When I was preparing for this talk, my first intention was to create a lecture structured traditionally, infused with abundant quotations taken from the choicest scholarly sources available. A few weeks into my work, I was proofreading the text when I realized that most of these sources – almost every one of them, in fact – were taken from highly respected, highly acclaimed, commonly quoted European and American authors and academicians.
This fact gave me pause. It made me realize that the path I had chosen was unsuitable. For the subject I would like to consider today has actually very little to do with all those very respected, acclaimed and commonly quoted authors and academicians. It is safe to assume that none among them was fortunate enough to dwell into the work or the life of Kazi Nazrul Islam. In fact, at the time of proposing their theories about literature and culture, very few of them would considered authors outside of their area of comfort and expertise. An area limited to Europe and to the United States, with uncommon forays into other regions of the world.
Half a century after the independence of the Indian Subcontinent and two centuries after the independence of Latin America, we are still bound to consider our cultural output and our literary canon based on the opinions, likes and dislikes of the metropolis and its cultural overseers, past or present. There is no analysis considered sophisticated enough to be taken seriously without the inclusion of dense references to Derrida, firm upholding of Foucault or keen applying of Julia Kristeva. Whether or not their assumptions and those of many other authors are valid when studying a creative tradition they were most likely unaware of, is a matter rarely explored.
Today, I would like to concentrate my analysis purely in the work of Bidrohi Kobi. This text, in consequence, does not aspire to satisfy the rigor of academic writing. Instead, it takes as a guiding example the speeches of the poet who seeks to explore.In doing so, it is necessary to recognize the limits that a Eurocentric view has imposed upon the intercultural dialogue between an author such as Kazi Nazrul Islam and the world. I would like to draw from my experience in this regard. In the Spanish-speaking world, only one great Bengali poet – Rabindranath Tagore – enjoys wide recognition. It is interesting to remember how such admiration took root, for its exceptional nature explains, by default, why other great poets, essayist and fiction writers have remained unknown to us.
Kobiguru emerged into our perception by way of Europe. He translated some of his works into English and on that basis obtained the appreciation of some of the most enlightened British and French poets of his time. His genius made it impossible for the European establishment to ignore his presence. The subsequent Nobel Prize created the opportunity for a worldwide audience for translations of his work. Among these translators were Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez and his wife, American writer Zenobia Camprubí. They were not the first to translate Tagore’s work into Spanish, but the most influential in that language.
No one can underestimate the significance of such effort. The resultant translations were destined to inspire three of our most important poets, winners of the Nobel Prize – Neruda, Mistral and Paz. Such a potent influence should not blind us, however, to one fact: Slightly westernized by way of Kobiguru’s own intervention, his works were further changed by Jiménez and Camprubí in their rendition. A specialist in the process has spoken of the creation of an Andalusian Tagore. His analysis is correct, for the Spanish version bear a double mark, that Kobiguru’s ideas, and, additionally, that of his translator’s idiosyncrasies.
Beyond this sort of alchemy, it is important to note that the vast majority of Kobiguru’s work has remained unavailable to the Spanish-speaking world. The Rabindranath Tagore of later years does not exist in our cultural consciousness, neither as a poet nor as a philosopher and even less as a patriot.The reason seems obvious.There was no incentive, from a colonial point of view to promote a voice that dissented from Eurocentric certainties.
Kazi Nazrul Islam’s qualities and message were even more disruptive. A few years after Kobiguru received his Nobel Prize, Nazrul’s works were actively censored, his publications seized and destroyed. Guilty of rebellion, he spend one year in jail. For the rest of his active intellectual life, until 1941, his was the difficult path of a man perceived as a threat to the colonial order and reduced, by economic circumstances, to struggle and tragedy.The British colonial power had no interest in promoting his work. His poems never had the opportunity to reach other lands and people who could empathize with his ideals and his preoccupations.
Further to the end of the colonial period, the absence of Bidrohi Kobi from the international scene continued. This time, it was a manifestation of a related phenomenon: the sieve effect, a filter that, historically, has stopped the flow of communication between peoples such as those from Latin America and Bengal. An obstacle predicated by a double limitation, the sustained lack of interest in the European and American establishment for unorthodox authors, and the way in which, instead of daring to explore and judge by ourselves, we seek the mark of approval of that establishment before perceiving merit in other literary traditions.
This situation is not permanent, of course. We can and should challenge it. In order to engage in such a challenge, it is possible to find inspiration and guidance on the works of the thinkers ignored by the establishment. Nazrul is particularly important in this regard. His is a prime example of a fully decolonized intellect, way before that nomenclature were to be conceived, popularized and exploited in the West.
His exceptional capacity to outdo the colonial burden cannot be overstated, for it is the element that allows him to become, literally, Bidrohi, the Rebel. His is a case of bellum refacere: He incarnates the urge to confront an unjust supreme power, not from a subaltern place but from a position of equality. He is unburdened from any sense of inferiority. He refuses to accept the existence of the idol of superiority, no matter what reason is invoked to create it.When he writes, “High is my head” he is not indulging in an easy metaphor, but describing a fact internalized in perfect consonance with an unbound consciousness. His poems and his speeches corroborate that fact.
How a boy, reared in a rural area, facing very high odds, orphaned at an early age, could bring himself to conceive and to live by these principles? I dare say that, along with an exceptional intellect and an innate ethical sense, Nazrul enjoyed the advantage of the multicultural traditions of Bengal. He took full advantage of this background, for nothing could contain his passion for learning, not only from formal sources, but also from the authentic knowledge of the land, way before such a path was to be appreciated in the West. The combination of these qualities, innate and acquired, made him capable to analyze world, culture and history with such sharp understanding that, in his early twenties, he was capable to write from a prison a piece such as his ‘Rajbandir Jabanbandi’.
The ‘Testimony of a Political Prisoner’ is one of the most daring essays ever written, not only in reason of its flawless structure and reasoning, but also because of its central premise: Nazrul places himself in the position of the universal citizen, totally unencumbered by prejudices and above all intolerance. In an exercise, he proposes to consider the fight against injustice from a point of view perfectly unbiased: If India was the colonial power and Britain the colonized country, the British would be justified to revolt as the Indians are justified to revolt against the British colonial power.
As I have mentioned before in a study dedicated to Kazi Nazrul Islam, such a powerful simile is unique. It calls for everybody to inhabit the place and the condition of the “other” – the other being understood as the foreigner, the outsider, even the enemy. It is unnecessary to insist in how extraordinary is that call and how rare. For if something can define our age, is the capacity that we, as a species, have developed to reject our fellow human beings, to encase them in the role of the other, and to despise, hate and abuse them.
Nazrul’s work challenges such status quo. It dwells in the concepts that nowadays we rarely invoke without pernicious irony – liberty, fraternity, love – to remind his readers that, in reality, there is no ‘other’. It searches to humble those mighty and full of prejudices into recognizing that truth. It calls for all people to reject the specter of that artificial ‘other’. A specter used, in so many cases, to generate artificial discord for despicable purposes. It asks us to bring our gaze inwards, and to reflect in our common nature – a nature independent of social, economic, or religious allegiances, and that, paradoxically, can dwell on such sources to become even more all-inclusive instead of intolerant. It does all of this without ever renouncing to outward action in the quest for justice, bringing into our consciousness the necessity for active idealism, even in the face of disappointment.
In the task to convey these truths, Nazrul used the splendid symbolism he harvested during his formative years and beyond. By doing so, he proved his ability to subsume into a coherent system the complexity of an all-encompassing background.In doing so, he opened his heart and legacy to writers and philosophers from every latitude. He said, specifically, that he did not write only for Bengal or for Asia, but for the world. A world that is now in dire necessity to hear and to understand the message of this universal man.
(This paper was presented at the international literary festival organized by the Bangla Academy on February 3.)