How did Nazrul perceive the world literature of his time? Was he widely read, and did he interact with the literary ideas shaping twentieth century literary modernity?
We can find answers to these questions in his essay “Contemporary World Literature” in which Nazrul outlines his literary influences. They seem to fall into three categories –the surrealists and the progenies of the Romantic tradition, the Realists, and what we can now see as the forefathers of the magic realist tradition. His outline also suggests his admiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky and Karl Marx, men whose works appeared to him to affect the lives of the masses. We find Nazrul mentioning fondly Isamu Noguchi, Knut Hamsun, Wladyslaw Remont among others, providing us with a range of names of authors of international repute of his time that is truly amazing.
It seems to be the case that Nazrul was helping to shape literary traditions at home by drawing inspiration from diverse realms of world literature. The home terrain Nazrul wanted to shape was fomenting with dissent. An emergent national consciousness was seeking to delegitimize colonial rule in India while the national politics that had been shaping popular sentiments was becoming increasingly frictional, and was seeking to dislodge Hindu-Muslim unity in India. To impact on home politics through literature, Nazrul looked towards the world for inspiration.
One such instance of drawing inspiration from the world can be seen in the poem “Kemal Pasha” of the Agnibina collection. It addresses the new political consciousness in the Muslim world after the disbanding of the Ottoman Sultanate precipitated by the Great War in Europe. We now know that the demise of the Ottomans had impacted on politics in India significantly. Indeed, the reaction amongst Muslims in India was so sharp that it had prompted Gandhi to become involved in a political movement that had sought to restore the Khilafat. Nazrul's poems, however, view the political paradigm shift differently.
Nazrul hails the constitutional reforms of Kemal Ataturk with thus: “The brave son of a delirious mother, my brother Kemal has risen/ Alarm bells are ringing, as he is unstoppable/ Kemal! What splendid work you have done brother! Ho ho, Kemal! What splendid work you have done brother!! (my trans.) His enthusiasm for Kemalists suggests Nazrul's commitment to the kind of political change that he saw as central to society's progress, something that could be achieved only by accepting the challenges of the present. Perhaps this is what irked literary and religious orthodoxy then since its pallbearers were refusing to come to terms with Nazrul's vision of progress.
We see this vision manifesting itself in the “Contemporary World Literature” essay too. While chalking out the influence of leading visionaries and the revolutionary artists on his own artistic development, he mentions a third kind, the likes of Leonid Andreyev and Knut Hamsun, who admired the visionary and the revolutionary alike to achieve a synthesis that Nazrul found key to enacting change in life and in the arts.
Nazrul was certainly an ardent reader as well as a versatile writer and composer. His admiration for Kemal Ataturk in “Kemal Pasha,” his acknowledgment of European literary forerunners in “Contemporary World Literature,” his ghazals, kirtan, bhatiali, hamdnaats as well other forms of music provide ample evidence of his multifaceted artistic interests. In addition, his editorial contributions to various literary and political supplements suggest that Nazrul was a man actively engaged in crucial conversations taking place in the world around him. That he belonged to a world that was fast changing as the old colonial order was losing its grip on India and a new order emerging is, of course, evident in poems like “Bidrohi” or “Dhumketu.”
Reading Nazrul as a key figure in World Literature allows us an additional perspective through which we can view the shaping of modern Bengali literature. Because of Raabindranath's towering influence on the ways Bengalis imagine their relationship to the world in art, we often fail to see that Nazrul too was a formative figure in the shaping of the world view of Bengalis. While we can trace the world of the peasants and artisans of rural Bengal in Nazrul's works we can also view in them the people struggling in the cities of Bengal. We can find as well articulation of love and passion that reminds us of the love stories of other cultures that have captured the world's imagination. Nazrul could inspire the revolutionaries of his time and cause alarm in colonial quarters through poems such as “AnandomayeerAgamone.”
However, it is best to enjoy the different strands of Nazrul's work and immerse ourselves in his sublime genius. He is important, among other reasons, because of his contribution to the growth of modernity in colonial Bengal. We must also acknowledge the vast range of Nazrul's works. We must see his renditions of kirtan, bhajan, songs and hamdnaats glorifying Islam and its contribution to human civilization, and his paeans celebrating the working class and the peasantry as evidence of artistry tied to his quest to understand humanity in its diversity, in the complexity of existing as one among the many. True appreciation of Nazrul Islam and his art will only happen when we are able to see him in relation to the world in which he lived and the world he had created in his works.
Asif Iqbal is working on his doctorate in English in Michigan State University.