The Rebel Within Us: An Introduction
On the one hand are inequality, oppression, colonialism, tyranny, hypocrisy of all kinds—religious, moral or political—greed, fanaticism, violence, racism, communalism, sorrow, alienation from nature—from ourselves, from life's unifying essence—and global existence on the brink of termination, annihilation, collapse. On the other, humanity's indomitable and conscientious striving for equality, freedom, empowerment, justice, renewal of nature, idealism, romance, love, a vision of unity and community of co-existence and peace. These are the stuff of our world. These are also the stuff—and compelling elements—of the writing of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the Bengali "Rebel Poet," born on May 24, 1899 in Bardhaman, West Bengal, India, and died on August 29, 1976 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
* * *
Nazrul—as he was to be widely and affectionately called—emerged in an era when Bengali literature was overshadowed by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), with his—not exclusive—but characteristic emphasis on spiritual-philosophical idealism and romance. Some of the younger poets sought to break out of this influence. This they did—particularly a group of poets identifying themselves as members of "Kallol" (meaning "uproar," "roaring wave," "great joy or delight," etc.) by turning to a host of western modernist mentors—such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Valery, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Kafka, Proust, Brecht. The works of these poets and writers—characterized by stylistic and formal differences as well as an obsession with themes of alienation, boredom, disillusionment, introversion, self-absorption—were available through the colonial English medium schooling as well as Bengali translations. This trend, in effect, was laying the foundation for what later came to be known as "modern Bengali poetry." The trend has produced, to this day, some poetry that is remarkably distinct and of high caliber, adding to the multifaceted thousand-year old rich Bengali literature. Through Bengali translations, it also introduced the works of a number of western poets to Bengali readers. Furthermore, it also put a check to poor imitations of Tagore by some literary aspirants. The continuing trend has been criticized by some, however—much to the liberation of Bengali poetry—for its claim to "originality," for its neo-colonial, new-orthodoxical claim to literary supremacy, as well as defining "modernism," per se, within its western-rooted parameters.
Nazrul, however, drew upon the world while remaining firmly rooted in Bengali and other local traditions, adding to them a distinct creative force. His article, "Bartaman Biswa Sahitya" ("Contemporary World Literature," 1933) is an example of his understanding of and interest in the subject matter. With astounding felicity, he drew upon a spectrum of contemporary as well as traditional sources—the rural, the urbane, the tribal, the classical, the mythological, the historical, the pre-Islamic and Islamic sources. Simultaneously, he profusely drew upon Persian, Arabic, European, American and other sources for his own writings. The principal source of his poem "Agrapathic" ("Pioneers") is Walt Whitman's "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (a fuller discussion follows and my translation of Nazrul's poem is included in this selection). This phenomenal—perhaps unique—capacity of Nazrul, for the reader as well as the translator, is both a challenge and an invitation to enter his vast universe.
Nazrul succeeded in doing all this with only deeper appreciation for Tagore, who, as Amiya Chakravarty has cogently put it, "used and perfected the tools of Bengali poetry in a systematic and chiseled manner for nearly seventy years" (Amiya Chakravarty, A Tagore Reader, Beacon Press, Boston, 1966, p. 292). It was inevitable that Tagore's poetry continues to find greater appreciation worldwide for its unfolding qualities of wholeness, affirmation and universality, while being impeccably modern, in the full sense of the word. (For some English translations as well as insightful analyses of the nature, spectrum, meanings, breadth and scope of Tagore's poetry—in books currently in print—also see, William Radice, Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1994; Ketaki Kushari Dyson, I Won't Let You Go: Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 1991, also UBSPD, New Delhi, 1992; Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, Oxford University Press, India, a 1994 reprint—with an Introduction by Harish Trivedi—of the original 1948 edition; and Herbert F. Vetter, ed., The Heart of God, prayers of Rabindranath Tagore, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1997.)
While Tagore and Nazrul continued confidently with the unfolding of their respective individual, distinct, and unique genius, they themselves remained—irrespective of certain disagreements or conflicts of opinion—most fundamentally, mutual admirers. Their works continued to emerge as seminal contributions to the broader, more varied and shared context of Bengali literature, opulent with its at least a thousand-year-old heritage. They bestowed several attributes onto each other. Nazrul's dedication of Sanchita to Tagore is just one such example. In it Nazrul addresses Tagore as "Bishwa-kabi-samrat" ("World-poet-emperor"). Tagore, on the other hand, welcomed Nazrul's arrival on the Bengali literary horizon by addressing him as "a comet." In his benediction written for Nazrul's bi-weekly publication, Dhumketu (The Comet), Tagore wrote:
Come, O Comet,
build a bridge of fire
On today's fortress of distress
hoist your flag of victory.
So what if the night's forehead
is marked with an ill-omen—
come, awaken those laying half-asleep
with your flash!
(tr. Sajed Kamal)
In 1923, when Nazrul went on a hunger strike—for 40 days—to protest the ill treatment of political prisoners by the jail authority, Tagore sent a telegram to Nazrul, "Give up hunger strike, our literature claims you." Nazrul himself was in jail, serving a one year term on charges of sedition. Tagore also dedicated his song-drama, Bashanta, ("Spring"), to Nazrul.
In turn, Nazrul, in his "Tribute of Tears" to Tagore on his eightieth birthday, wrote:
While others regarded me as a mere manifestation of awe,
you saw in me disconsolate cries...You alone realized that
I was a Comet shooting away from your orbit of light. The
flame of fire thus became a Falgoon (spring) flower, and the
flute of fire a flute of strains in the hand of Brindaban's
Youth (Krishna)... The wave of fire that swelled up in me
has been turned by your touch into lunar light... On your
birthday, let me narrate the story of my own new birth.
The soft, sweet, soothing touch from your magnificent self
of beauty and delight has covered my mount of fire with flowers
all over. All my burning has been satisfied... I have now
forgotten that I was a Poet. I am but a lotus blown in your
blaze, O Sun!
(Mizanur Rahman, Nazrul Islam, Tarun Pakistan Publishers, Dacca, 1966 p. 20)
Lessons from such revelations of humility, open-mindedness, cooperation, comradery, generosity, and greatness in both of them would be as important as any other contribution that either Tagore or Nazrul would make to today's world.
* * *
Nazrul's writing resonates the pulse beat of the common humanity. For this he had to address the present, be in the present. It is the skillful rendering of the present into his writing which made his writing so intimately relevant to his time, just as the writing—affirming his "ever-presence"—continues to be relevant today—and likely to be so tomorrow—thus breaking down the barrier between presence and prophecy.
Nazrul said in "My Answer":
I'm a poet of the present,
not a "prophet" of the future.
Through this presence, he listened and responded to, empathized with, and spoke up for the common humanity. Through this presence grew in him his intense, inspiring, and uncompromising faith in universal human dignity and equality—personal, social, racial, spiritual. His bold and distinct voice was a creative expression of his dialogue with the world. Through such dialogue, he allied himself with kindred spirits near and far.
In "Human Being" Nazrul wrote:
I sing of equality.
There is nothing greater than a human being,
This is reminiscent of Chandidas, the Bengali poet-priest, who lived between the latter part of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth. So far, about two hundred poems and songs have been authenticated as the works of Chandidas, and thousands more are attributed to him. Chandidas wrote:
Shunoho manush bhai,
shabar upore manush shatya
tahar upore nai.
Listen, O my human friends,
above all truth is human,
I have translated the quote literally, with the exception regarding the word "bhai." In literal translation, this word means "brother." But in Bengali, "bhai" is also commonly used as an informal, friendly gesture, irrespective of gender. I have, therefore, translated it as "friend," which is what, I think, was meant by Chandidas. (If interested in the life and works of Chandidas, see Love Songs of Chandidas, translated by Deben Bhattacharya, Grove Press, New York, 1969).
It seems only natural that Nazrul would also be moved by the poetry of Walt Whitman—so much so that responding to Whitman's "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" Nazrul wrote his "Agrapathic" ("Pioneers"). It was first published in the magazine Saogat in Calcutta. It is included in Sanchita. Nazrul also composed music for it, turning it into a marching song—introducing a new genre in the Bengali musical tradition. It's been popular ever since. There are some differences between the two poems. "Pioneers, O Pioneers!" is a praise for the westward adventurers in U.S. history. "Agrapathic," in contrast, is a more generalized praise for humanity's timeless striving for ideals and march toward creating a better world. This, obviously, made the poem more relevant and appealing to the Bengali people. The differences, however, also raised the question as to whether or not "Agrapathic" should be considered a "translation" of "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," in the strict sense of the word. Or should it be considered more of a poem "patterned" or "stylized" after Whitman's poem. Nazrul's own acknowledgement in a footnote accompanying it's publication in Saogat reads as follows, "Written in the shadow of poet Walt Whitman's `O Pioneers.'" (Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, Saogat Joog o Mohammad Nasiruddin ("Saogat Era and Mohammad Nasiruddin"), Agamee Prakashani, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1995, p. 91; also Rahman, p. 210).
Organic integrity and universality are essentially complementary—whether through the sharing of and devotion to the common earth or through the natural and far reaching ability of the branches of a tree standing firmly on its strong roots. This is what makes an achievement unique, diverse as well as universal—distinct yet transcendent of any particular historical, geographical, linguistic and cultural mileu. There's a profound sense of a diverse yet common humanity, concerns, values, vision—a sense of unity in diversity. This is is how Nazrul and Whitman came close to each other. Likewise, Nazrul's poetry is reminiscent of some of the basic elements of the poetry of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), and the Russian poets, Alexander Blok (1880-1921) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). How kindred to Nazrul, for instance, was Mayakovsky's saying that the poets "should be requested to climb down from heaven to the earth" (Dimitri Obolensky, editor, The Heritage of Russian Verse, Indiana University Press, 1976, p. xivii). Also, how reminiscent of Blakean essence and power is Nazrul's poetry! Nazrul also reminds us of the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963). Although most noticeably unlike for his writing style, but for his spirit, humanity and message which Hikmet expressed through his poems, such as "The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin," there is is a profound sense of similarity between Hikmet's and Nazrul's works.
Equality and social justice are central themes in the works of both Nazrul and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nazrul's lecture-prose-poem, "Deposition of a Political Prisoner" and King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are stunning reminders of each other.
Two others who exude a spiritual quest similar to Nazrul's are Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), the Greek novelist, poet, dramatist, philosopher, and translator, and Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American poet, philosopher and monk. Kazantzakis is best known outside Greece for such works as Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and The Saviors of God. Geographically, culturally and linguistically set far apart and yet, in spirit—pervading their entire lives as poets, as writers, as human beings—they were in quest of answers to life's mysteries, anguishing, struggling, rebelling, affirming, creating, evolving—as if they were living parallel lives.
Nazrul's spiritual quest would lead him to his self-realization of universal unity, a vision so prophetic. In "I Sing of Equality" Nazrul wrote:
I sing of equality
in which dissolves
all the barriers and estrangements,
in which is united
Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians.
I sing of equality.
It may be of interest to briefly explore some of the roots of this sense of unity in Nazrul in his own Bengali heritage. One such root lies with the Bauls. The Bauls are a communty of wandering singers, poets and musicians—bards, minstrels, mendicants—who have adorned villages and city streets for centuries. The most renown of the Bauls is Lalon Shah (@ 1774-1890). Another Baul, Madan, who is assumed to have lived during the latter part of the nineteenth century, resounding so closely in thoughts and words a central theme which was to characterize Nazrul's works, sang:
The path to you is blocked by temples and mosques,
I hear your call, O Lord, yet I cannot come—
Gurus and preceptors block my way.
If that which cools the body
also sets the world afire—
tell me, my Lord, where should I stand:
my devotion to unity is dying of divisions.
All kinds of locks hang on your door—
the Puranas, the Quran, the rosary beads—
the most anguishing is the ascetic's path—
Madan cries in regret.
(tr. by Sajed Kamal. For some English translations of Baul songs, see Songs of the Bards of Bengal, translated by Deben Bhattacharya, Grove Press, New York, 1969; Songs of Lalon Shah, translated by Abu Rushd, a bi-lingual edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1991; and Songs of Lalon, translated by Brother James, University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1987)
This characteristic radical unorthodoxy and striving for universal spiritual unity are further traceable to the Charyapadas (sometimes spelled as "Caryapadas" in English)—the Buddhist mystical songs composed between 950 A.D. and 1150 A.D., considered the earliest specimens of Bengali literature available to this date. Seeking spiritual liberation through the Simple Path ("Shahaja"), in one of the songs, Kanhupada says:
Perceptions of the mind are deceptive—
the scriptures, the Books, the rosary beads.
Say how it can be explained in the Shahaja way—
which does not enter into the body, speech or mind.
(Excerpted from Charyapada 40 by Kanhupada, tr. by Sajed Kamal. For the complete text of the Charyapadas along with English versions, see Buddhist Mystic Songs, Muhammad Shahidullah, Renaissance Printers, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1974; The Caryapadas, Atindra Majumder, Naya Prakash, Calcutta, India, 1967; and A Thousand Year Old Bengali Mystic Poetry, Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud, University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1992.)
Of course, we may note, such themes are also central to Sufism in Islam, and Nazrul was well-versed in—and in turn—influenced by, Sufi philosophy. From his very childhood, his devoted while liberal Kazi family background, well-versed in Arabic and Persian, was conducive to this development.
Returning now to Thomas Merton—addressing a diverse group of monks, swamis, disciples of the Dalai Lama, American students of Buddhism and others gathered in Bangkok, shortly before his death from a freak electrical accident, he spoke the following words:
My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And
what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.
(James Carroll, "Another prophet who fell in 1968,"The Boston Globe, December 7, 1993)
* * *
In "The Rebel" Nazrul wrote:
Weary of battles, I, the Great Rebel,
shall rest in peace only when
the anguished cry of the oppressed
shall no longer reverberate
in the sky and the air,
and the tyrant's bloody sword
will no longer rattle in battlefields.
Only then shall I, the Rebel,
rest in peace.
"The Rebel" bears the essence of Nazrul's life and his works and therefore it remains his most characteristic poem. The poem, thereby, also gave the world "The Rebel Poet." During his latter years, even when his focus shifted from the thunderous to the serene, from the restless to the contemplative, from earthly sorrow to Love Divine, none of it was out of character for the original "Rebel," traversing the heaven and earth, personifying more than a hundred characters which together had woven a phenomenal synthesis of a rebel spirit and creativity. Supposedly that the poem was written in one night while Nazrul was in Calcutta in 1921, at the age of 22 years and 7 months, was itself an expression of his phenomenal—both rebellious and creative—vitality and genius (Abdul Mannan Syed, Nazrul Islam: Kalaja Kalottar, essays, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1987, p. 48).
There are records of other similar instances, such as the creation of "Khalid," a poem nearly twice the length of "The Rebel." It was dictated to Khan Mohammad Mueenuddin, the Sub-Editor of Saogat, in 1926, while Nazrul was living in Krishnanagar, West Bengal.
I went to Krishnanagar, and told the poet of my mission. The Poet was suffering from malaria. He sat down to write, but could not write more than ten or twelve lines. He was shivering. We made him lie down with quilts on. I sat by him, pressing his body. After some time, the Poet uncovered his face, and beckoned to me to bring paper and pen. I did. The Poet dictated, and I wrote. In about an hour's time, Khalid was born. The Poet felt greatly relieved on completing the poem, which created a great sensation. (Rahman, p. 70)
Indeed, the incident is reminiscent of the Mozartian spirit, particularly of Mozart's dictation from his death-bed, unfortunately, of his final composition, The Requiem.
Such incidents were microcosmic expressions of Nazrul's vitality and genius. Out of his 77 years he had a creative career of less than twenty-four years (1919-1943), ending due to his yet mysterious neurological illness debilitating his functional capacities, including speech. Even that brief period, except for a few fleeting moments, was ridden with poverty, personal tragedies, and constant harassment by the British colonial government—which both threw him in jail on charges of sedition as well as proscribed several of his works. Yet, during the same period, Nazrul produced at least 25 books of poetry, 4000 songs and ghazals (the latter being composed in a Persian and Arabic musical mode, introduced by Nazrul into the Bengali musical tradtion), 3 books of stories, 3 novels, 3 books of translations, 29 plays and operas, 2 movie scripts, and 5 books of essays and other writings. In the area of music, simultaneously he was a composer, singer and a musician. Nazrul holds the world record of recorded songs, most of which he himself wrote, composed the music for, as well as sang. He drew upon a wide spectrum of sources—locally from folk, classical and contemporary sources, as well as Middle Eastern sources. Not only did he master the modes, he also made distinct contributions to all of them, which continue to be immensely inspiring and popular among listeners, musicians and musicologists. He is not only popular with grown-ups, but also with children. His boundless love and concern for children found expression in some of the most well-known and frequently heard songs and poems for children. He also wrote an exciting variety of stories and plays for children, expressing his profound insights into the hearts, minds and imagination of children. A good number of his improvisations and spontaneous creations of songs, satires and verses went unrecorded. Thus he added a distinct, multifaceted and opulent dimension to Bengali musical heritage, as he did to Bengali literary heritage. Had his creative life not ended so prematurely, what else and how much more would the Rebel have created?
To be a Rebel, for Nazrul, meant to affirm and create as well as denounce or destroy. As Nazrul himself put it in the last speech of his life, "If the Flute Doesn't Play Any More" (included in this volume): "From the ocean as I rose as dark clouds during stormy nights bringing repeated lightning and roaring thunder across the sky, I also quenched the thirst of the Earth with abundant rain. There are some who saw only my dance of destruction. But the same restless dark clouds did not just come with drums and horns of destruction, but also with tears of compassion that made flowers of love, the lotus and plants blossom and the wilderness flourish. The same clouds brought a flood of joy, jingling of anklet-bells, resonance of divine melody and stream of songs."
And yet, "The Rebel" is only partially understood if it is read only—or mainly—as Nazrul's own characterization or identification with The Rebel—awesome as this achievement alone is. The poem is a universal proclamation, an affirmation, an inspiration, an invocation, of "The Rebel" within the hearts of each "I" of the common humanity which lays oppressed, subjugated, exploited, resigned and powerless. This latter purpose of the poem is yet to be realized, for the stuff of our world and the stuff of Nazrul's remain essentially the same. The differences may be merely in the guises, fashions and forms. It is for that purpose—and the bounteous poems, songs, music, stories, plays, novels and essays created out of that purpose—that Nazrul remains a modern, visionary, holistic, revolutionary and universal poet, songwriter, composer, writer and philosopher—in the very best sense of these words. Any tribute to Kazi Nazrul Islam—this work of translation being one—should be a reminder and restatement of that purpose, until the world is at peace.
* * *
Nazrul's writing speaks for itself—in all its grandeur and shortcomings—to millions who can read Bengali. But there are others around the world who do not read Bengali—and yet much of Nazrul's writing is about them and for them, as well. There are others, irrespective of their language, who may simply want to read him in translation for literary interest, if nothing else. Translation is the bridge.
But this bridge should be built with the utmost responsibility, care and humility. This task of translating which aims at communicating the integrity of the original beyond its own linguistic-literary-cultural mileu is both exhilarating and challenging. A poem, when successfully translated, should read like a poem, conveying as fully as possible the meanings, messages, intents, etc., of the original. In other words, it should be a best possible effort to recreate the poetic effect of the original. It should also be represented through forms, structures, styles, etc., that are both respectful of the sense and integrity of the original as well as appropriate for effective communication in the translated language. It's a challenge—or a quest, if you will—for a creative and poetic synthesis of translation and transliteration. It is this synthesis which offers the reader an invitation and delight of experiencing the translated version as a journey into what might have otherwise remained totally unknown, foreign, alien, even uninviting. One of the challenges here is to popularize, but not vulgarize. In this context, the distinction is critical. The translator is challenged—morally, ethically, and otherwise—in his or her competency not only in both the languages, not even both the literatures, but also both the cultures. Translation, no doubt, has many limitations, causing some people to even argue that poetry cannot—and therefore, should not—be translated. As I see it, I don't think that it is necessary to make a categorical decision on the subject. It depends on the purpose, the nature of the complexity of each poem and the ability of the translator. With sincerity, let's try and see if it can be done. Also, it may be interesting for several translators to translate a single poem to see what pool of understanding can be gained from this.
A similar argument—for and against—can be raised about translating songs. The most obvious limitation cited here is the non-translatability of melody. But—as elemental as the melody is—isn't a song more than its melody? The lyric, the poetry, the thought, the feeling, the imagination, the creativity, the meanings, the messages, the form, the structure, the craft—can't these be interesting and important too? Of course, at times a melody itself can have a universal or trans-cultural-linguistic appeal. Other times, a good sense of what lies within a melody, i.e. the lyric, the poetry, the thought, the feeling, etc. too can generate interest in listening to the song itself. Here again, it depends on the purpose, the nature of the complexity of each song and the ability of the translator.
So, let's try, with responsibility and care and humility. Translation—of poems, songs, stories, plays, novels, essays, anything—at best, is still an approximation of the original. Every good translation may contribute to bridging the gap in some facets of that approximation. World literature—not just Bengali literature—has many good and bad examples, which can be quite instructive. With all the limitations and challenges, translations can also broaden our horizons, deepen mutual appreciation, and contribute to nurturing our relationship as participants in a multicultural, diverse, universal, creative human spirit. Much is to be said for that.
And this task is never complete nor at its most attainable height, once and for all. For a reader, reading almost any poem more than once attests to this. Each reading seems to deepen understanding in terms of the poem's meanings and messages, strengths and weaknesses, etc. It depends on the reader as well as the poem. Any translation, too, to some extent, reflects the translator, as well as the poem itself. This generality is true in my particular experience with Nazrul's works. I have read these works in the original Bengali many times—only with a whetted appetite for reading them again. If I were to translate them in the future, not to my surprise, the translations would be somewhat affected, too. Complementing the initiatives of my translator-predecessors, these present versions, however, are the results of my fullest commitment and best possible effort. From the vast range of his concerns, themes, topics, styles, forms, length, techniques, structures, etc., I have tried to present a selection, freshly translated from the originals—including works which to my knowledge have thus far not been translated—which is accessible and inviting. Very few books of Nazrul's works in English have been published so far and none that I am aware of outside India and Bangladesh. Even fewer are currently available. For the extraordinary universal appeal of Nazrul's poetry, its popularity around the world is bound to flourish. The multicultural, diverse world literature deserves it and would be enriched by it. I cherish knowing about the growing number of languages in which his poems—varying in numbers from just a single poem to more—have been translated. These include Arabic, Azerbaijani, Chinese, Danish, English, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tazik, Turkish, Turkmen, Urdu, and Uzbek. More are in the works.
If this selection is able to serve the reader just a taste of the vast and varied universe of Kazi Nazrul Islam's writing and a feel for the "comet" which appeared momentarily in our common sky, I will feel that I have succeeded.