Kazi Nazrul Islam

-Rafiqul Islam

Kazi Nazrul Islam, known as the ‘Rebel1 poet in Bengali literature and the ‘Bulbul1 or Nightingale of Bengali music was one of the most colourful personalities of undivided Bengal between 1920 and 1942. His role in freeing modern Bengali poetry from poor and unsuccessful imitations of Rabindranath Tagore was significant. He is also considered as the pioneer of post-Tagore modernity in Bengali poetry.  The new kind of poetry that he wrote made possible the emergence of modernity in Bengali poetry during the 1920s and 1930s. His poems, songs, novels, short stories, plays and political activities expressed strong protest against various forms of oppression, slavery, communalism, feudalism and colonialism and forced the British Government not only to ban many of his books but also to put him in prison. While in prison, Kazi Nazrul Islam once fasted for forty days to register his protest against the tyranny of the government.

In the 1000 years of Bengali music, Nazrul was perhaps the most original creative talent. By fusing the elements of north Indian classical music with a tradition whose basis was primarily folk, and not merely because of the large number of songs that he wrote, Nazrul made Bengali music a part of the longer tradition of the music of the Indian sub-continent. His lyrics and melody freed Bengali music from its earlier medieval mould. Like modern Bengali poetry, Nazrul was a pionneer in modern Bengali music as well.

Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on May 24, 1899/1 1th Jaishthya 1306 (Bengali era) in Churulia village, Bardhawan in West Bengal, India. The second of three sons and one daughter, Nazrul lost his father Kazi Fakir Ahmad in 1908 when he was only nine years old. Nazrul’s  nickname was ‘Dukhu’ (sorrow) Mia, a name that aptly reflects the hardships and misery of his early years. His father’s premature death forced him, at the age of ten, to take up teaching at the village school and become the muazzin of the local mosque. This early exposure to the principles and practices of Islam was to have a significant impact on his later literary endeavours.

Thereafter, Nazrul joined a folk-opera group inspired by his uncle Kazi Bazle Karim who himself was well known for his skill in composing songs in a mixed language combining Arabic, Persian and Urdu. As member of this folk-opera group, the young  Nazrul was not only a  performer, but began composing poems and songs himself. Nazrul’s involvement with the group was an important formative influence in his literary career.

In 1910, at the age of 11, Nazrul returned to his student life enrolling in class six. The Headmaster ol their school remembers him in the following words: ‘He was a small, good-looking boy, always the first to greet me. I used to smile at him and pat him on the back. He was very shy.’ Again, financial difficulties compelled him to leave school after class six, and after a couple of months, Dukhu Mia ended up in a bakery and tea-shop in Asansol. Nazrul submitted to the hard life with his characteristic courage. In 1914, Nazrul escaped from the rigours of the tea-shop to re-enter a school in Darirampur village, Trishal in Mymensingh district. Although Nazrul had to change schools two or three more times, he managed to continue up to class ten, and in 1917 he joined the Indian Army when boys of his age were busy preparing for the matriculation pre-test examination.

For almost three years, up to March-April 1920, Nazrul served in the army and was promoted to the rank of Battalion Quarter Master Havildar. Even as a soldier he continued his literary and musical activities, publishing his first piece The Autobiography of a Vagabond (Saogat, May 1919), in addition to other works composed when he was in Karachi. He also subscribed regularly to the leading contemporary literary periodicals that were published from Calcutta such as, Prabasi, Bharatbarsha, Bharati, Saogat and others. Nazrul’s literary career can be said to have taken off from the barracks of Karachi.

When after the 1st World War in 1920 the 49th Bengal Regiment was disbanded, Nazrul returned to Calcutta to begin his journalistic and literary life. His poems, essays and novels began to appear regularly in a number of periodicals and within a year or so he became well-known not only to the prominent Muslim intellectuals of the time, but was accepted by the Hidu literary establishment in Calcutta as well. In 1921, Nazrul went to Shantiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore.

Earlier in 1920, the publication of his essay, ‘Who is responsible for the murder of Muhajirin?1 in the new evening daily Nabayug, jointly edited by Nazrul and Muzaffar Ahmed, was an expression of Nazrul’s now political consciousness and one that made him suspect in the eyes of the police.

In 1921, Nazrul was engaged to be married to Nargis, the niece of a well-known Muslim publisher All Akbar Khan, in Daulatpur, Comilla, but on the day of the wedding (18the June, 1921) Nazrul suddenly left the place. However, many songs and poems reveal the deep wound that this experience inflicted on the young Nazrul and his lingering love for Nargis. Interestingly, during the same trip, Nazrul met Pramila in the house of one Birajasundari Devi in Comilla. Pramila later became his wife.

On his way to Calcutta, Nazrul spent a fortnight in Comilla where he became involved in the non-co­operation movement against the British government. He composed and sang several memorable and inspiring patriotic songs; the amateur lyricist and composer had found a new voice to express his patriotic fervour. Later in Calcutta the same year (1921), an inspired Nazrul composed some of his greatest songs and poems of which ‘The Rebel’ is perhaps the most well-known. The 22-year old poet became on overnight sensation, achieving a fame unparalled in the 1000-year history of Bengali literature.

In 1922, Nazrul published a volume of short stories Byather Dan (The Gift of Sorrow), an anthology of poems Agnibeena, an anthology of essays Yugbani, and a bi-weekly magazine Dhumketu. A political poem published in Dhumketu in September 1922 led to a police raid on the magazine’s office, a ban on his anthology Yugabani, and one year’s rigorous imprisonment for the poet himself. On April 14, 1923, when Nazrul Islam was transferred from the Alipore Jail to the Hooghly Jail, he began a fast to protest the mistreatment by a British jail-superintendent. Immediately, Rabindranath Tagore, who had dedicated his musical play, Basanta, to Nazrui, sent a telegram: ‘Give up hunger strike, our literature calims you.’ But the telegram was sent back to the sender with the stamp ‘addressee not found.’ Nazrul broke his fast after forty days. Nazrul was released from prison in December 1923. A number of poems and songs were composed during the period of imprisonment.

On 25th Apri 1924, Kazi Nazrul Islam married Pramila and set up household in Hooghly. The Brahma Samaj of which Pfamila was a member, frowned upon this marriage and started a campaign to villify Nazrul through a column in the monthly magazine, Prabasi and weekly Shanibarer Chithi. An anthology of poems later this year and both the volumes were seized by the government. Nazrul soon became actively involved in political activities (1925), joined rallies and meeting, and became a member of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee. He also played an active role in the formation of a workers and peasants party.

From 1926 when Nazrul settled in Krishnanagar a new dimension was added to his music. His patriotic and nationalistic songs articulated the aspirations of the downtrodden classes. His music became truly people-oriented in its appeal. Several songs composed in 1926 and 1927 celebrating fraternity between the Hindus and Muslims and the sturggle of the masses, gave rise to what may be called ‘mass music’. Nazrul’s musical creativity established him not only as an egalitarian composer of ‘mass music’, but as the innovator of the Bengali ghazal us well. The two forms, music for the masses and ghazal, exemplified the two aspects of the youthful poets struggle and love. Nazrul injected a revivifying masculinity and youthfulness into Bengali music. Despite illness, poverty and other hardships Nazrul wrote and composed some of his best songs during his Krishnanagar period. While many others were singing and popularising his songs in private musical soirees and functions and even making gramophone records, Nazrul himself had yet no direct connection with any gramophone company.

Throughout 1927 Nazrul was assailed on the one hand by non-Muslim members of the Brahma Samaj, and by conservating Muslims on the other. A couple of progressive, secular magazines came to his defense. Nazrul even became involved in an acrimonious controversy with Tagore regarding the use of Arabic and Persian word in Bengali. The monthly Mohammadi also adopted an anti-Nazrul stance which was strongly countered by writers in the weekly Saogat foremost amongst whom were Ismail Hossain Siraji and Abul kalam Shamsuddin. The latter hailed Kazi Nazrul Islam as a pioneer, an epoch-making poet and the national poet in Bengal.

From 1928 to 1932 Nazrul became directly involved with ‘His Master’s Voice’ Gramophone Company as a lyricist, composer and trainer and a good number of records of Nazrul songs sung by some of the mosl well-known singers of the time were produced. The newly established Indian Broadcasting Company also enlisted Nazrul as a lyricist and composer and he remained actively involved with several gramophone companies and the radio till his last working days. Nazrul songs were in great demand on the stage as well. He not only wrote songs for his own plays, but generously provided lyrics and set them to tune for a number of well-known dramatists of the time.

A colorful national reception accorded to Nazrul in 1929 in Calcutta and attended by the scientist Acharya  Prafulla Chandra Ray, Barrister S. Wazed Ali, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and others was a demonstration of his rising fame and popularity.

In the midst of these productive activivties, tragedy struck twice in rapid succession: first, his mother died in 1 928; a year later, his four-year son Bulbul died of small pox, five months after the birth of his next son Sabyasachi. By 1931, the bulk of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s literary works has been published; subsequent anthologies mostly included his songs. Nuzrul used to put tune to his songs while he was with the H.M.V. gramophone company. According to a contract with the Megaphone Record Company some Nazrul lyrics were set to music by others, and it became a practice adopted by the H.M.V. company subsequently. Devotional songs with an Islamic content (Murshidi, Marfati etc.) were part of the tradition of Bengali folk music. By composing songs dealing with various aspects of Isalm (Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat etc) Nazrul for the first time introduced Islam into the larger mainstream tradition of Bengali music. The first record of Islamic songs by Nazrul was a commercial success and many gramphone companies showed interest in producing these. But an even more significant impact of Nazrul’s ‘Islamization1 ol Bengali music was that it forced a conservative Bengali Muslim community, averse to music, to turn a willing ear to listen to a conservative Bengali songs by the ‘Bulbu ‘ of Bengal and others. One of the foremost exponents of this new music was the singer Abbasuddin Ahmed. Nazrul also composed a number of notable Shyama sangeet, Bhajan and Kirtan, combining Hindu devotional music. Between 1930 and 1933 Nazrul’s creative energy was devoted mostly to song-writing and music.

In 1933 Nazrul published one of his most important essays entitled ‘Modern World Literature’. This essay demonstrates his acquaintance with the literature of different languages. He draws a distinction between two trends in current literature. One trend is similar to that of Shelley’s ‘Skylark’ reaching heavenwards above this dusty earth; the other clings to this earth with passionate devotion. In 1934 Nazrul first became associated with the lilrn world. Right at the beginning he played an important role us a song and music writer, music director and even actor. Between 1928 and 1935 he published 10 volumes of songs containing over 800 songs of which more than 600 were based on classical ragas, almost 100 were folk tunes after Kirtans and some 30 were patriotic and other songs. Thus during the thities, Nazrul established a firm classical foundation for the Bengali song.

In 1936 the film Vidyapati was produced based on Nazrul’s recorded play. In the same year Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Gora was filmed with Nazrul as its music director and included one of his own songs. In June 1936, Sachin Sengupta’s important play Sirajuddaula was staged. The songs and music were written and directed by Nazrul. The play and songs met with such unprecedented success that a gramophone recording was made, which at that time could be commonly heard in most households in Bengal.

In October 1939 Nazrul’s relationship with Calcutta Radio was formalized, and a large number of musical programmes were directly broadcast under his supervision. Worth mentioning are the critical and research oriented programmes such as Haramoni and Navaraga-malika. From 1939 to 1942 (the time of his illness), the music programmes broadcast on radio are an important chapter in the history of Bengali music. One novel development during this period which illustrates Nazrul’s originality are the songs based on the raga ‘Bhairav’ whose diversity is remarkable.

During 1939 different recording companies issued a total of over 1000 records, 1648 of which were Nazru`s songs. The total number of his unrecorded songs is perhaps twice as much. Nazru`s songs were broadcast also from Dhaka Radio. During 1939-40 the richness of the music programmes of Calcutta Radio deriving from Nazrul’s prolific creativity was remarkable. This trend continued throughout 1941, with songs based on many different ragas and narrative ballads. Apart from these, Nazrul occasionally took part in recitation and commentary of the Holy Quran. From 1939, when he first joined Calcutta Radio upto his illnes in 1942, an extraordinary development of his music took place through countless radio programmes. Nazrul has a bitter experience when someone else set his songs to music, and insisted that his songs be broadcast only with his own tunes. This was observed up to his illness in 1942.

At the beginning of 1941 Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Huq commenced re-publication of the daily newspaper Nabayug. Nazrul was its chief editor returning to the world of jounralism at the final stage of his active life. Interestingly enough, he started his journalism career at the Nabayug. It was while he was staying in the College Street office of the ‘Bengal Muslim Literary Society’ that he began his literary and journalistic career. His farewell speech at the silver jubilee anniversary of the society at which he presided is probably the most significant and important speech he ever made. Entitled ‘If the flute plays no more’, the speech is like a swansong in which he bids farewell to a sorrowful world.

Four months later, Rabindranath Tagore died. Nazrul spontaneously composed two poems in Tagore’s memory, of which one was broadcast and recorded on gramophone. Within a year Nazrul himself fell seriously ill and gradually lost his power of speech. Thereafter from July 1942 to August 1976, the poet spent 34 years in silence.

Despite treatment Nazrul’s palsy and speech deficiency gradually increased. Two months of homoeopathic treatment at Madhupur produced no results. Later, ayurvedic treatment yielded some initial result, but soon mental dysfunction set in and as a consequence he was admitted to a mental hospital in October 1942. There he stayed for four months without improvement. For the next 10 years his existence was becoming gradually forgotten, though in 1945 he was awarded the ‘Jagattarini Gold Medal’ by Calcutta University. Then in 1952 he was transferred to the Ranchi Mental Hospital from where he was sent to London for treatment at the initiative of the ‘Nazrul Treatment Society’. Several eminent physicians in London including Sir William Sargent, were all of the opinion that his initial treatment had been inadequate and incomplete. Thereafter Nazrul was taken to Vienna where his condition was diagnosed as incurable. He and his family returned to India in December 1953. The rest ol his life was spent in that condition. Earlier his wife had become ill in 1939 and though paralysed from the waist down, she spent the next 23 years of her life caring for her husband until her death at the age of 54 on 30 June 1962. At her wish she was buried at her husband’s birthplace, Churulia. Nazrul’s sons, Aniruddha died in 1974 at the age of 43, and Shabyashachi in 1979 at the age of 50.

 Nazrul had come to Dhaka in December 1940 to attend the first anniversary of the Dhaka radio station In 1971 the Government in exile of Bangladesh continued to pay the pension due to him by the Government of East Pakistan. After the liberation of Bangladesh, at the request of the Bangladesh Government, the Government of India agreed to allow Nazrul to be taken to reside in Bangladesh wild his family. He arrived on 24 May 1972 as guest of the Government of Bangladesh and was accorded due honours. The President Abu Sayeed Choudhury and Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman paid their homage to him. In 1974 the Dhaka University awarded him the degree of Doctor of  Literature. In 1976 the Government awarded him the ‘Ekushey Padak’.

On 22 July 1975 Nazrul was transferred to the Post Graduate Hospital for continuous medical supervision. He spent the remaining one year, one month and eight days of his life there. Towards  the end of August 1976 his condition deteriorated, his temperature shot up to over 105 degrees, and on 29 August 1976 he breathed his last at 10:10 a.m.

As soon as Nazrul’s death was broadcast over Radio and T.V the news spread like wild fire and plunged the Bengali nation in profound gloom. Life came to a standstill in Dhaka as thousands of men and women llined up to have a last glimpse of the rebel poet’s mortal remains in the Teacher-Student Centre of the University of Dhaka. At 5 p.m. Kazi Nazrul Islam was buried with full state honour beside the Dhaka University mosque.

Now  almost four  decades  after  his  death,   kazi   Nazrul   Islam   lives  on   in  the   hearts  of  millions of Bangladesh as their national poet. Emerging from the overall backwardness of the Muslims of Bengal in the   1920s,   Nazrul   injected  the  community with   a   much-needed   sense  of  self-confidence.   Almost singlehandedly,   Nazrul   brought about a   renaissance  amongst  Bengali  Muslims,  and   led  them   into modernity.  The  genius  of  Nazrul  achieved the  impossible  and the  Bengali  nation  remains eternally indebted to him. Bangladesh honoured itself by honouring Kazi Nazrul Islam with the citizensihip of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Translated by

Shaukat Hossain


Kazi Nazrul Islam: Timeline



Born on 24th May, Wednesday.



Nazrul’s father Kazi Fakir Ahmad dies on the 20th of March.



Poor economic condition causes his education to be interrupted; does odd Jobs from working with the Imam to the Khadem



Enrolls and drops out of Shiarshole Raj High School and Nabinchandra Institution. Becomes a  student to poet Kumudranjan Mallik.



Works at a wheat-bread shop in Asansole; meets police sub-inspector Kazi Rafizullah.



Leaves the Darirampur High School after giving his seventh standard exam.



Admitted again Shiarshole Raj High School in Raniganj, Bardhaman. Studied through class ten.



Admitted to the 49th Bengal Regiment



Starts publishing; His story The Autobiography of a Vagabond’ is published in the journal Saugat although he remains at Karachi with his regiment.



Returns To Calcutta and puts up with Muzaffar Ahmed; ‘Without Bounds’ begins to be serialized in the journal Moslem Bharat Travels to Deoghar in December.



Goes to Camilla with Ali Akbar Khan; meets Sayeeda Khatun and calls her Nargis, affectionately.



Bidrohi (The Rebel) is published in two journals almost simultaneously- The Weekly Bijoli and the Moslem Bharat; publishes Agnibeena in October and is jailed following its ban



16th January Nazrul sentenced to one year’s imprisonment; Rabindranath Tagore dedicates his play Basanta to Nazrul



25th April marries Pramila, the birth and death of his first son Azad Kamal; the publication of two poetry collections which are banned immediately by the British Government.



Meets Mahatma Gandhi at the Faridpur Congress; starts publishing his journal  Langol.



Starts living in Krishnanagar; the birth of his second son Bulbul.



Delivers a lecture at the Muslim Literature Society.



Nazrul is invited to the second annual meeting of the Muslim Literature Society; meets Fazilatunnesa.



Birth of his third son, Kazi Sabyasachi, felicitation of Nazrul on behalf of the nation.



Death of Bulbul on 7th or 8th May.



Becomes music director for Modern Theatres Limited; visits Darjeeling in June; meets Rabindranath; birth of his youngest son, Aniruddha on 24 December.



Works with the Indian Megaphone Company.



Acts in and composes music for the film Dhruba.



Dhruba released on 1st January.



Invited to give a lecture at the Faridpur Muslim Students Association.



(10th  January) On the occasion of Eid Nazrul’s speech on ‘Literature, Life & Youth’.



Directs several programmes for the All India Radio; wife Pramila is paralyzed from  the waist downwards; staging of Sirajuddaula with Nazrul as music director.



Writes the story and composes music for another film Shapure (The Snake Charmer).



Delivers a lecture at the Bengal Muslim Literature Committee.



Recites Rabihara almost immediately after Tagore’s death on 7th August.



Falls ill on 10 th July. Goes to Madhupur on 19th July. Treatment is of no effect at the Lumbini Park Mental Hospital, Calcutta.



A Nazrul Committee is set up with Shyamaprasad Mukhopadhyay at the helm.



Awarded the ‘Jagattarini’ gold medal by the Calcutta University.



Sent for treatment to the Ranchi Mental Hospital.



Leaves for London and Vienna for medical treatment.



Awarded the ‘Padmabhushan’ by the Indian Government.



Death of his wife Pramila Nazrul Islam on the 30th of June.



Leaves for Bangladesh from Calcutta.



Awarded the D.Lit by the Chancellor of Dhaka University on 25th January.



Bangladesh citizenship confered on Nazrul in January

29th August, 10:10 a.m. Nazrul passes away at the P. G. Hospital Dhaka; buried with state honours; 12 September declared a national day for mourning.