Kazi Nazrul Islam

Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), known as the ‘Rebel’ poet in Bengali literature and the ‘Bulbul’ or Nightingale of Bengali music, was one of the most colorful personalities of undivided Bengal between 1920 and 1930. His role in freeing modern 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 Islam 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 modern 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 1980 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 this 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 rigors of the teashop 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, Parbasi, 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 fervor. 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 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, Dhumketu. A political poem published in Dhumketu 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 post himself. On April 14, 1923, when Nazrul Islam was transferred from the Alipore jail to the Hooghly jail, he began a fast to protest the mistreatment by a British jail-super-intendent. Immediately, Rabindranath Tagore, who had dedicated his musical play, Basanta, to Nazrul, sent a telegram saying : “Give up hunger strike, our literature climes you”, but the telegram was sent back to the sender with the stamp “address 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 April 1924, Kazi Nazrul Islam 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 the government seized both volumes. 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 class. 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.


Source: Nazrul Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh.