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Remarks by Consul General at inauguration of Kazi Islam Foundation on May 5, 2018

Consulate General of India

New York

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Remarks of Consul General at inauguration of Kazi Nazrul Islam Foundation 

May 5, 2018; New York 

Kazi Nazrul Islam: What does he mean to us today

Good evening Ladies and GentlemenZ 

I wish to begin by congratulating Anindita Kazi for her initiative in setting up this Center in the memory of Padma Bhushan Kazi Nazrul Islam, who is best described as People’s Poet, the Revolutionary Poet, Kobi Bidrohi.

It is a great pleasure and honour for me, as much as it is humbling, to be here and talk to you about Kazi Nazrul Islam. I do not wish to present to you a biography of Nazrul Islam. There are many here who are more eminently qualified than me to do so. Nor shall I venture into a critical assessment of the socio-political, literary or artistic aspects of Nazrul’s life and vast body of his works. I am afraid I am simply not qualified to do so. Instead, I shall try delving into the mind of this great man to get a sense his world view, and understand what it means to us today.

 Nazrul Islam was a sensitive, astute and fearless commentator and critic of the social, political and cultural reality of his times. His interest lay as much in the specific as in the universal; as much in the political (i.e the worldly), as in the spiritual (i.e. the otherworldly); as much in the now, as in the past and the future; as much in conflict as in the harmony of human civilization. The sheer range of subjects he covered speaks of a man of phenomenal versatility and intellectual prowess, and needless to say, of intense humanity.

 At the core of his body of work was a deep sense of humanism – of empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden; a rally for social and economic justice, equality and freedom. He wrote passionately about gender equality. In his poem ‘Nari’ (Woman) he writes:

 I don`t see any difference

Between a man and woman

Whatever great or benevolent achievements

That are in this world

Half of that was by woman,

The other half by man.

 To the social concerns that he expressed fearlessly, he added his passionate advocacy for religious tolerance, harmony and syncretism of religious thought and practice. In his early years, it is likely that he was an atheist. It was a time when he was closely associated with the left movement in India, drawn to the essential ethical underpinnings of Marxist theory, utopian as it seems to be today in practice. In addition to communal harmony, he viewed the common class struggle of Muslim and Hindu peasants as a unifying force in India.

 In his 1920 book, Yug-Baani, he wrote: “Come brother Hindu! Come Musalman! Come Buddhist! Come Christian! Let us transcend all barriers, let us forsake forever all smallness, all lies, all selfishness and let us call brothers as brothers.” He was also probably the first Bengali literary person to write about the Christians of Bengal in his novel Mrityukshuda (Hunger for Death) in 1930. 

In one of his speeches in 1929, he is reported to have said: “Just because I was born in this country and society, I do not consider myself to be solely a subject of this nation and my community. I belong to every country and everyone. The caste, society, country or religion within which I was born were determined by luck. It’s only because I managed to rise above these trappings that I could become a poet.”

In his celebrated book Agni-Bina (The Fire-Lute) he said that he was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, that he stood for all men, all religions. Both in his literary works and in his personal life he embodied a clear vision of a secular, all-inclusive society, as it was in the ancient Indian tradition. He effortlessly transcended the religious divide in both words and deeds. He married Promila Devi who came from a Brahmo background, and they gave their four sons both Hindu and Muslim names - Krishna Muhammad, Arindam Khaled (Bulbul), Kazi Sabyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha.

Nazrul had a surprisingly open mind, much ahead of his times. In his literary works, he added to the old Bangla tradition influences drawn freely from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic sources in terms of vocabulary, structure and meter. The corpus of his musical works include more than 4,000 songs, for which he drew inspiration – lyrics, music and structure - from Indian folk, classical and devotional music, as well as the music and poetry of Persia and Middle East.

He composed devotional songs on the Hindu pantheon – Kaali, Shiva, Krishna, Lakshmi and Saraswati, and on the theme of love between Radha and Krishna. His compositions of Shyama Sangeet dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kaali, and his Bhajans and Kirtans are among the finest in the genre. At the same time he composed songs in the mould of ghazal and qawwali, and wrote devotional Islamic songs (on Namaaz, Roza, Haj, Zakat, the holy Prophet) drawing on Persian and Arabic influences. For him, there was simply no contradiction. With time, he became more and more spiritual, drawing the best from Islamic and Hindu philosophical traditions, in line with the tradition of the Sufis.

Beyond the political rhetoric, Nazrul Islam wrote passionately about the awakening of the human spirit – a message that resonated as deeply with the mases when India was struggling for freedom from the British, as it does today worldwide. His life was one of constant striving to transcend barriers of insularity in order to embrace what was universal to the human spirit; in order to celebrate what was true, good and beautiful. This was the moral and ethical framework of his life.

While he upheld and celebrated what was unique to each individual, community, and society, he sought to constantly strive for and remind us what was universal in terms of our shared humanity and shared human destiny. He represented the best of what we know of India’s ancient tradition, of the Indian ethos, about the very idea that India is.

Nazrul Islam had a deep understanding of the history of his people, as much as about a vision of their shared future. And this vision extended beyond his own people and country; he was truly a universal man. To him nothing was greater than humanity, nothing more worthy than that. His humanity, his universalism - the ethical and moral underpinnings of his life and his works remain as relevant today, as it was during his times.

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is my Nazrul Islam …

Thank you for your attention.

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