EBADUR RAHMAN takes a stab at In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, a seminal book authored by the pre-eminent theater activist and scholar Syed Jamil Ahmed
The Orientals, “Indians”, dark skinned-third-world-mother-worshippers have a typical tendency to ‘reducing prosaic to mystic,’– Pico Iyer recently reminded me of this old accusation of Jan Morris while reviewing William Darymple for the Time magazine.
However, Islamic mysticism and spirituality– specially the flavour favoured by the Bengali Muslims of the lower delta of the Gonga (Ganges in Anglo-Saxon parlance)– historically emerges either as an enigma wrapped in manifold confusion and silence in the narrative of the Empire, or, as has been conveyed in The Political Ideas of English Imperialism, by Eric Stokes, in the context of secularization initiated by the West (Christian western Europe plus Hindu west Bengal).
Stokes points out Bangalee Muslim, time and again, had to find agency/expression not in the political adventures of the aristocratic non-Bangalee Muslims of the subcontinent, not in pan-Islamism of the Ummah, nor in the radical Jihadist rhetoric, rather, in the Grand Western projects that effected ‘the transference of religious emotion to secular purposes.’
Not being able to go along with Professors Huntington’s theory of civilizational clashes, nor even buying into the rival projects of modernity and modern societal values while being critical of transnational capitalism and distanced from violent projects launched by bigots, fanatics – ‘donkeys in turban’ as Maulana Rumi would have called them– not only against the “West” and the “Jews” but also against other Muslims as well, historically heterodox Bengali Muslims, in the post 9/11 world, have revived and animated discourses of a detheologized Islam deeply embedded in the cultural heritage and popular art forms of Bengal that have championed syncretism, tolerance, creativity, beauty and mutual understanding since the12th century.
Syed Jamil Ahmed’s book In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, albeit deliberately discontinuous with Nirnjan's international political significance and dimension, instrumentalises and enfranchises a Bengali brand of the theoretical apparatus of the detheologised Islam, dispatched through popular art practices and is poised to counter– with an arsenal of facts and allusions– in Professor Ahmed’s own words: the ‘myopic vision of the fundamentalists,… also those liberal intellectuals who shun Islamic overtones for fear of being outdated.’ His take on Niranjan has a different valence than, say, Farhad Majhar’s brilliant, epochal and ground-breaking Bhab Andolon, or Ahmad Safa’s Bangali Mussolmaner Mon.
Jamil Ahmed’s attempts to revitalize a utopian narrative which abrogates the “laws” of the outer, orthodox Islam, without inviting the wrath of the Guardians of the Faith, have been demonstrated in his staging of Niranjan that garner, all through Bengal , huge thrusts
of popular support; In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, also, evidences a Bengalee cultural instance that by trafficking ideas and art forms from other religions and cultures makes heterodoxy possible from within Islam.
Purpose of this well researched, if a little incoherent, important book– one surmises– is not to arrive at any final definitions, but to provide a theoretical framework; versions of “invisible” Islam vis-à-vis not only theatre but also the brave and new Post-Postmodern World , the irregular narrative voices from the cultural sub rosa– that hardly registers in the dominant culture– afflicts Jamil’s main discourse. Writer’s unidiomatic English, or syntactical idiosyncrasies can easily be pushed aside in favour of Niranjan’s colossal political/theoretical achievements.
What would have happened if Jamil Ahmed had written this book in his clear and precise Bangala, and the price of the book had been less than astronomical and it had been well distributed among his wanton fans and followers, and the politically/culturally proactive deshi demography, scoping for alternate possibilities for intervention, one can only wonder with bemused sadness…