Nazrul Islam:
The unparalleled lyricist and composer of Bengal

Dilip Chaudhuri


Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on May 24, 1899 in a very poor family at the village of Churulia in Burdwan district of West Bengal. He lost his father at the age of nine. At the age of 10, after passing through the lower primary examination, he started teaching in a religious school with a view to assisting his family financially which was in utter poverty. He also served as the khadem of a mazar, the imam of a mosque and even as a mullah.

    There was nothing in his life from which one could have the slightest inkling of how this poor boy, living in an insignificant village, would one day grow up to increase the horizon of not only the Bengali literature but of the whole Indian sub-continent as well. He brought the harsh reality of the life of the common man to literature. For the first time he introduced a hitherto uncommon theme of identification of self-interest of the people through the mass movement against all kinds of oppression in the social life. The most remarkable thing about his work was that he wrote a large number of songs, setting almost all of them to a tune and established himself as one of the greatest lyricists and composers of the sub-continent.

    His creative life was spread over a period of a little over 22 years from March 1920 to July 1942. After a sudden attack of paralysis on July 10, 1942, he became silent for ever and spent as such a further spell of 34 years of his life before he ultimately died on August 29, 1976 at the age of 77.

    The ten year span between 1910 and 1920 was the preparatory period for what he was to be in future. Even during this period nothing in his life was well-ordained.

    In 1910, he joined the Leto group that used to perform music, dance and drama for the recreation of the rural people . At that time he was studying in class V. After coming out of school in 1912-13, he joined the Kabi troupe of Basudeva for a short period, then served as the cook to a railway guard and was an apprentice with a baker's shop. In 1914, under the guardianship of Kazi Rafizullah, a police sub-inspector, he went to Darirampur in Mymensingh and got himself admitted in a school there in class VII. He studied in Shiarsol Raj School from class VIII to X.

    During 1917-19, when he was supposed to take his matriculation examination, he escaped once again and joined the army as a recruit to the Bengali Regiment and stayed in the army cantonments at Noushera and Karachi. Finally, he returned to Calcutta in March, 1920, only after the Bengali Regiment was disbanded. His fellow countrymen have known Nazrul in many capacities during his very short creative life. He was a poet, short story writer, speaker, newspaper editor, a film actor, a freedom fighter and a political worker. The history of our country will undoubtedly reminisce him in every such roll with due importance. But the single and the most important aspect of his many-faceted genius which gave him widespread fame and name was of a fine lyricist and a musician with many new ragas and talas to his credit

    Over the next 22 years after returning to Calcutta he wrote over 2,680 songs. Critics believe that a number of his songs are yet to be discovered and some are totally lost.

    The mainstream of his musical emotion was evidently classical. He was deeply engrossed and inspired by the totality of the raga style. In 1940 he talked on the radio about his feelings on this point thus: 'It is not possible for the modern tunes with their monotonous frivolousness to create the exquisite rasa which may be created by the classical music and which may carry away the mind of the peopleto the world of an experience that is magnificent and superb'. From this thought, he transformed the stream of classical music into a dominant one in the Bengali music world. Some of his songs based on some well-known Hindustani bandish are replete with exquisite poetic beauty, being freed from insignificant wordings of the original songs. Nobody has successfully adpted such a large range of musical styles prevalent in North India like Dhrupad, Khayal, Tappa, Thumri and Dadra along with Kajri, Chaiti, and Rasia.

    During the last phase of his creative life, he retrieved many lost and nearly-lost ragas and wrote Bengali songs composed in these ragas. He created 17 new ragas and wrote songs based on them. He also created 11 new talas. He composed six Lakshangeets with double meanings attributed to each by one meaning, the song would appear to be a fine poetic piece, by another it is a description of the characteristics of the raga on which its compositon is based.

    In the Bengali music world no other lyricist or composer has used so many ragas. Their number would run into about 200.

    A special category of songs on awakening, patriotism and struggle for freedom from oppression was introduced by Nazrul. His songs on communal harmony, socialistic inspiration and economic freedom are worth a special mention. His song 'Durgama giri kantara maru' written in 1926 still remains unparalleled in its lyric, tune, and aesthetic excellence among songs of this category written till now. Nazrul also successfully introduced the Bengali ghazals which were readily accepted by the listeners. In this area he has no successor so far.

    In the category of devotional and religious songs, Nazrul has numerous compositions to his credit. The first group consists of Islamic songs for which he was the pioneer. The deeply emotional and charming tunes have made such songs the most adored ones not only to the Muslims but also to the Hindu listeners. The second as well as the most dominant group consists of Hindu religious songs. Despite being a Muslim by birth, he created several Bhajans, Shyamasangeets, Agamanis, Kirtans and also a large number of songs on invocation to Shiva, Lakshmi and Swaraswati and on the theme of love of Radha and Krishna.

    Nazrul was one of the founders and the most important composers of Bengali modern songs too. Modern songs are composed in a free style which is not related to any of the specific genres like dhrupad, khayal, tappa, thumri, ghazal, kirtan or even to western style.

    His songs based on baul, jhumur, Santhali folksongs, jhanpan or the folk songs of snake charmers, bhatiali and bhaoaia consist of tunes of folk-songs on the one hand and a refined lyric with poetic beauty on the other. This makes them a favourite with the listeners. Nazrul's songs have not only elation or melancholy but also the theme of laughter and merry-making.

    Kazi Nazrul Islam had a strong confidence that even if there were no discussions on his contribution to the music world in his lifetime, all would recall him in future. Today, when we are celebrating his birth centenary, it touches the core of our heart how right he was in expressing this confidence in such clear terms.

[Courtesy: Press Information Bureau, Government of India; February 8, 1999;]