Kazi Nazrul Islam (Bengali: কাজী নজরুল ইসলাম, pronounced [kadʒi nodʒrul islam]) (24 May 1899 – 29 August 1976) was a Bangladeshi poet, writer, musician, and revolutionary. He is the national poet of Bangladesh. Popularly known as Nazrul, he produced a large body of poetry and music with themes that included religious devotion and spiritual rebellion against fascism and oppression. Nazrul's activism for political and social justice earned him the title of "Rebel Poet" (Bengali: বিদ্রোহী কবি; Bidrohi Kobi). His compositions form the avant-garde genre of Nazrul Sangeet (Music of Nazrul). In addition to being revered in Bangladesh, he is equally commemorated and revered in India, especially in the Bengali-speaking states of West Bengal and Tripura.
Born in a Bengali Muslim Kazi family, Nazrul Islam received religious education and as a young man worked as a muezzin at a local mosque. He learned about poetry, drama, and literature while working with the rural theatrical group Letor Dal. He joined the British Indian Army in 1917. After serving in the British Indian Army in the Middle East (Mesopotamian campaign) during World War I, Nazrul established himself as a journalist in Calcutta. He criticised the British Raj and called for revolution through his poetic works, such as Bidrohi (The Rebel) and Bhangar Gaan (The Song of Destruction), as well as in his publication Dhumketu (The Comet). His nationalist activism in Indian independence movement led to his frequent imprisonment by the colonial British authorities. While in prison, Nazrul wrote the Rajbandir Jabanbandi (Deposition of a Political Prisoner). His writings greatly inspired Bengalis of East Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Bangladeshi literary critic Azfar Hussain characterized Kazi Nazrul Islam as one of the greatest revolutionary poets in the world.
Nazrul's writings explored themes such as love, freedom, humanity, and revolution. He opposed all forms of bigotry and fundamentalism, including religious, caste-based and gender-based. Throughout his career, Nazrul wrote short stories, novels, and essays but is best known for his songs and poems. He pioneered new music forms such as Bengali ghazals. Nazrul wrote and composed music for nearly 4,000 songs (many recorded on HMV and gramophone records), collectively known as Nazrul Geeti. In 1942 at the age of 43 he began to suffer from an unknown disease, losing his voice and memory. A medical team in Vienna diagnosed the disease as Morbus Pick, a rare incurable neurodegenerative disease. It caused Nazrul's health to decline steadily and forced him to live in isolation in India. He was also admitted in Ranchi (Jharkhand) psychiatric hospital for many years. At the invitation of the Government of Bangladesh, Nazrul and his family moved to Dhaka in 1972. He died four years later on 29 August 1976 in Bangladesh.
Kazi Nazrul Islam was born on Friday 24 May 1899 at 10:20 am in the village of Churulia in the Asansol Sadar subdivision, Paschim Bardhaman district of the Bengal Presidency (now in West Bengal, India). He was born into a Muslim Taluqdar family and was the second of three sons and a daughter. Nazrul's father Kazi Faqeer Ahmed was the imam and caretaker of the local mosque and mausoleum. Nazrul's mother was Zahida Khatun. Nazrul had two brothers, Kazi Saahibjaan and Kazi Ali Hussain, and a sister, Umme Kulsum. He was nicknamed Dukhu Miañ (দুখু মিঞা literally, "the one with grief", or "Mr. Sad Man"). Nazrul studied at a maktab and madrasa, run by a mosque and a dargah respectively, where he studied the Quran, Hadith, Islamic philosophy, and theology. His family was devastated by the death of his father in 1908. At the young age of ten, Nazrul took his father's place as a caretaker of the mosque to support his family, as well as assisting teachers in school. He later worked as the muezzin at the mosque.
Attracted to folk theatre, Nazrul joined a leto (travelling theatrical group) run by his uncle Fazle Karim. He worked and travelled with them, learning to act, as well as writing songs and poems for the plays and musicals. Through his work and experiences, Nazrul began learning Bengali and Sanskrit literature, as well as Hindu scriptures such as the Puranas. Nazrul composed many folk plays for his group, which included Chāshār Shōng ("the drama of a peasant"), and plays about characters from the Mahabharata including Shokunībōdh ("the Killing of Shakuni,"), Rājā Judhisthirer Shōng ("the drama of King Yudhishthira" ), Dātā Kōrno ("the philanthropic Karna"), Ākbōr Bādshāh ("Akbar the emperor"), Kobi Kālidās ("poet Kalidas"), Bidyan Hutum ("the learned owl"), and Rājputrer Shōng ("the prince's sorrow").
In 1910, Nazrul left the troupe and enrolled at the Searsole Raj High School in Raniganj. Here he was influenced by his teacher, revolutionary and Jugantar activist, Nibaran Chandra Ghatak, and initiated a lifelong friendship with fellow author Sailajananda Mukhopadhyay, who was his classmate. He later transferred to the Mathrun High English School, studying under the headmaster and poet Kumudranjan Mallik. Unable to continue paying his school fees, Nazrul left the school and joined a group of kaviyals. Later he took jobs as a cook at Wahid's, a well-known bakery of the region, and at a tea stall in the town of Asansol. In 1914 Nazrul studied in the Darirampur School (now Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University) in Trishal, Mymensingh District. Amongst other subjects, Nazrul studied Bengali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian literature and Hindustani classical music under teachers who were impressed by his dedication and skill.
Nazrul studied up to grade 10 but did not appear for the matriculation pre-test examination; instead, he enlisted in the British Indian Army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. He had two primary motivations for joining the British Indian Army: first, a youthful desire for adventure and, second, an interest in the politics of the time. Attached to the 49th Bengal Regiment, he was posted to the cantonment in Karachi, where he wrote his first prose and poetry. Although he never saw active fighting, he rose in rank from corporal to havildar (sergeant), and served as quartermaster for his battalion.
During this period, Nazrul read extensively the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, as well as the Persian poets Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayyam. He learnt Persian poetry from the regiment's Punjabi moulvi, practiced music, and pursued his literary interests. His first prose work, "Baunduler Atmakahini" ("Life of a Vagabond"), was published in May 1919. His poem "Mukti" "মুক্তি" ("Freedom") was published by the "Bengali Muslim Literary Journal" ("বাংলা মুসলিম সাহিত্য পত্রিকা") in July 1919.
Nazrul joined the British Indian army in 1917 and left in 1920 when the 49th Bengal Regiment was disbanded. and settled in Calcutta, which was then the "cultural capital" of India (it had ceased to be the political capital in 1911). He joined the staff of the Bangiya Mussalman Sahitya Samiti ("Bengali Muslim Literary Society") and roomed at 32 College Street with colleagues. He published his first novel Bandhan-hara "বাঁধনহারা" (Freedom from Bondage) in 1920, on which he continued to work over the next seven years. His first collection of poems, which included "Bodhan", "Shat-il-Arab", "Kheya-parer Tarani", and "Badal Prater Sharab", received critical acclaim.
Working at the literary society, Nazrul grew close to other young Muslim writers including Mohammad Mozammel Haq, Afzalul Haq, Kazi Abdul Wadud, and Muhammad Shahidullah. He was regular at the clubs for Calcutta's writers, poets, and intellectuals such as the Gajendar Adda and the Bharatiya Adda. Despite many differences, Nazrul looked to Rabindranath Tagore as a mentor, and Nazrul and Muhammad Shahidullah remained close throughout their lives. In 1921, Nazrul was engaged to be married to Nargis, the niece of a well-known Muslim publisher, Ali Akbar Khan, in Daulatpur, Comilla. On 18 June 1921, the day of the wedding, upon public insistence by Khan that the term "Nazrul must reside in Daulatpur after marriage" be included in the marriage contract, Nazrul walked away from the ceremony.
Nazrul reached the peak of his fame in 1922 with Bidrohi (The Rebel), which remains his most famous work, winning the admiration of India's literary classes for his description of a rebel. Published in the Bijli "বিজলি" (Lightning) magazine, the rebellious language and theme were well received, coinciding with the Non-Cooperation Movement – the first mass nationalist campaign of civil disobedience against British rule. Nazrul explores the different forces at work in a rebel, the destroyer, and the preserver who is able to express rage as well as beauty and sensitivity. He followed up by writing Pralayollas (Destructive Euphoria), and his first anthology of poems, the Agniveena "অগ্নিবীনা" (Lyre of Fire) in 1922, which enjoyed commercial and critical success. He also published his first volume of short stories, the Byather Dan "ব্যাথার দান" (Gift of Sorrow), and Yugbani "যুগবানী", an anthology of essays.
Nazrul started a bi-weekly magazine, Dhumketu "ধূমকেতু" (Comet) on 12 August 1922. Earning the moniker of the "rebel poet", Nazrul aroused the suspicion of British authorities. "Anondomoyeer Agomone", a political poem published in Dhumketu in September 1922, led to a police raid on the magazine's office. Arrested, Nazrul entered a lengthy plea before the judge in the court:
I have been accused of sedition. That is why I am now confined in the prison. On the one side is the crown, on the other the flames of the comet. One is the king, sceptre in hand; the other Truth worth the mace of justice. To plead for me, the king of all kings, the judge of all judges, the eternal truth the living God... His laws emerged out of the realization of a universal truth about mankind. They are for and by a sovereign God. The king is supported by an infinitesimal creature; I by its eternal and indivisible Creator. I am a poet; I have been sent by God to express the unexpressed, to portray the unportrayed. It is God who is heard through the voice of the poet... My voice is but a medium for Truth, the message of God... I am the instrument of that eternal self-evident truth, an instrument that voices forth the message of the ever-true. I am an instrument of God. The instrument is not unbreakable, but who is there to break God?
On 14 April 1923, he was transferred from the jail in Alipore to Hooghly in Kolkata. He began a 40-day fast to protest mistreatment by the British jail superintendent, breaking his fast more than a month later and eventually being released from prison in December 1923. Nazrul composed numerous poems and songs during his period of imprisonment, and many of his works were banned in the 1920s by the British authorities. Rabindranath Tagore dedicated his play "Basanta" to Nazrul in 1923. Nazrul wrote the poem "Aj Srsti Sukher Ullase" to thank Tagore. In 1924 his book "Bisher Banshi" (Flute of Venom) was banned by the British Raj.
Nazrul became a critic of the Khilafat struggle, condemning it as hollow religious fundamentalism. His rebellious expression extended to rigid orthodoxy in the name of religion and politics. He also criticised the Indian National Congress for not embracing outright political independence from the British Empire. Nazrul became active in encouraging people to agitate against British rule, and joined the Bengal state unit of the Indian National Congress. Along with Muzaffar Ahmed, Nazrul also helped organise the Sramik Praja Swaraj Dal, a socialist political party committed to national independence and the service of the working class. On 16 December 1925 Nazrul began publishing the weekly, Langal (Plough), and served as its chief editor.
During his visit to Comilla in 1921, Nazrul met a young Hindu woman, Pramila Devi, with whom he fell in love, and they married on 25 April 1924. Pramila belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, which criticised her marriage to a Muslim. Nazrul in turn was condemned by Muslim religious leaders and continued to face criticism for both his personal life and his professional work, which attacked social and religious dogma and intolerance. Despite controversy, Nazrul's popularity and reputation as the "rebel poet" rose significantly.
With his wife and young son Bulbul, Nazrul settled in Krishnanagar in 1926. His work began to transform as he wrote poetry and songs that articulated the aspirations of the working class, a sphere of his work known as "mass music". Nazrul assailed the socio-economic norms and political system that had brought misery.
In what his contemporaries regarded as one of his greatest flairs of creativity, Nazrul began composing the very first ghazals in Bengali, transforming a form of poetry written mainly in Persian and Urdu. Nazrul became the first person to introduce Islam into the larger mainstream tradition of Bengali music. The first record of Islamic songs by Nazrul was a commercial success and many gramophone companies showed interest in producing them. A significant impact of Nazrul's work was that it made Muslims more comfortable with the Bengali arts, which used to be dominated by Hindus. His Islamic songs are popular during Ramadan in Bangladesh. He also wrote devotional songs on the Hindu Goddess Kali. Nazrul also composed a number of notable Shamasangeet, Bhajan and Kirtan, combining Hindu devotional music. In 1928, Nazrul began working as a lyricist, composer, and music director for His Master's Voice Gramophone Company. The songs written and music composed by him were broadcast on radio stations across the India. He was also associated with the Indian Broadcasting Company.
Nazrul believed in the equality of women – a view his contemporaries considered revolutionary. From his poem Nari (Woman):
However, Nazrul's poems strongly emphasised the confluence of the roles of both sexes and their equal importance to life. He stunned society with his poem "Barangana" (Prostitute), in which he addresses a prostitute as "mother". In the poem, Nazrul accepts the prostitute as a human being, reasoning that this person was breastfed by a noble woman and belonged to the race of "mothers and sisters"; he criticises society's negative views on prostitutes.
An advocate of the emancipation of women, Nazrul portrayed both traditional and nontraditional women in his work. Nazrul wrote and composed about 4,000 songs, known collectively as Nazrul geeti. He became famous through his music for the working poor such as the poem:'Poverty'( Daridro).
Nazrul's mother died in 1928, and his second son, Bulbul, died of smallpox the following year. His first son, Krishna Mohammad, had died prematurely. Pramila gave birth to two more sons – Sabyasachi in 1928 and Aniruddha in 1931 – but Nazrul remained shaken and aggrieved for a long time. His works changed significantly from the rebellious exploration of society to deeper examination of religious themes. His works in these years led Islamic devotional songs into the mainstream of Bengali folk music, exploring the Islamic practices of namaz (prayer), roza (fasting), hajj (pilgrimage), and zakat (charity). He wrote the song "O Mon Romzaner Oi Rozar Sheshe" on fasting during Ramadan. This was regarded by his contemporaries as a significant achievement, as Bengali Muslims had been strongly averse to devotional music. Nazrul's creativity diversified as he explored Hindu devotional music by composing Shyama Sangeet, bhajans, and kirtans, often merging Islamic and Hindu values. Nazrul wrote over 500 Hindu devotional songs. Nazrul's poetry and songs explored the philosophy of Islam and Hinduism.
Nazrul's poetry imbibed the passion and creativity of Shakti, which is identified as the Brahman, the personification of primordial energy. He wrote and composed many bhajans, shyamasangeet, agamanis, and kirtans. He also composed many songs of invocation to Lord Shiva and the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati and on the love of Radha and Krishna.
In another article entitled Hindu Mussalman, published in Ganabani on 2 September 1922, he wrote:
I can tolerate Hinduism and Muslims but I cannot tolerate the Tikism (a tiki is a tuft of never cut hair kept on the head by certain Hindus to maintain personal Holiness) and beardism. Tiki is not Hinduism. It may be the sign of the pundit. Similarly beard is not Islam, it may be the sign of the mollah. All the hair-pulling have originated from those two tufts of hair. Today's fighting is also between the Pundit and the Mollah: It is not between the Hindus and the Muslims. No prophet has said, "I have come for Hindus I have come for Muslims I have come for Christians." They have said, "I have come for the humanity for everyone, like light." But the devotees of Krishna says, "Krishna is for Hindus." The followers of Muhammad says, "Muhammad is for the Muslims." The Disciple of Christ (say Christ) is for Christians. Krishna-Muhammad-Christ have become national property. This property is the root of all trouble. Men do not quarrel for light but they quarrel over cattle.
Nazrul assailed fanaticism in religion, denouncing it as evil and inherently irreligious. He devoted many works to present the principle of human equality, exploring the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad. Nazrul has been compared to William Butler Yeats for being the first Muslim poet to create imagery and symbolism of Muslim historical figures such as Qasim, Ali, Umar, Kamal Pasha, Anwar Pasha, and Muhammad. His condemnation of extremism and mistreatment of women provoked condemnation from Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists.
In 1920 Nazrul expressed his vision of religious harmony in an editorial in Joog Bani,
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. We shall quarrel no more.
In 1930 his book Pralayshikha was banned and he faced charges of sedition. He was sent to jail and released after the 1931, Gandhi–Irwin Pact was signed. In 1933 Nazrul published a collection of essays titled "Modern World Literature", in which he analyses different styles and themes of literature. Between 1928 and 1935 he published 10 volumes containing 800 songs, of which more than 600 were based on classical ragas. Almost 100 were folk tunes after kirtans, and some 30 were patriotic songs. From the time of his return to Kolkata until he fell ill in 1941, Nazrul composed more than 2,600 songs, many of which have been lost. His songs based on baul, jhumur, Santhali folksongs, jhanpan or the folk songs of snake charmers, bhatiali, and bhaoaia consist of tunes of folk-songs on the one hand and a refined lyric with poetic beauty on the other. Nazrul also wrote and published poems for children.
Nazrul's success soon brought him into Indian theatre and the then-nascent film industry. His first film as a director was Dhruva Bhakta, which made him the first Muslim director of a Bengali film. The film Vidyapati (Master of Knowledge) was produced based on his recorded play in 1936, and Nazrul served as the music director for the film adaptation of Tagore's novel Gora. Nazrul wrote songs and directed music for Sachin Sengupta's biographical epic play based on the life of Siraj-ud-Daula. He worked on the plays "Jahangir" and "Annyapurna" by Monilal Gangopadhyay. In 1939 Nazrul began working for Calcutta Radio, supervising the production and broadcasting of the station's musical programs. He produced critical and analytic documentaries on music, such as "Haramoni" and "Navaraga-malika". Nazrul also wrote a large variety of songs inspired by the raga Bhairav.
Nazrul's wife Pramila fell seriously ill in 1939 and was paralysed from the waist down. To provide for his wife's medical treatment, he resorted to mortgaging the royalties of his gramophone records and literary works for 400 rupees. He returned to journalism in 1940 by working as chief editor for the daily newspaper Nabayug (New Age), founded by the eminent Bengali politician A. K. Fazlul Huq.
Nazrul also was shaken by the death of Rabindranath Tagore on 8 August 1941. He spontaneously composed two poems in Tagore's memory, one of which, "Rabihara" (loss of Rabi, or without Rabi) was broadcast on the All India Radio. Within months, Nazrul himself fell seriously ill and gradually began losing his power of speech. His behaviour became erratic, and started spending recklessly, he fell into financial difficulties. In spite of her own illness, his wife constantly cared for her husband. However, Nazrul's health had seriously deteriorated and he grew increasingly depressed. He underwent medical treatment under homeopathy as well as Ayurveda, but little progress was achieved before mental dysfunction intensified and he was admitted to a mental asylum in 1942. Spending four months there without making progress, Nazrul and his family began living a quiet life in India. In 1952, he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Ranchi. Through the efforts of a large group of admirers who called themselves the "Nazrul Treatment Society", Nazrul and Promila were sent to London, then to Vienna for treatment. The examining doctors said he had received poor care, and Dr. Hans Hoff, a leading neurosurgeon in Vienna, diagnosed that Nazrul was suffering from Pick's disease. His condition was judged to be incurable, Nazrul returned to Calcutta on 15 December 1953. On 30 June 1962 his wife Pramila died, and Nazrul remained in intensive medical care.
On 24 May 1972, the newly independent nation of Bangladesh brought Nazrul to live in Dhaka with the consent of the Government of India. In January 1976, he was accorded the citizenship of Bangladesh. Despite receiving treatment and attention, Nazrul's physical and mental health did not improve. In 1974 his youngest son, Kazi Aniruddha, a guitarist, died, and Nazrul soon succumbed to his long-standing ailments on 29 August 1976. In accordance with a wish he had expressed in one of his poems, he was buried beside a mosque on the campus of the University of Dhaka. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral; Bangladesh observed two days of national mourning, and the parliament of India observed a minute of silence in his honour.
Nazrul's poetry is characterised by an abundant use of rhetorical devices, which he employed to convey conviction and sensuousness. He often wrote without care for organisation or polish. His works have often been criticized for egotism, but his admirers counter that they carry more a sense of self-confidence than ego. They cite his ability to defy God yet maintain an inner, humble devotion to him. Nazrul's poetry is regarded as rugged but unique in comparison to Tagore's sophisticated style. Nazrul's use of Persian vocabulary was controversial, but it widened the scope of his work.
The government of Bangladesh conferred upon him the status of "national poet" in 1972. He was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. by the University of Dhaka in 1974 and in 1976 he was awarded the Ekushey Padak by the President of Bangladesh Justice Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem. Many centres of learning and culture in Bangladesh and India had been founded and dedicated to his memory. The Bangladesh Nazrul Sena is a large public organization working for the education of children throughout the country. Nazrul Sanskriti Parishad has been working on Nazrul's life and works since 2000 in India. The Nazrul Endowment is one of several scholarly institutions established to preserve and expound upon Nazrul's ideas and philosophy, as well as the preservation and analysis of the large and diverse collection of his works. Nazrul was awarded the Jagattarini Gold Medal in 1945 – the highest honour for work in Bengali literature by the University of Calcutta – and awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award of India, in 1960.
Nazrul's works for children have won acclaim for his use of rich language, imagination, enthusiasm, and an ability to fascinate young readers. Nazrul is regarded for his secularism. He was the first Bengali person to write about the Christians of Bengal in his novel Mrityukshuda in 1930. He was also the first user of folk terms in Bengali literature. Nazrul pioneered new styles and expressed radical ideas and emotions in a large body of work. Scholars credit him for spearheading a cultural renaissance in Muslim-majority Bengal, "liberating" poetry and literature in Bengali from its medieval mould. His poetry has been translated to languages English, Spanish, and Portuguese. A major avenue is named after him in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Kazi Nazrul University in Asansol, West Bengal India is named after him. Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University in Mymensingh, Bangladesh is a public university named after him. Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport in Andal, West Bengal, is India's first private greenfield airport. A chair has been named after him in University of Calcutta and the Government of West Bengal has opened a Nazrul Tirtha in Rajarhat, a cultural centre dedicated to his memory.
In 1976 Nazrul was awarded the citizenship of Bangladesh.