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STEALING FIRE FROM HEAVEN

The Dissent of Nazrul Islam: Poetry and History By Priti Kumar Mitra, Oxford, Rs 695

The discursive formation of any grand narrative of history usually regards pluralistic voices as mere variations of an integrative thematic pattern. It refuses to acknowledge that the history of a specific time and place is basically a conglomerate of many histories, which are not necessarily unilinear or convergent. Any study of the dialectics of dissent of a given historical time segment opposes this bland homogenizing trend. It does so by suggesting that the Hegelian synthesis, which is a logical culmination of the conflict between thesis and anti-thesis, often survives in an unstable equilibrium, only to erupt into further conflicts.

Priti Kumar Mitraís book on the dissent of Nazrul Islam is well-researched and well-timed from this point of view. But it cannot be considered well-written. It suffers from a distinct lack of critical balance. The lapses notwithstanding, there are grounds on which the book has to be considered important.

The significance of The Dissent of Nazrul Islam lies firstly in the fact that it purportedly repudiates the Euro-Christian model of south Asian history. It explores the subtle shifts in the asymmetric power relations between organized orthodoxy and the individual dissenter, with social support getting polarized towards the latter. Mitraís discussion of Nazrulís poetic expression of political dissent concurs with that of the public space created by the publication of journals and periodicals in early 20th century Bengal.

Mitra systematically categorizes Nazrulís rebellion in four major spheres. In the field of politics, against British imperialism and against the Gandhian principle of non-violence. In the social domain, against casteism and communalism, and in the religious sphere, against Islamic fundamentalism. Nazrulís opposition in the cultural field was directed towards Hindu cultural chauvinism, represented primarily by the Tagorean school of poetry and by the conservative literary circle contributing to the periodical, Shanibarer Chithi.

Mitraís analysis effectively demonstrates how the turbulent national and international politics of the period had a strong bearing on Nazrulís political vision and poetic credo. Mitra also charts the swiftly changing phases of Nazrulís poetic and musical career, which did not necessarily remain consistent with each other.

Mitraís estimate of the historicity of the Nazrul phenomenon remains inconclusive because he does not care to examine how far the radical inconsistencies of the poetís persona are symptomatic of his age. Mitraís critical insights very often become subordinate to his celebration of Nazrulís rebellious self. Projecting Nazrul as an incarnation of Camusí rebel and as a modern-day Prometheus, Mitra is unable to recognize that Nazrulís iconoclasm was at best passionate and at worst impetuous, being intellectually shallow and ideologically superficial at the same time.

Mitra uneasily points out Nazrulís preposterous faith in the Islamic base of the Bolshevik Revolution, but does not elaborate on this. Similar other idiosyncrasies of the poet are also mysteriously glossed over. Mitra cannot provide any explanation as to why Nazrul, in spite of being so staunchly opposed to cultural chauvinism, himself failed to establish a new trend in modern Bengali poetry.

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