After reading several news reports around the time of his birth anniversary this year, it would appear that in our increasingly communal and divisive public sphere, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam has attracted the favour of Hindutva parties that are normally committed to the fabrication of a mythical nation-state, populated by a singular culture and people. Nothing could be further from the complex world-view that Nazrul constructed in his work and through his life, over the course of many troubled decades, leading up to India’s independence in 1947. It should hardly come as a surprise that the most radical instinct in his work today is not his dedicated opposition to an occupying foreign rule — it is the vision of a secular society that he embodied in his poetry, songs, prose and his own life.
It is this vision that seems to be under threat from new dispensations that seek to flatten the plural traditions that inform our sub-continental practices of syncretic worship and existence. This makes Nazrul’s work relevant for our time, but also increases our responsibility as readers to remain wary of the politics of cultural appropriation, so important for political parties to create legitimacy for themselves across the country. For those seeking to make a quick political broadside using Nazrul, it might be useful to look at some of his ideas about his position in the nation.
In a speech delivered in Kolkata’s Albert Hall on December 15, 1929, he said: “Just because I was born in this country and society, I do not consider myself to be solely a subject of this nation and my community. I belong to every country and everyone. The caste, society, country or religion within which I was born was determined by blind luck. It’s only because I managed to rise above these trappings that I could become a poet.”
This attempt to “rise above” any markers of identity wasn’t a simple desire to get rid of them or pretend they did not exist, but rather, a call to recognise these barriers as man-made and, therefore, constantly negotiable, even changeable in order to create our place in the world. Thus, it is completely misguided to think of him as a “Hindu” poet — good or bad — or even a “Muslim” poet, considering his avowed position as a common member of humanity: “I sing the song of togetherness/ nothing is greater than humanity/ nothing more worthy” (‘Manush’/ Humanity).
He wrote Shyama Sangeet lyrics: Songs and poems in praise of Kali, part of a popular tradition in Bengali poetry, stretching back to at least the early 18th century; but he also wrote poetry and songs in the tradition of Islamic ghazals, couplets and translations from Hafiz and Omar Khayyam. He engaged, almost promiscuously, with a wide variety of sources and traditions across the Subcontinent and beyond, struck up intellectual kinship with political figures as different as Lenin and Ataturk and was committed to imagining a more just and secular nation than propagated by the leaders of our ruling parties.
The attempt to appropriate him as a model “Hindu” poet and celebrate his birth anniversary based upon these dangerously misunderstood, narrower terms of engagement is a travesty. It should provide the secular stakeholders of our nation a platform to resist this programme of action.
The writer, a research scholar at JNU, is the great-grandson of Kazi Nazrul Islam