Nazrul … in the eyes of Benoykumar
Subrata Kumar Das
I am no expert on Kazi Nazrul Islam but I do believe that his literary achievements are yet to be properly evaluated. While reading the excellent book by Winston E. Langley, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Massachusetts University, Boston, I could not but reflect on it for hours together. The only question that hovers over me is why we, the 160 million people of Bangladesh, or to be more specific 300 million Bangla-speaking people of the world, could not evaluate the poetry of Nazrul from the point of view that Langley has approached it from.
It is a well known fact that ‘Bidrohi’ (The Rebel), the most talked of and most appreciated poem of Kazi Nazrul Islam, was composed in the last week of the year 1921. By then, criticism of his poetry had begun to appear in the literary journals, which began to earn him a good reputation, to a point where he was able to get a welcome note for his newspaper Dhumketu from Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Dhumketu made its appearance on 12 August 1922 with a note from the Nobel laureate. On 30 August, the Kolkata-based English daily Amrita Bazar wrote: ‘The editor (Kazi Nazrul Islam) has already made his mark as a powerful poet and some of his recent poems, particularly the ‘Bidrohi’, are among the most well-known in Bengali literature…’ It is indeed interesting to know that in the same year a work, titled The Futurism of Young Asia, was published from Germany and spoke of ‘Bidrohi’ and Kazi Nazrul Islam in the chapter, ‘Recent Bengali Thought’. The writer of the book is a noted scholar of Bengal, Professor Benoykumar Sarkar (1887-1949).
Before the publication of ‘Bidrohi’, Nazrul had the volume of short stories called Byathar Daan, and the novel Bandhanhara along with his good number of poems – ‘Kemal Pasha’, ‘Anwar’, ‘Moharram’, ‘Kheyaparer Toroni’ etc – published. These were enough to exhibit the intellectual genius of the Rebel Poet before the world, leading in time to the creation of a new epoch in the literary world of the Bengali. Benoykumar Sarkar had an opportunity of going through ‘Bidrohi’ while he was in Berlin and came to comprehend the blazing literary genius in the young man.
Through reading a few pages of The Futurism of Young Asia by Benoykumar Sarkar, one can assume that the author did not fail to evaluate the poetic quality that is so much a definitive characteristic of the poems of Nazrul. To Benoykumar Sarkar’s credit it can be said that he did not hesitate to praise the young and at the time little known poet in his English language work, which in any event devoted only a few pages to literature written in Bangla.
Originally hailing from Bikrampur of Dhaka district, Benoykumar Sarkar established himself as an eminent intellectual in Calcutta society of the time. He joined the teaching profession at the age of twenty and wrote prodigiously on many different aspects of education. He is one of the very few Bengali intellectuals whose books have been published in the United States, China, Japan, Britain and Germany. In the year 1912, his work, The Science of History and the Hope of Mankind, was published in Britain. His English language works that were published in the following years were The Aids to General Culture Series and The Science of Education and the Inductive Method of Teaching Series. His Love in Hindu Literature and The Beginning of Hindu Culture as World Power were published in 1916 in China. Meanwhile, The Bliss of a Moment, an anthology of his English poems, came out from America.
Benoykumar Sarkar was a world traveller and visited some twelve countries beginning in 1914. During his tours he served at a number of European, American and Far Eastern universities. His travel writings covering Japan, China, France, England, America and Ireland have been published in thirteen volumes. He has more than twenty four thousand printed pages to his credit. Apart from writing in Bangla and English, he also produced works in French, German and Italian.
What was the genesis of The Futurism of Young Asia? A speech at Clark University in America, delivered in 1917, suggests that it was symbolic of a revolt against European attitudes to Asian cultures. Perhaps that was one reason why Benoykumar decided to include the fiery poems of Nazrul in his discussions.
What did Benoykumar Sarkar write on the newly emerging poet? The book has a chapter called ‘Currents in the Literature of Young India’ with the subtitle ‘Recent Bengali Thought’. There Benoykumar highlights the emergence of Muslim writers in Bangla literature. He strongly emphasizes the fact that it is not only in journalism, but in creative literature as well that the significant presence of Muslim authors can be noticed. In this regard he cites from ‘Bidrohi’, presenting some lines of the poem in his own translation. Benoykumar’s translation reads:
Say! ‘Erect is my head!
Seeing my head that Himalayan peak
Bends low in shame’
He also writes: ‘One feels that Bengal is now on the eve of a great literary outburst, an abandon in self-expression and lyrical enthusiasm which we have sought in vain during the last decade.’ It would really be amazing to note that Benoykumar has never been mentioned in connection with Nazrul criticism though he was a sincere reader of the rebel poet’s writings and made very non-traditional comments in regard to his writings.
Those who have taken a look at the two-volume adda (conversations) book, published under the title Binoy Sarkarer Boithoke, will realise the significance of it. In the book Nazrul has been referred to about twenty times. Benoykumar Sarkar considered Nazrul as an epoch-making poet. More than that, it was Benoykumar who first compared the Rebel Poet with the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). According to Benoykumar, Nazrul had surpassed Whitman in many aspects.
Benoykumar says: ‘The ‘I’ in the poem ‘Bidrohi’ is not the poet Nazrul himself; rather it is the person who reads the poem’. Thus ‘Bidhrohi’ attains a new dimension, without question. He discovers the root of the self of Nazrul’s ‘Bidrohi’ in the Atharva-Veda: ‘Mighty am I, ‘Superior’ (uttara) by name, upon the earth, conquering am I, all conquering, completely conquering every region’. (12/1/54).
The Futurism of Young Asia, published in a distant land in the year 1922, was no doubt a milestone in the study of Kazi Nazrul Islam. Benoykumar Sarkar, then a globally reputed scholar on Indology and popularly known as shobjanta, that is, ‘all-knowing’ to the Calcutta literati, has remained ignored during the last nine decades. We believe it is time for Nazrul enthusiasts to rediscover Benoykumar Sarkar and so add to the richness of future studies on the life and achievements of Kazi Nazrul Islam.