Kazi Nazrul Islam: Crossing Boundaries

Growing up and living in Bengal, Nazrul was highly influenced by the devotional movement that characterized Indian religion in that area. Devotion or bhakti produced some of the most beautiful poetry India has to offer: poems to Krishna, Shiva and to the goddess in her many forms were extremely popular in that area. A colleague of mine from Barnard College, Rachel Fell McDermott, has recently published a new translation of devotional poems to the goddesses Uma and Kali in Bengal. There, in the collection of devotional poetry to the Great Goddess in these two of her manifestations, were poems written by the Muslim, Kazi Nazrul Islam--ten of them had been chosen to translate and include. Each of the Nazrul’s ten represent different styles and poetic traditions dedicated to the goddess. Beyond that amazing fact, he is, the only Muslim to ever contribute to the extensive Shakta or goddess literature of Bengal. The goddess takes many forms in South Asia: in Bengal, she is most often depicted as Kali, the black goddess of time and destruction and as Uma, the beautiful and domestic wife and mother. Both manifestations are described as married to the Hindu god, Shiva. Kali is perhaps more well-known to the West for her ferocious nature she whose tongue is red with blood, who holds decapitated heads and uses other human body parts as ornaments for her person. She is most often depicted as standing on her husband who willingly becomes her victim so as to have her salvation-bestowing feet on his chest; indeed he has her heel in his hand. As frightening as she may be, many of the Bengali poets speak of her very lovingly as mother and as the embodiment of compassion. All sorts of emotions are directed to her—she is praised, feared, blessed, implored, complimented extravagantly. Conversely, the sweet and demure-looking Uma is sometimes referred to as a demon slayer of no small proportions and is sometimes identified as Kali or Durga. Still, Uma’s poetry is somewhat different from Kali’s—the poems sing especially of her comings and goings from her husband, Shiva to her parents’ home once every year. The poets describe a much more domesticated form of the goddess in Uma, wife and daughter. In the poetry to Uma, there is a reflections of many of the folk conditions in 19th and early 20th century Bengal: child marriage to much older men; the practice of certain Brahmins of marrying more than one wife; the inability of women to move around freely and especially the control of the husband over the wife. I am particularly taken by the descriptions in Uma’s poetry of Shiva, that great Hindu god of destruction and creation. McDermott notes that these poems describe him as “a thoroughly disreputable, poverty-stricken, aged, drug-addicted, homeless, two-timing, naked beggar.”(123)