Kazi Nazrul Islam and “world literature”

I think it might be useful to at least have a quick idea of ​​the range of readings of Nazrul and its languages. A person who had received no formal education after class 10, Nazrul knew, in addition to his native Bengali, up to six languages: English, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and sanskrit.w

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Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) has usually been characterized as a rebellious poet, particularly, if not exclusively, because of his 1922 poem entitled “Bidrohi” (the rebel) – a poem which fiercely depicts his political rebellion , linguistic, even metric. everything at once. But, in his later works, Nazrul appears as more than a rebellious poet as such. In fact, he is a revolutionary by his own admissions, even if repeated. And the famous triad of the Turkish Revolution, the Irish Revolution and, above all, the Russian Revolution have variously inspired, informed and influenced Nazrul’s work. Considered one of the greatest Bengali poets, Nazrul was also a musician, short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, editor, journalist, drummer, filmmaker, actor, political activist. And he was even a creative “theorist” in his own right – someone who comes up with intriguing, even provocative formulations and crucial conceptual coordinates regarding different figures of what has become “world literature”.

Indeed, contemporary criticism of Nazrul – while identifying him as a “versatile genius” – has not paid much attention to his creative engagement with certain world literary figures, as evidenced by his rather overlooked essay titled “Bartoman Bishshya Shahittyo” (Contemporary World Literature), published in 1939. I myself have written – more than once – about various aspects of Nazrul’s work for this page, emphasizing its staggering scope while stressing the need to start his essay on world literature. But I could not dwell on the ideas and concerns of Nazrul addressed in this essay. In this very short article, therefore, I intend to touch on some crucial dimensions of this work in order to initiate an in-depth discussion in the future.

I think it might be useful to at least have a quick idea of ​​the range of readings of Nazrul and its languages. One who had no formal education after class 10, Nazrul knew – in addition to his native Bengali – up to six languages: English, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. . He even wrote Hindi “bhajans” and Urdu “ghazals”, marking new moments of multilingual creative interventions in colonial Bengal. And, of course, Nazrul translated in exemplary fashion from Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Arabic, remaining arguably the best translators of great Persian poets such as Hafiz and Omar Khayyam, while his translations of no less than 38 suras of the Quran are simply exceptional. .

Nazrul has read many literary, cultural and religious texts around the world. And some of his favorites include ancient Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata while religious texts such as the Quran and Hadiths, the Bible and the Gita attracted him very early in his life. Then, for him, there was a whole constellation of literary figures from the Middle East: Imrul Qayes, Sheikh Saadi, Omar Khayyam, Hafiz, Jami, Rumi, among others. As for those from South Asia, one can easily mention Kalidasa, Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, Tukaram, Chandidas and Lalon, among many others. It is telling that the focus of Nazrul’s literary internationalism was by no means Europe – unlike the Eurocentric metropolitanism of his contemporaries known as 1930s modernists – but, then, Nazrul was certainly interested in works of Shakespeare, Milton, the English Romantics, Whitman, in particular among certain Russian writers, and even among certain contemporary Polish and Norwegian writers.

But in his essay on world literature, Nazrul does not immediately address the conceptual inconsistency of what has come to be called “world literature” as such – a nebulous term that continues to be rethought today. today. But Nazrul – as a revolutionary – quickly politicizes the notion of “world literature” by noting the polarities and mobilizing certain interpretative metaphors while drawing attention to the converging and conflicting constellations and configurations of creative writers across linguistic and geographical borders. For example, he begins his essay by deploying the metaphors of “earth” and “heaven” to identify certain conflicting tendencies and tendencies in literature, and thus argues that there are writers who are down-to-earth, rooted, in love with the mother. -Earth; while, according to him, there are also those who soar to the sky – Nazrul alludes to PB Shelley’s “lark” and John Milton’s “birds of paradise” to characterize these writers – those who are before all dreamers, who even aim at a sort of idealistic transcendence.

But Nazrul – long before Latin American revolutionary poets like Ernesto Cardenal and Roque Dalton – also goes beyond any easy binarism between “earth” and “sky” to encompass a third space inhabited by those writers who believe in “realization”. of heaven on earth”. .” Anyway, while speaking of world literature – the one that Nazrul reads not as an established canon of European masterpieces but “as a mode of circulation and reading”, to use the formulation of David Damrosch from his book What is World Literature? (2003) – Nazrul is among the first in colonial Bengal to suggest, at least implicitly, that the literary itself constitutes a site fraught with ideological battles and even class struggles in history, although Nazrul remains opposed to the instrumentalization of the literary as such while remaining attentive to the dialectical interplay between aesthetics and politics.

And it is both interesting and instructive that in his essay, Nazrul brings together – among others – Rabindranath Tagore and WB Yeats on the one hand, and Maxim Gorky and Bernard Shaw on the other, to suggest certain conflicts and polarities grounded in the both on aesthetics and ideological orientations. But, in his essay, Nazrul speaks not only of resistance, rebellion and rupture, but also of what he himself calls the “rokto-makha revolution” (bloody revolution), deliberately opposing the aestheticism of John Keats to the harsh, modern materialism of Walt Whitman, thus suggesting that the revolutionary movement is, among other things, about making great ideas deeply material and deeply sensual throughout the world. Then Nazrul pays a brief tribute to one of his favorite poets, Alexander Pushkin, while enthusiastically mentioning the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, quoting from Chapter IV of Part IV of his novel Crime and Punishment: “I don’t bow not to you but to the suffering humanity within you.”

It is by no means unnecessary that Nazrul admires both Dostoyevsky and Maxim Gorky – the one whose work Nazrul ardently compares to tidal waves – indirectly emphasizing that opposites and contradictions in the field of literature must be dialectically committed to advancing a revolutionary cause, while also emphasizing – in the Marxist tradition, so to speak – the need to read Honoré de Balzac and Emily Zola, quoting the French writer Anatole France, for example. Towards the end of his essay, Nazrul even draws attention to the Italian writer Grazia Deledda and the Polish writer Wladyslaw Reymont to suggest how the insignificant and the everyday – having to do with the simple peasant life – count in the self. -called world literature. In other words, for Nazrul, what is called “world literature”—as a mode of reading—cannot remain dissociated from the materiality of a cause that he envisions as a poet who is also a revolutionary.

Azfar Hussein will be teaching as the Emeritus Summer Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). He teaches integrative/interdisciplinary studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and is Vice President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies in the United States.

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