Prof. Rachel Fell McDermott, religion, Barnard College and Columbia University, discussed the complex and divided views on Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam in a seminar Wednesday.
McDermott described her interest in “exploring how Nazrul is remembered, celebrated and thought of differently in West Bengal and Bangladesh.”
The professor asserted that Nazrul Islam’s epithet as the “Rebel Poet” was derived both from his most famous poem “Bidrohi” — which means “the rebel” in Bengali — and from the radical views he conveyed through his poetry during the 1920s and 1930s.
“He was a revolutionary in many trajectories,” McDermott said. “Nazrul was very much against social injustice and clearly expressed his anti-British and anti-colonial sentiment through his writing.”
McDermott also said Nazrul Islam’s practice of Islam and Hinduism influenced his writing.
“What is fascinating about his poetry is that it is interlaced with Hindu and Muslim imagery,” she said.
However, McDermott acknowledged that Nazrul Islam’s cultural influence is remembered quite differently in Bangladesh and West Bengal, portrayed as an advocate of Muslim regeneration, and “a secular icon” respectively.
“Nazrul is mostly championed in Bangladesh as a pioneer of Muslim regeneration,” she said. “He wrote, time and time again, that Muslims needed to be regenerated in Bengal because they were too conservative and uneducated. He had a view of Muslim uplift.”
McDermott also addressed the presence of some dissent over Nazrul’s designation as the National Poet of Bangladesh, stemming from many Bangadeshi’s belief that someone who lived in the country for a longer period and who was not half Hindi should hold this title.
Further, McDermott stressed that Nazrul Islam’s emphasis against religious divisions in society is inconsistent with his popularity in Bangladesh, a country formed as a result of such divisions.
“He represents a difficult legacy for people trying to claim him as a national poet in a country that is built around separation through religion,” she said.
McDermott concludes by recognizing that Nazrul Islam remains a complicated but revered public figure.
“He is such a complex person that multiple Nazruls can arise as needed,” she said. “Because of this multivocality, he inspires endless fascination and endless pathos. Who is this Nazrul and who will he become?”