Revolutionary Arts and Political Poetics: Kazi Nazrul Islam

Situated at the intersection of arts, culture, and politics, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899 – 1976) was revolutionary in every sense of the word. A multifaceted, multidisciplinary artist, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s work skillfully traversed a number of genre boundaries. From poetry to drama, from music to philosophy, the National Poet of Bangladesh was a pioneering artist, committed to exploring new forms, seeking out marginal voices, and using arts as a vehicle for anti-colonial action. Known for his life-long dedication to social justice and liberation in the face of orthodoxy and oppression, Kazi Nazrul Islam opposed bigotry in all its form, a belief made clear in the major themes that undergird his artistic work: revolution, respect, freedom, love, and equality. Interested in a humanism that extended well beyond the perimeters of race, class, and gender, Nazrul was a visionary social justice artist. And, his activism is apparent in his reputation as “the rebel poet.” Such a sensibility and subjectivity was forged through Nazrul’s journalistic and poetic work, which boldly criticized British colonial policies, the British Raj, and sectarianism. Nonetheless, Kazi Nazrul Islam was not bound by traditional nation-state affiliations, a sense evident in his assertion that he and his worked “belong[ed] to the world.” Born in British-occupied India to a Muslim family, Kazi Nazrul Islam came of age at a time of intense violence and struggle. Indeed, the poet’s early adulthood was circumscribed by the first World War, wherein he joined the Indian Army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. While stationed in Karachi, Kazi Nazrul Islam as a young man began to write poetry and prose. However, it would not be until the 1920s – when Kazi Nazrul Islam left the army and settled in Calcutta, the cultural capital of India – that the poet’s reputation would blossom and flourish. His first novel – Bandhan-hara (Freedom from Bondage) – was published in 1920. That same year, Nazrul’s first collection of poems was also published. His most well-known work – the poem “Bidrohi” (“The Rebel”) – was published in Bijili (Thunder) magazine in 1922. Carrying a theme of rebellion and resistance, “The Rebel” struck a particularly potent chord with a nascent anti-imperial and anti-colonial civil disobedience movement. The poem reinvigorated the Indian liberation movement, and became an anthem for independence in 1947. Twenty-four years later, in 1971, Nazrul’s songs and poems would once again be used in the service of independence, and he became a key figure in the movement for Bangledesh liberation. In 1972, Nazrul relocated to Bangladesh. He later received the esteemed title as the “National Poet of Bangladesh.” Over the course of the next two decades, Kazi Nazrul Islam would cement his literary reputation as an innovative resistance artist-activist. Nazrul spent his life confronting political injustice, gender inequality,