Kazi Nazrul Islam: Crossing Boundaries

What I find fascinating about this poetry, beyond its beauty and precision, is Nazrul’s use of Hindu text and imagery. His invocations to the Goddess refer to her in traditional terms of Bengali devotion. He calls upon a major figure of Hindu tradition as mother, loved one, savior, and avenger of all wrongs. These poems bring me to a final point on Nazrul’s writing, again focusing on his Muslim awareness of a long heritage of particular images in India as a whole. His poetry relies on a national cultural awareness that crosses religious boundaries freely. How marvelous to refer to that famous low-caste devotee of Rama, Guhak, whose person and story in the Ramakatha is the very epitome of bhakti: Rama, seeing Guhak, embraces him as he would his own brother. For Nazrul, the use of the terms mantra and Vedaauthoritative speech and scripture for Hindus become the synonymous for the functions of speaking the name of the Goddess and the authority of her literature. And, of course, Vrindavan, that pastoral paradise of loveboth divine and human--is what Nazrul wishes for the entire subcontinent to become. I have spent most of my writing and publishing not so much on Bengali tradition in particular, but on the epics known as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the latter being from whence Nazrul takes the story of Guhak. In reading the Nazrul poetry that is not part of the Shakta tradition, I discovered that he had immersed himself in the much wider traditions of India reflected in these immensely popular Hindu epics. Almost all Indians, not necessarily through reading, know these stories but hearing them repeated all their lives. The genius of Nazrul shines again when he unites not only the Bengalis, but also the people of India, including the Christians, against injustice. If he wants to speak to all people, he does not resort to esoteric poetic references—he uses any tradition that can be understood by the largest population. In a poem entitled “Prostitute,” he addresses the problems not only of these women, but also of their children: Prostitute
Who calls you a prostitute, Mother?
Who spits at you?
Perhaps you were suckled by someone
As chaste as Seeta.
You may not be chaste,
Yet you are one of the family
Of all our mothers and sisters.
Your sons are like any of us [sic] sons,
As capable of achieving fame and honor
As any of us, capable of entering heaven.
The great hero Drona
Was the son of Ghritachi,
A prostitute in heaven.
Who was universally respected,
Was the son of an unmarried girl.
Karna the Benevolent was born
Of a maiden.
Ganga, expelled from heaven,
Was married to Shiva.
King Shantanu, too,
Offered her his love.
Their son was the immortal Bheeshma,
To whom Krishna paid homage!
The sage Satyakama
Was the illegitimate son of Jabala.
The conception of the great lover of humanity, Jesus,
Remains a mystery. (Kamal, 57-58)