The tradition and meaning of the Bengali ghazal in Nazrul’s work
He broke into the firmament of Bangla poetry by writing strident, revolutionary poetry that sought to inspire all colonial subjects to cast off their bonds and invent their own independence of mind and subjectivity. This was only a few years after the first world war had concluded, in which Nazrul participated as a soldier in the barracks of Karachi. His rabble-rousing poetry was filled with the virile, masculine self-confidence of a conqueror, not the milquetoast passivity of a ghazal singer.
In spite of his youth, Azhar has established himself as a capable barrister-at-law. His lack of enthusiasm for the practice, however, surprises his peers. When he’s not at the courts he is busy with his great passion—playing chess and obsessing over masters of the game. During a friendly evening at his own house, Azhar is begged to take a break from chess and sing something to entertain those gathered. Even though he usually sings thumri, this time he broke into a couple of ghazals. His friends rib him gently and wonder what has brought on this sense of viraha. Azhar asks them to look out the window:
It was as if evening had fallen suddenly without them noticing. The sky was still shimmering after a day of rain. It looked like a great blue lotus. And the autumnal moon was the eye at the centre of the lotus. The stars were like fireflies around the eye.
The house on Lake Road was like a picture.
The scent of jasmine and rajanigandha flowers mixed together in the evening air and filled it with a sense of drunken melancholy.
The infusion of this mood, the symbolic meaning of chess (reminiscent of the dominant image of Muslim culture and power in Shatranj ke Khiladi) and the unspoken but deeply felt feeling of loss due to the impossibility of union; these are the strict, multiple frames that contain the performance of Azhar’s ghazals in Kazi Nazrul Islam’s short story Shiulimala. When Azhar tells the story of his failed love affair with Shiuli, we are not told explicitly why their union is impossible. Both Azhar and Shiuli love each other, her father—with whom Azhar strikes up a friendship on the basis of their shared love for chess in distant Shillong—is also aware of their deep feeling for each other, but the burden of unspoken history rests heavily upon their actions, sets limits to the possibilities of their engagement and performs this mysterious injunction to keep invisible bonds in place. The ritual of gathering a wreath of jasmine flowers and letting it float away upon a stream is the only empty performance that preserves the sacred memory of his failed love. It is only when Azhar sings the ghazal that these ritualistic bonds become slack and the full expression of his mood can finally find a voice.
The story demonstrates Nazrul’s understanding of the ghazal tradition and his employment of the form to respond to a certain impasse in Bengali history in the early decades of the twentieth century. It might be surprising for many readers to discover this phase in Nazrul’s corpus. He broke into the firmament of Bangla poetry by writing strident, revolutionary poetry that sought to inspire all colonial subjects to cast off their bonds and invent their own independence of mind and subjectivity. This was only a few years after the first world war had concluded, in which Nazrul participated as a soldier in the barracks of Karachi. His rabble-rousing poetry was filled with the virile, masculine self-confidence of a conqueror, not the milquetoast passivity of a ghazal singer. However, towards the end of 1926, Nazrul started writing and performing these ghazals in private and public spaces in Kolkata and elsewhere. They made him tremendously popular as a singer and songwriter,
leading to bootlegged records of his ghazals cropping up in the market. This eventually led to his job with the HMV gramophone company writing more songs of several different genres and directing or instructing popular singers of the day while cutting records with them.
Nazrul became interested in ghazals during his days as a soldier. He learnt Persian to read them in the original script and then attempted to translate Hafez’s Diwan. These were completed and published later, but even then he was attracted to the perfection of the ghazal as a form: ‘If you really want to know Hafez you must read his ghazal-songs—there’s more than five hundred of them… these are like bubbles on the surface of an ocean. Even though they look small and insignificant, they contain the image of the universe in them and it causes them to shine like a rainbow. Maybe the perfection of its beauty springs from its compact size.” His translations of the Diwan-i-Hafez or the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, though allied in interest, would require a separate textual study. I want to concentrate instead on the ‘ghazal-songs’ that attracted him then and that he returned to almost a decade later to write and compose his own lyrics.
The ghazal originated in the work of early modern Persian poets like Hafez, Sa’di and Rumi who were already establishing it as a contrarian impulse, a way of ignoring authority – if not directly challenging it – so that the act of dissent through a careful performance of decadent behavior converged into a defiant declaration of mood against the imperial ambitions of the Persian empire, the local clerical authority and increasing Arab influence over their own language and culture. When it appeared in the north Indian literary scene, however, it picked up more local influences and began to reflect certain folkloric elements, often contrasting with or absorbing the influence of Indian mythic cosmologies like those of Radha and Krishna. The Persian ghazal rarely spoke of sexual love though; and when it did it was distinctly homoerotic in nature, unlike the corpus of Radha-Krishna songs. The singer of a ghazal usually sought but never achieved any kind of union. By the end of the nineteenth century, two distinct centres had developed for the ghazal in Delhi and Lucknow—both with their own characteristics that may almost be identified as gharanas. The earliest Bangla ghazals were written in Lucknow by Atul Prasad Sen, but they made little impression on the distant Bengali public sphere.
When Nazrul started writing his ghazals he retained the sign of their Persian origins in many of his compositions and dispensed with it completely in
others. Persophilia is a complex phenomenon that has affected the artistic spheres in Europe, the United States and the Indian subcontinent over the centuries. In the Indian subcontinent itself, Persian or Safavid influence in painting can be dated to artworks produced in the fifteenth century. The German Romantics became transformed after their encounter with the ghazals of Hafez and others, leading Goethe to write his West–östlicher Divan in 1819. While the Germans militated against the instrumental rationality of the Age of Enlightenment, the ghazals also allowed an outlet for an embattled subjectivity uncertain of their state in strife-torn Europe. Through an adoption of Persian-Aryan mysticism, however, early seeds were also sown for a mutated, monstrous nationalism that came to fruition later in their history. As Hamid Dabashi describes the process, it was never a simple case of asymmetrical orientalism or cultural appropriation, since the encounter left both the literary spheres of Europe and Iran transformed: ‘As Europe was pacing and redefining itself, its Persophilia was successively integral to those changes. It was a colourful mirror in which Europeans would see what they wanted to see—not to manufacture any “other”, but to re-manufacture themselves, repeatedly.’ When the transaction reached Bengal the transformations were somewhat similar but also showed differences that were locally and colonially informed.
By the end of 1926, Nazrul had lost two of his children barely past their birthdays. In the same year he also betrayed his early Communist leanings and the advice of friends like Muzaffar Ahmed to stand for elections in Dhaka – a predominantly Muslim seat – on behalf of a cynical Congress party. Most readers of his poetry were disenfranchised at the time—voting rights being only available to the elite Muslim zamindars of the district. This led to an obvious defeat from the orthodoxy that viewed him almost as an apostate. When he started writing and singing his ghazals he was burdened with grief from personal losses, the failure of bourgeois parliamentary politics and dwindling resources that left him nearly impoverished.
Unlike Iqbal’s use of Rumi and a sacrosanct Persian mysticism – from which Hafez, significantly, was excluded for being perceived as too dissolute – to construct the exclusive, Muslim nationalism for the Indian subcontinent, Nazrul returned to his left-leaning roots and forged a commitment to his own minoritarian historical position and those of his fellow poor Muslims for whom viraha symbolised an alienation within their own language and society. This feeling of loss was compounded and mediated by a categorically uneven dispersal of colonial modernity and its attendant privileges. Even though Bengal had very old associations with the Persian language and had speakers and scholars of that language for centuries, not many ventured to tie their cultural and imaginative worlds together. This was, therefore, a new and deliberate alliance to ascribe a parallel tradition within the development of Bangla as a modern language; a classical alternative to Sanskrit, in other words. The seeds of nationalism sown by his efforts, therefore, directed this energy to a consideration of the struggle for expression through language and not religion—which marked the distinct tenor of the Liberation War for Bangladesh later. This is the tragic double-bind – that of being suspended in stasis between the suspicions of the colonial regime and the increasing, singular imagination of a homogenous Hindu nationalist public sphere – that makes up the embattled subject in Nazrul’s ghazals in the late 1920s and accounts for their popularity among the masses.
ghazal in Bangla is usually identified as ‘kabya sangeet’, suggesting poetry set to music. And the music, usually adopted from different ragas, is employed only to heighten the mood of the loose ‘shers’ that make up the ghazal. The ghazal is not a poem in the Western/ European sense of the term and cannot entirely be explained using those concepts either. It has a more loose arrangement, allowing for improvisation each time it is performed—so the construction also remains loose and adaptable. Its short, compact form also made it easy to record them for the gramophone company which could only record for a short time span then. The ghazals were adopted enthusiastically by some of the most popular gramophone artists of the day, including Sahana Devi, Nalinikanta Sarkar and Dilip K Roy—who
also wrote about the theory of the ghazal.
Even if we refuse to read them symbolically where each element in a landscape stands for something else- and there is a distinct resistance to interpretation in these ghazals which only amplifies their multiple significances of doubled landscapes, tippled speakers, outlying sarais and lonely bulbuls – the mood that pervades his ghazals ranges across the explicitly persophile ones as well as the more ‘locally’ grounded lyrics: they are marked by gloom, impassivity and despair – though never without a certain heightened regard for staging the suffering self. A few examples from both may help illustrate this and some of the earlier thematic analysis. It must also be understood that the translations are quite inadequate in English and renders the unique reserve of his ‘mixed’ vocabulary – and the dimension of performance – somewhat flat. The continuous, changing presence of natural images, play of surfaces and a strain of distinct, performative melancholy while insisting on both memory and forgetfulness mark them out, again, to be self-reflexive exercises for expressing this impasse in Bengali Muslim culture and politics at the time; they help visualise the complex historical bonds that held Azhar apart from Shiuli.
‘Musafir! Wipe your tears
Take yourself back
If the flowers blossomed by themselves
They have shed themselves too
The bakul flower did not bloom during the monsoon
Perhaps it will blossom later
Only mistakes are shed in this country
Hopelessness fills it up like a forest’
‘I cannot bear this heart anymore
This heart that is addicted to pain
That is why I hold this blue cup
And drink the red Shirazi from it without care
Why do your red eyes look so sad
Saki give me some more wine.’
‘If we ever meet
suddenly on the streets, my love
Look at my mad eyes
The way you did earlier
If this brings tears to your eyes
Do not try to hide them
The name you used to call me by
Use that one more time
If your lover stands beside you
You need have no fear because I love him too
I will ask him to love you more
Than I could ever have
If you are ever pained by the loss of our separation (viraha)
I will remove myself
I will not stop you from moving ahead
And I will ask only this of you—that you forget me instead.’
Goswami, Karunamaya. Nazrul-geeti Proshongo. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1996. Print
Dabashi, Hamid. Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene. Cambridge: Harvard U.P, 2015. Print.
Mitra, Priti Kumar. The Dissent of Nazrul Islam: Poetry and History. New Delhi: Oxford U.P, 2007. Print
Islam, Kazi Nazrul. Nazrul Rochonaboli: Volume III. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2007. Print
—. Kazi Nazrul Islam Rachana-samagra: Volume II. Kolkata: Paschim Bangla Academy, 2001. Print
Ankan Kazi is a graduate student at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
He broke into the firmament of Bangla poetry by writing strident, revolutionary poetry that sought to inspire all colonial subjects to cast off their bonds and invent their own independence of mind and subjectivity. This was only a few years after the first world war had concluded, in which Nazrul participated as a soldier in…