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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 17, New Delhi, April 10, 2021

Centenaries of Nazrul’s Bidrohi and Eliot’s The Waste Land: Colonized “I” versus Impersonal Autonomy | Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

Saturday 10 April 2021

by Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

Two seminal texts of early twentieth century literature, namely, The Waste Land written by British poet T S Eliot and Bidrohi (The Rebel) by Kazi Nazrul Islam, both published in 1922, both recognized as landmark poetic marvels because of their radically transformative “modern” content, texture and style, something that took their respective literary cultures by storm, are marking their centenaries in 2021. Eliot needs no introduction, popularly put, he is a world literary megastar, but for readers beyond the Indian sub-continent, Nazrul is not that well known, even though he is the national poet of Bangladesh and enjoys the unique position of being equally popular both in Bangladesh and the Indian side of Bengal as he spent his entire literary career in undivided India and post-1947, continued to live in Calcutta. Nazrul suffered a sudden cerebral attack and completely lost his power to speak and write in the year 1942. His abrupt and tragic illness completely robbed him of his creative abilities and although the Indian government did its best for his prolonged medical treatment, Nazrul was taken away by his family members to Bangladesh in 1972 and the then Bangladesh government conferred him honorary citizenship and ultimately, he breathed his last at Dhaka in 1976. Later he was conferred the status of the national poet of Bangladesh. Nazrul therefore, makes a unique case of “two nations and a poet” and that explains his immense popularity on both sides of the international border even today. One comes across numerous streets, schools, colleges and universities being named after Nazrul in both Bangladesh and the Indian side of Bengal, his books of poems being regularly cited and sold in large numbers and his wonderful songs, giving birth to a new genre called Nazrul Geeti, remaining equally popular in both the countries. But in spite of all that, subcontinental Anglophone scholars have paid little or no attention to him and his works. He has largely and exclusively remained a Bengali poet, being discussed only by scholars of Bangla literature. It is a pity that postcolonial academics talk about bhasha literature or trans-cultural poetics but pay scant attention to great literary voices like Nazrul.

Largely known for his cosmopolitanism and his remarkable weltanschauung of egalitarian fraternity, Nazrul is without doubt a South Asian pathfinder. He embodies in his literary universe the richly textured cultural legacy of amative co-living, of vernacular logic or the native tradition of critical hermeneutics. His unique poetic diction, infusing Bangla with Arabic and Farsi words and phrases and his bold enactment of syncretism, composing songs on Islamic themes as well as scripting popular songs in praise of the Hindu goddess Kali (Nazrul`s Shyama Sangeets), mark his singularity as a poetic voice and a visionary. His lifelong tirade against communal forces and his direct involvement with the communist movement in India, writing along with Muzaffar Ahmed (one of the founders of the communist party in India) on workers` union and on the demands and struggles of the proletariat, his trail blazing years of radical journalism, marked by his fierce critique of the British Raj which led to his imprisonment and the ban on his “incendiary” books and pamphlets — all these constitute his unique place as a literary activist and visionary in South Asia. Even today, whenever we speak of communal harmony, Nazrul`s memorable lines from his celebrated poem Kandari Hunshiar (Helmsman, be on Guard!) - “Hindu or Muslim, who dares to enquire about that? / Helmsman, say, it`s human beings who get periled, brethren born of our own mother” - are cited by us to emphasize the need for inter-faith camaraderie.

Nazrul hailed from a poor family, had to struggle throughout his life for his sustenance, even worked as a servant for his survival, could not complete his formal education due to his poverty, never got any training in literary art and unlike his elite contemporaries, the literary cognoscenti of early twentieth century Calcutta, he was completely self-made and drew his literary inspirations from the ground. That made him the people`s poet, the poet of the masses and his remarkable literary repertoire, his cosmopolitan vision, his concern for the disenfranchised and his immense poetic appeal in spite of his incredible hardship, deserve greater international attention and readership.
Eliot`s The Waste Land, being so highly rated across global academia, has already prompted many flagship international literary journals to plan for special centenary issues on the Waste Land in 2021 and this is no wonder as, Eliot being a heavyweight and a big canonical name, literary scholars would not miss any opportunity of singing paeans to his already burgeoning literary fame! This is why, one cannot perhaps think of a Department of English Studies syllabus anywhere in the world without Eliot`s Waste Land finding a place there. Kazi Nazrul Islam on the other hand, has not been that fortunate as the political economy of literary and cultural appreciation operates through hierarchic systems in which the First world and the Global South figure in completely different order — an order in which Eliot dwarfs Nazrul by his Anglicized glamour, global fame and universal appeal. English speaking academia, needless to say adds to this violence of literary hierarchy, they valorise the Euro-canon, write only in high-brow academic journals and remain completely indifferent to peripheral literary talents.

Over-abundant “I” versus Modern “Impersonality” 

So, The Waste Land is celebrated as the major literary text of European modernism, but Nazrul`s Bidrohi continues to remain the secondary voice, a specimen of what Giles Deleuze, the French philosopher described as, “minor literature”, even though it is highly respected as a seminal modern text within the Bengali literary canon. As we celebrate the centenary year of these two pathbreaking modern literary milestones, I attend to the lesser attended textual universe of Nazrul`s Bidrohi, situating it alongside Eliot`s masterpiece, daring a comparatist frame only to discover that while Eliot`s avant-garde leitmotif and “impersonality” theory structured the Waste Land, Nazrul`s Bidrohi is evidently more effusive and boisterous, suffused with the overabundant “I” that sustains the emotive poignance and rebellious self-assertion of the poem. Bidrohi has been hailed as a transformative text as there was no precedence in Bangla literature of such resounding celebration of the self - an “I” that speaks in the first person but resonates the collective spirit of colonised India mired in subjugation, drooping with a sense of abjection and total surrender. In fact, Bidrohi is suffused with the affirmative “I”, beginning with an amazing note of the defiant, valorous self:

Traversing the cosmic bounds,
Ferrying beyond the stars and the planets,
Transcending the earthly terrain, the celestial planes,
Surpassing even the heavenly seats of God,
I rose up, causing amazement among all, I, the defiant self of the world!
I celebrate my valorous soul, my invincible confidence!
I, the furious, the indomitable, the untamed wild!
I configure the fierce energy of the storm, I own up the cyclone, I am the terminator,
I, the unbridled,
I devastate all,
I, the primordial vigour, unchecked and unbound,
I untrammel all restrictions,
Defy all rules
I deflate all buoyancy, sink all ships, I the land mine,
I, the dissident self, I am of the world...
I, the crescendo of fierce rhythms,
I attend to my liberated spree of joy.
I, the untamed, my life-force brimming to the confines of my soul...
I, the creative dynamics, I, the destroyer, I, the locality, I, the burning ghat!

The entire text moves along this uplifting crescendo of glorious self-affirmation. By one scholarly account, Nazrul mentioned the “I” in this poem more than hundred times and that speaks volumes about his predominant need for anti-colonial affirmation of the valiant colonised self. Eliot`s Waste Land on the other hand travels in a different route, foregrounds the post-industrial weltschmerz, condensed further byurban squalor and ethical decay in Europe - all leading to a corrosive sense of collective ennui and despondency.

If Eliot inherited the post-World War-I legacy of devastation, Nazrul, being a soldier himself during the First World War in the British Army cantonment at Karachi experienced similar realities of death and devastation and yet, he attempted a poetic onslaught on this very melancholia, or the ennui, something the Euro-modern poets, including Eliot celebrated in their texts. Nazrul`s Bidrohi dramatizes his poetic self, impersonating in himself the pain and outcries of helpless millions. His poetic ontology however, refuses to luxuriate in this bewailing. While confronting the anarchic atrocities of the world, instead of retreating into an aesthetics of enervating lassitude and impersonal disguise, he thunders full-throated, with hopes for human triumph —

... I impersonate the traumatised breath of the widow, I, embody the moaning of the hapless millions
I enframe the griefs of countless homeless vagabonds
I exfoliate the collective pain of the oppressed, convey the burning outrage of the ravaged heart ...
I the vicissitude, I, the enkindler of Being among the hollowed minds
I, the badge of triumph in the world firmament, I, the flag of human affirmation
... I stare at the flames of devastation, greeting it with a smile of defiance ...

If Eliot`s Europe was confronting its own nemesis of over-consumption and moral decadence, Nazrul`s world of colonized bondage was colliding headlong with the imperial machinery of plunder and the industrial hubris of Euro-modernity. Eliot`s overbearing sense of ennui and abjection, being an epiphenomenon of western industrial capitalism turned him into an indirect participant and architect of the modern predicament, Nazrul on the other hand, was a victim of that very colonial modernity, an offshoot of western imperialism.

Eliot`s Apologia, Nazrul`s Assertion

Eliot therefore, sounds more apologetic in the Waste Land, whereas Nazrul remains defiant and assertive in his Bidrohi. Eliot`s clarion call for “depersonalisation” or “impersonality” in his celebrated critical essays such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent” or the “Metaphysical Poets” was perhaps inspired by the need to deflate the colonising “I” - an “I” that exploited, over-consumed and governed the Other, a sovereign “I”, too assured of itself, thriving through the appropriation and usurpation of the Other. The devastating fall out of this sovereign colonial self, necessitated a counter-culture of self-denial, of control and harmony — something which Eliot prescribes in the Waste Land as the mode of salvation.

Eliot`s therefore, was an exercise of cultural resurrection in the aftermath of civilisational demise. After the “burial of the dead”, Eliot was attempting to rebuild and resuscitate from the civilisational debris caused by the “game of chess” of modern realpolitik. The “heart of darkness” of European modernity deepened with greed and the devouring flame of capitalist desire strongly impacted Eliot`s poetic sensibility. The “naked shingles” of the modern world forced him to bewail that the “river`s tent is broken...the nymphs are departed/sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.../a rat crept slowly through the vegetation/dragging its slimy belly on the bank”. The inflammation of modern lust reminded Eliot of Buddha`s “fire sermon” - we are burning with the fire of greed, causing our combustive “pyro-politics” of extraction and hegemony. Eliot`s dejection at this macabre civilisational dystopia, elicited only his doctrine of depersonalised retreat, finding solace behind the Greek mythic figure of Tiresias — “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs/perceived the scene, and foretold the rest”. This allusive cobweb of Greek and medieval mythology hints at the erasure of the poetic “I”, calling for the “I” to be absolved through the purgative “death by water”, only to be dis-entombed through a whirlpool of ritualistic spiritual reform. In that way Eliot is a staunch critique of colonial modernity but his orientalist rescue boat cruising through the Upanishadic repository of benign tranquillity or “shanti” at the concluding section of the Waste Land, made him glossing over the brutal violence of imperial colonialism. Not for once did Eliot allude to British colonial rule of India in his Waste Land even though he relies so heavily on Indian philosophy as the possible episteme for emancipation. Eliot concludes his text by alluding to the divine intervention and spiritual panacea offered by the sacred text of the Upanishads, reiterating the word “Shanti, shanti, shanti” at the end of the poem — hinting how global peace will emanate through ethical ascesis, empathy and the practice of abstinence. Interestingly, Nazrul, on the other hand, closes his Bidrohi with that same note of “shanti” but his quest for peace is conditional on some materialist demands for justice —

I, the dissident-defiant, war-torn,
will call it peace
Only when, the cries of the oppressed million will cease to rend the air,
The armoury of the tyrant will stop piercing the horizon
I, the dissident-defiant, war-torn,
only then, will call it peace

According to Rafiqul Islam, celebrated Nazrul scholar, Bidrohi marks the amazing outbursts of Nazrul`s variegated moments of self-awakening — a moment of awakening that symbolises the collective outbursts of the nation as well. The initial critical reactions to Bidrohi were quite interesting as they reflect the resurgent fall out of the text in colonial Bengal. It was viewed by contemporary readers not just as a poem, rather it was phenomenal in its invigorating after-effect. For leading literary scholar, Buddhadev Bose — Bidrohi was unprecedented in its nation-wide impact, the insurgent uproar of anti-colonial struggle which inspired and agitated millions of Indians got its perfect articulation through the incendiary versification of Bidrohi. It replicated the wild impatience of the youths agitating against colonial rule and all forms of social anomies at that time. No wonder then, that it took the entire province of Bengal by storm. Rabindranath Tagore was at his heyday of creative popularity at that time, highly venerated by the youth and yet amidst this secure and well-established tradition of Tagorean poetry, the new and unique fury of Bidrohi, the text had a big impact on the youths of the country as they could identify themselves with its radical rebellious content —

“... I am fury, I, the turmoil/I demolish whatever comes on my way ...I, defy all rules.../I, the monk, I, the militant-versifier/... I disdain to offer salutations to anyone except myself...”

All noted literary critics of that time were mesmerised by this resplendent and trail-blazing arrival of Nazrul, heralding the trumpet of courage in this land of insipid passivity. Not only the realm of Bangla literature but the entire country was stirred by this new textual appeal and semantic force. In a land mired in inertia and supine cowardice, this versified uproar unleashed by Nazrul`s Bidrohi instilled a sense of character and bravado to the despondent masses. This prompted literary scholar Abul Kalam to describe Nazrul as Yuga Prabortok or the rebellious harbinger of social change. Bidrohi was first published in the magazine Bijoli (1922) and subsequently it was again published in the Moslem Bharat Patrika — both were peripheral literary magazines of that time. According to the reminiscence of Muzaffer Ahmad, who used share the same rented room with Nazrul in which this landmark poem was composed, Bidrohi was written by Nazrul in the early morning and the story goes that it was influenced to a certain extent by the poem “Ami” of Mohitlal Majumder and also by Whitman`s “Song of Myself”.

Vernacular Avant-garde and Self-fashioning 

What brings both Bidrohi and The Waste Land together are their commonality and shared ground of the “death-rebirth” motif. The creative gestalt for both the poems emanates through their attentive intensities on the degenerative hollowness of the surrounding world, its political and ethical bankruptcy, its abject hopelessness and ontological vacuity. While for Eliot, the very first line of the poem typifies the despondency all around, with April becoming the cruellest month of the year as it cannot generate further hope for a regenerative utopia, Nazrul on the other hand stormed into the existential nadir, asserted his own self to defy the onslaughts of ontic predicament. His opening “I” is the collective “I” of the universal rebel, the stormtrooper of crisis. The fury and assertion, the celebration of presence and defiance are the mechanisms of Nazrul`s ontological arsenal to fight the existential battle of early twentieth century India mired in colonial brutalities and the devastation of the First World War. Eliot on the other hand, while encapsulating the same reality of death and devastation sounds more melancholic, placid and ennui-ridden. If Eliot is meditative, Nazrul remains pro-actively rebellious and heraldistic. Both the poets populate their texts with multiple allusions, weaving a complex tapestry of introspection and meditative explorations but while Eliot evades and hides under the thicket of allusion and philosophical maze, Nazrul appears to be more direct and confrontationist. Eliot`s structural meticulousness has few parallels but Nazrul appears to be more effusive rather than a deft organiser of verse. Eliot is evidently more attuned to avant-garde sophistications while Nazrul remains uninitiated into that new terrain of Euro-modern stylistic innovation even though Nazrul is equally bold and experimental in composing the text of Bidrohi.

The very first lines of Bidrohi — “Uthiachhi chiro bishoi ami biswabidhatrir” [I arise, heralding the wondrous awakening of the World-spirit!] hints at Nazrul`s humanist transcendental, an imaginative flourish, a fictive counterfactual that affirms the infinitesimal within the finite boundary of being human. Call it renaissance humanism or the enlightenment cogito, whatever you like, but this is without doubt an offshoot of the vernacular renaissance that smithies the beleaguered soul with an assured horizon of self-faith, a self, drowned with ignominy within the colonial quagmire but beholden to the eternal temporality of self-fashioning. Bidrohi therefore is a poem of self-anchorage, of self-fashioning in which the self speaks for the Other. While both Bidrohi and the Waste Land poetize the self and its moment of crisis, their textual universe deals with the abgrund (absence of Being), as Heidegger called it, in two different ways. While Eliot is more preoccupied with our collective ethical erosion, mapping this ethical deficit across the temporal horizon by his brilliant portrayal of aeonic continuum of the past-present and the future — all temporalities characterized by spiritual decay while at the same time excavating from our mythic and theological reservoirs, the tools for rescue. Eliot`s thick allusive thought-current takes us to a Time-navigation, made possible through the Greek mythic figure of Tiresias who embodies Time in the Waste Land, someone who has simultaneously acted, experienced and witnessed the blows of Time. Tiresias is that “Still Point” in which different temporal horizons intersect but the arrow of Time, or the Kaiors in Eliot does not navigate through the individual self of the poet.

For Eliot, the self is de-personalized or impersonalized, his reverse-self is (dis)articulated through the collective. Eliot speaks not in his own voice, his own poetic absence is compensated through the collage-selves of myths, historical characters, sundry other literary figures and so on and so forth. This aesthetic melange or polyphonic orchestration in Eliot has been made possible through his initiation in the sophisticated techniques of French Symbolist poetry and other branches of the European avant-garde. Nazrul, being less privileged, was not exposed to Euro-modern literary-intellectual trends, although they were contemporaries and this conjoined cultural dialogue between the two poetic texts, one representing the highwater mark of European literary modernism and the other, a flag bearer of modern Bengali poetry does yield significant aesthetic and political insight, helping us to revisit fundamental questions of modernity, postcolonialism and world literary studies. In a way this reminds us of the dichotomy of colonial modernity and vernacular modernity or between what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls “History 1” versus “History 2”. Nazrul is a true vernacular avant-garde, a true kandari (vanguard) in the Indian or South Asian context, his avant-gardeism emanates from and is conditioned by the local soil. Nazrul through his Bidrohi singlehandedly showed the courage of departing from the predominant legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and ushered in new modes and new vocabularies of poetry writing in Bengali literature.

Eliot`s theory of impersonality gets a jolt in the face of Nazrul`s thundering affirmation of the poetic persona or the poetic “I”. Eliot`s argument for an escape from personality is obviated by Nazrul`s surfeit of personality and this throws up a challenge for us literary scholars. Eliot`s avant-garde elitism and depersonalised equipoise is perhaps ill-equipped to attend to the colonised reality of Nazrul. The elite erasure of the self, eliding itself to the weightage of tradition can be actualized only when one is allowed that traditional space to be inhabited. One may recall here historian Partha Chatterjee`s critique of Benedict Anderson`s idea of “nation as the imagined community”. Chatterjee rightly argued that the colonised millions in India were not allowed to indulge in the act of imagining as the colonial masters pre-empted their imagining act, and a pre-ordained Euro-modern model of nationalism was superimposed on them and they had no choice but to accept it. The indigenous traditional space was ruptured and for the helpless colonised millions, both tradition and individual talent were in jeopardy. Their bridge to the past was put under water and the way forward was precarious. A different Chapel Perilous was in order for the colonised natives. Eliot`s impersonal, medieval knight questing for the holy grail of salvation was therefore needed to be replaced by the more direct and valiant self of the Bidrohi in Nazrul.

All translations of Nazrul`s poetic lines are done by the author. The author conveys his gratitude to Prof. Rafiqul Islam, noted Nazrul Scholar for initial discussion on this subject during his visit to the Nazrul Institute, Dhaka in 2019. An earlier version of this essay was presented as a lecture at the Human Resource Development Center, University of North Bengal in February, 2021. The author thanks Sumit Ray for the invitation to think and speak on this subject.)

(Author: Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha is Professor of English, Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal)

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