"What can one say? Qazi Nazrul Islam was a poet, writer, musician philosopher and revolutionary all in one," senior musician Dr Chandrnath Chatterjee said on Friday, the eve of the 115th birth anniversary of the man who is regarded as a sensitive rebel.
Dr Chatterjee is a PhD on Nazrul, the legend, and his seminal work earned him a national award.
"Rabindranath Tagore called him Saraswatir Varputra (boon-child of Saraswati). Nazrul was just seven when he wrote his first folk song, Dukhu-mian. It's what many called him for his sensitivity to suffering, for he emptied his pockets to the poor despite being poor himself."
Nazrul started as a muezzin, calling the devout to prayer. "It could be said that the mausiki (musicality) and pucca sur (perfect notes) in his compositions came from rendering of the azaan in prescribed scale and pitch daily," said Bashar Nawaz, noted lyricist-poet. "A contemporary of Rabindranath Tagore, he carved a path that lifted him to be considered his equal. His timeless works are a mix of sufi with folk idiom."
At its core, Nazrul's poetry and music espoused an Indo-Islamic renaissance and an intense spiritual rebellion against fascism and oppression. His impassioned activism for political and social justice earned him the title of the Rebel Poet. In fact, he is recognised as the national poet of Bangladesh.
His activism was born in the theatre groups he worked with and developed through the time he served in the British Indian army, after which he took up journalism in Calcutta.
"The way he castigated the British, preaching revolution through works like Bidrohi (Rebel) and Bhangar Gaan (The Song of Destruction) and the publication Dhumketu (The Comet), often saw him on the wrong side with the authorities and he was often imprisoned," Dr Chatterjee recounted. "Not that it ever stopped him. Even when in prison, Nazrul wrote the Rajbandir Jabanbandi (Deposition of a Political Prisoner)."
But he didn't lose sight of things that were wrong within Indian society and he fiercely opposed bigotry, religious and gender.
Apart from novels, short stories and essays he pioneered entirely new genres, like the Bengali ghazal. "He wrote over 2,800 songs that are called Nazrul geeti (Nazrul songs). He could be angry on issues and yet tender when he wrote on love," said Bashar Nawaz.
Nazrul's composition after the loss of his second child in 1930 inspired his disciple SD Burman who spun it into the Manna De classic, Poochcho naa kaise maine, Chatterjee said
He rues Nazrul's neglected legacy. "During his birth centenary, the NDA was ruling the country. The then prime minister Vajpayee visited Nazrul's birthplace (near Asansol), made tall promises, but they remained promises. With the NDA in power again one hopes that things change," Chatterjee said.
In 1942, when he was barely 43, Nazrul started losing his voice and his memory. A medical team from Vienna diagnosed he was afflicted by a rare incurable degenerative disease. It caused his health to fail and turned him into a recluse. On an invitation from Bangladesh, he moved along with his family to Dhaka in 1972, where he died four years later.
Privilege in praise
Dr Chandrnath Chatterjee got Usha Mangeshkar to sing Nazrul's compositions in praise of Goddess Durga in 2008. "I think it was an honour and privilege to sing the creations of a legend," the singer said.