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Story of a Rebel Poet

greatly after the second world war, only to see them cock a snook when they returned to prosperity. Or again Israel, to help which

BOOK REVIEWjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly84greatly after the second world war, only to see them cock a snook when they returned to prosperity. Or again Israel, to help which “courageous and visionary American Jews who risked their all by talking to Arafat andPLO” (p 336) were branded renegades to the cause of Zionism. These countries were no doubt caught in the cold war; but that was not all. They were in different ways children of their own histories, sub-ject to pressures not all of which emanated from their recent past. This was not some-thing that a country with hardly three centuries of history could appreciate. Nev-ertheless, Khatkhate’s comments in this section are perceptive and novel. He should perhaps have elaborated on these themes; but we have to recognise that he could not write a treatise in the space available.Karl Marx Meets Jyoti BasuThe 10 or more pieces in the final section are all devoted to the transmogrification of communists and their countries. Starting from Gorbachev, these essays culminate with an imagined meeting of Karl Marx with Jyoti Basu and his fellow communists. In between Khatkhate takes us to different places and persons, some remaining com-munist (more or less) while others moved away. But even those calling themselves communist or socialist today are a far cry from the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin or the China of Mao Zedong. They may not quite be democracies orcapitalist in the American sense. But they are in different degrees part and parcel of the globalisation process, willing to use market instruments when needed, or resort to state control when necessary. More relevantly, Marxism (or its variants) has ceased to be a religion unfor-giving to apostates or inhospitable to million-aires intheir midst. Flexibility in attitudes and policies characterises many of them – a trend wholly approved by the author.Altogether, this is a volume which is both entertaining and educative. One also is a wee bit amused by Khatkhate’s choice of strange terms where a simple alternative could have served just as well. But then, these are matters of indi-vidual choice – to which obviously Deena Khatkhate fully subscribes.Story of a Rebel Poetsajal nag The book under review is about the life, career and times of a rebel poet of Bengal, Kazi Nazrul Islam. It is a nuanced attempt to locate him within the “dissenting traditions”. Tradi-tions of dissent are not new in India. As the author has shown through the works of eminent historians like Romilla Thapar that dissenting discourses were prevalent in early India as well. In pre-renascent Bengal, various sects like the ‘Kartabhoja’ of ‘Aulechand’ in Nadia, the ‘Charan dasi’ sect of Charan Das of Dahra in Alwar, ‘spastodayaka’ sect of Rupam Kaviraj, the ‘Swami Narayan’ sect of Sahajananda of Oudh, the ‘Paltu Das’ sect of Paltu Das, the ‘Apapanthi’ sect of Munna Das, the ‘Balarami’ sect of Balaram Hari replen-ished this dissenting tradition by going against the established tenets of brahmanical Hinduism. In modern India, the dissenting notes were struck by Derozio and his follow-ers, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Nazrul and Sarat Chandra Chottapadhyay in various fields by going against the dominant trends of reform movements. Although the Bengal renaissance was a product of western liberalist thought and its myriad offshoots, it also resuscitated and strengthened revivalist trends in Indian religions, developed communalist con-sciousness and created newer establish-ments. StandardisationOne such establishment was in the domain of literature and the other in political philosophy. The standardisation of Bengali language and literature by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra Chatterjee created a standardised literary tradition. The emergence of Tagore, and especially his winning the Nobel, consolidated this standardisation and created an establish-ment. A whole school including a coterie as ably shown by the author, developed around Tagore who dictated the norms and traditions of Bengali literature. Any-body who deviated from it was considered a renegade and attacked. Similarly, the spectacular rise of Gandhi in Indian political scene with the thumping success of non-cooperation movement, Gandhian political ideology of non-violence and passive resistance were established as the dominant ideology and tested modes of anti-imperialist struggle. Any deviance was frowned upon and con-sidered rebellious. Kazi Nazrul Islam did not have the background of elite family or educational institution. He was a self-made man of natural talents. He was not aware of the prescribed literary norms. In literary practice, he followed his own cultural pasts, training, instinct and spontaneity. He was a poet but did not conform to the literary traditions prescribed by the Tagorean school. Hence he was ceaselessly attacked. As a political activist, he believed in armed rebellion and outright politicalindependence from British rule as opposed toGandhian method, hence he was “othered”. He was scathing in his attack on British imperialism, his poetry generated extreme revolutionary spirit, hence his books were proscribed, he was imprisoned. He was a Muslim but hardly conformed to the religious practices, hence he was denounced and ostracised by the Muslim community; he was extremely critical of the evil social institutions practised by the Hindus who saw in him a threat and an unwanted interventionist. In fact, the en-tire life of Nazrul was a ceaseless struggle against these established norms either po-litical, social or cultural all of which wielded tremendous power and authority and absorbed the counter-attack that was launched against him which even took the form of physical attack.The Dissent of Nazrul Islam: Poetry and History byPriti Kumar Mitra; Oxford, New Delhi, 2007; pp i-330, Rs 695.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 200885Against NormsBengal renaissance was an upper caste educated Hindu elite affair. The major limitation of movement emanated from this very fact itself. It was urban, elitist, non-secular and bourgeois. In contrast, Nazrul was from rural Bengal, belonged to an impoverished Muslim clergy family and a school dropout. Starting off as a mullah at a very tender age, Nazrul worked as a composer of ballads in a folk theatre, a servant boy, a sepoy in the British army, he was rooted to the ground realities of life. Hence, establishment neither attracted him nor intimidated him. Being rooted came naturally to him while others termed it as “rebelliousness”. There were others in Bengal renaissance who dissented from established norms and traditions. But Nazrul’s challenge was much more pervasive, comprehensive and multi-pronged. This was because though primarily a poet, Nazrul traversed many fields of activity. He was an activist, a pioneer, an interventionist, an inventor, a youth leader. He was a trainee revolutionary terrorist be-longing to the Jugantar group, a political activist with Chittaranjan Das as his guru, a member of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee, an admirer of Marxian ideology and had actually planned the earliest Com-munist Party of India, tremendously influ-enced by the Turkish revolutionary Kamal Pasha as well as Bolshevik revolutionism. Nazrul the PoetAs a poet, Nazrul’s popularity surpassed that of Tagore in the latter’s own lifetime. He enriched the free verse introduced by poet Michael, diversified the Bengali literature by an easy import of Arbo-Persian words in Sanskritic Bengali, sang himself and composed songs even for films. He com-posed and set to tune innumerable songs which came to be known as ‘Nazrul Geeti’. Besides Tagore, whose compositions are known as ‘Tagore songs’, it was Nazrul who was accorded that rare honour. In his music too Nazrul made his unique contri-bution by introducing the ‘gazal’and ‘Sufi’ form in the Bengali music. He pioneered political journalism in India and edited journals like Nabajug and Dhumketu which attacked British rule as well as Gandhian movements, Hindu chauvinism as well as Muslim fundamentalism. All these have been effectively brought out by author Priti Kumar Mitra through diligent archival research, exhaustive reading of biographical consultations and oral sources. The book is essentially divided into three parts; the first part deals with the theoretical understanding of dissent and its history in south Asia. The second part deals with the life and career of poet Nazrul and the third with his chal-lenge to the British rule, Hindu-Muslim fundamentalism and the hegemony of the Tagorean school of Bengali literature and their consequent repurcussions. Through such analysis the author has tried to locate Nazrul’s genius and role as a dissenter against certain establishment which “ruled” contemporary Bengal. Bengal RenaissanceAt the same time, though unstated, the au-thor asserts that Bengal renaissance was not altogether a caste-Hindu elite affair but had contributions from marginal groups represented by Nazrul too. Truly, Bengal renaissance has long been depicted as a “haloed”, unilinear, monolithic move-ment of progress of ideas. This historiog-raphy was Bengal-centric, unreflective of the subaltern, marginal and dissenting voices. This is because after the initial en-thusiasm of this scholarship on the event during the 1960s and early 1970s of the last century, research on the subject has been virtually closed on the assumption that the body of knowledge produced on Bengal renaissance has been exhaustive and conclusive. Very little light was thrown on the bourgeois character of the renaissance, its internal contradictions and massive limitations. Yet, in the 1960s itself historians like Sushobhan Sarkar had highlighted the elitist character of the renaissance, its failure to include the Muslim or Hindu lower classes and pre-tension of apolitical. The recent works of Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Kunal Chakravarty,KamalKumar GhatakandAmiya P Sen have highlighted certain divergent trends within the move-ment. The recent work of Ghulam Murshid onMichael Madhusudan Dutt is also a part of this new initiative. The present book enriches this new historiography of the intellectual history of south Asia – one of the least explored fields so far.However, the conceptualisation of Nazrul as a dissenter might not be wholly accept-able to all readers. Nazrul was popularly known right from his ‘vidrohee’ days as a rebel poet which perhaps summed up Nazrul’s creative personality more compre-hensively. Indeed Nazrul deviated from the established social, cultural, political and literary norms. But whether such devia-tion could be termed as a “dissent” requires tobe debated and re-examined. Re-exam-ined,because the author’s citation of theo-ries and history of dissent and the attempt to contextualise Nazrul in that framework has not been very convincing. Nazrul was a challenger who provided an alternative voice at least in the field of Bengali poetry and music. It is a huge achievement consid-ering the tremendous power and hegemony of the established schools. He was a literary system builder whose work remains unique. Amazingly, even after 70 years of his silence, unlike Tagore, there has not deve-loped any Nazrul school of poetry or any individual trying to write like Nazrul simply because it is immensely difficult. The author is absolutely right in stating that intellectual history as an area of south Asian studies is among the least explored and the tradition of dissent within it remains carefully avoided. In recent times, scholars have opposed the monolithic view of Indian renaissance and focusedon alternative traditions, marginalvoices, where pluralities of intellectual tradition, non-conformities and dissenting views within the renaissance have been high-lighted. Nazrul’s was a marginal but a strong alternative voice of Bengal renais-sance which got subsumed in the emphasis of presenting Nazrul as a “dissenter”.However, despite the theoretical debate the book is bound to provoke (which would only enrich the debate on Nazrul), the publication of the book is important and welcome atthis juncture. Nazrul’s life itself was so vivid and varied that it anyway reads like a thriller. English readers can now have a taste of this thrill. The detailed research authenticates the narrative. What, however, has seriously marred the narrative is the division of the book into numerous small subsections each with an unnecessary subtitle. It affects the readability of the book. Email: sajalnag@rediffmail.com

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