m the messenger of revolt across the earth and the sky.
I make the heaving hells temple in fear and die.
I carry the message of revolt to the earth and the sky!
I am the mighty flood,
Sometimes I bring blessings to the earth,
at other times, cause colossal damage.
I wrestle away the maidens two from Vishnu’s bosom!
I’m injustice, I’m a meteor, I’m Saturn, I’m a blazing comet, a venomous cobra!
I’m the headless Chandi, I’m the warlord Ranada.
Sitting amidst the fire of hell I smile like an innocent flower!
I’m made of clay, I’m the embodiment of the Soul. I’m imperishable, inexhaustible, immortal.
I intimidate the humans, demons and gods.
I’m ever-unconquerable. I’m the God of gods, the supreme humanity,
I’m enraged; I have realized myself and broken down all barriers. I’m Parashuram’s pitiless axe. I shall kill warriors. And bring peace and harmony in the universe!
I’m the plough on Balaram’s shoulders.I’ll uproot this conquered world, in the joy of recreating it.
Worn out of battles, I, the Great Rebel, shall rest only
when the air is free of the agonized cry of the oppressed
when the battle fields are cleared of the tyrant’s bloody sword
I’m the Rebel Bhrigu, I’ll stamp my footprints on the chest of god sleeping away indifferently, whimsically, while the creation is suffering.I’m the eternal Rebel; I have raised my head beyond this world…..