Motifs of aura and actuality in Kazi Nazrul Islam: passages from modernity
Depart reprints here two separate articles on poet Kazi Nazrul Islam by SALIMULLAH KHAN, the public intellectual, scholar and faculty at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. The rationale behind this reprint as well as the coupling is twofold – one is to reemphasize the poet's place on the literary map of Bengal as a singular voice that sought to dethrone many a shibboleth to make way for a polity diametrically opposed to the colonial power-structure. If the primary reason has to do with Nazrul's enduring engagements with politics and polarized polemics aimed at debasing social hierarchy and the resultant disharmony between religious sects and social classes, the other, and an equally important one, is to dispel the misgivings about his stature as a lyric poet who employed a mode of expression that appealed to a greater audience as they came packed with the suffusion of love and longing he continued to harp on till he became afflicted by mental illness in the early 1940s which left him without a voice and a sound mind till he breathed his last in 1976.
Lyric poetry makes for poor translation. Nazrul Islam who rose like a meteor in the 1920s, and fizzled out equally meteorically by the early 1940s, at any rate makes the case compelling. He remains for the most part un-translated to this day. In saying this I am being neither oblivious, nor dismissive of many attempts at translating him in European languages. His stature as a poet in Bengali therefore remains largely terra incognita to peoples outside Bengal even today.
In assessing Nazrul Islam's stature as a poet, account must be taken of his popularity in his own language. The immediate appeal of his poetry, which the passage of time has done nothing to decline, can in the main be attributed to his aura as a poet in the good old, authentic, should I say ante-colonial, Bengali tradition. Nazrul Islam, speaking purely of techniques, proved a poet of very high order from the day of his debut. 'But with all his dislike for certain aspects of Nazrul's poetry,' the noted Nirad C Chaudhuri writes in the second volume of his autobiography: '[Mohitlal Majumdar] admired his virtuosity as a versifier, and often recited his poems in our house, and put as much gusto into the reading as he did in his own poems.'
Secondly, as a poet of actuality in late colonialism when 'aura' was already set to decline, it cannot be denied that some of his motifs render the possibility of lyric poetry – the message bearers of the eternal – problematic. Late colonialism, it may not be overlooked, sometimes goes by other names, modernity or nationalism. These two facts, I will argue, define Nazrul Islam historically. This contributed to a general trend contributing to the end of aura embodied in the canonical figure of Rabindranath Tagore.
What Nirad C Chaudhuri wrote in a memorializing way in 1987 is preeminent testament to that truth. True, Chaudhuri disliked Nazrul Islam a lot but it was the general trend that set his extraordinariness ablaze. 'I disapproved of the general trend,' Chaudhuri wrote, 'in which I found decline of taste, sensibility, and sincerity, as well as decline of purely technical competence.' 'It seemed to me,' he continued, 'that in all that was appearing in print from the younger writers there was an indication of the decline of the whole of cultural life of Bengal. I thought that the Bengali literary effort, which was the most successful cultural enterprise of the Bengali people, was running into a channel which led only into a desert or a morass, in which it would lose itself.'
This cannot but bring us one notch closer to Charles Baudelaire, the last lyric poet who had a broad European reception, whose 'writings penetrated beyond a more or less limited linguistic area.' Let us take here a leaf out of Walter Benjamin who notes, for Baudelaire, the lyric poet with his aura is already antiquated. 'In a prose piece entitled “Perte d'auréole” [Loss of a Halo], which came to light at a late date,' Benjamin wrote, 'Baudelaire presents such a poet as a supernumerary. When Baudelaire's literary remains were first examined, this piece was rejected as “unsuitable for publication”; to this day it has been neglected by Baudelaire scholars.' It is no longer so, perhaps on account of this observation of Benjamin's. Let's take a look at the prose piece.
'What do I see, my dear fellow? You – here? I find you in a place of ill repute – a man who sips quintessences, who consumes ambrosia? Really! I couldn't be more surprised!'
'You know, my dear fellow, how afraid I am of horses and carriages. A short while ago I was hurrying across the boulevard, and amid that churning chaos in which death comes galloping at you from all sides at once I must have made an awkward movement, for the [aura] slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam. I didn't have the courage to pick it up, and decided that it hurts less to lose one's insignia than to have one's bones broken. Furthermore, I said to myself, every cloud has a silver lining. Now I can go about incognito, do bad things, and indulge in vulgar behavior like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you!'
'But you ought to report the loss of your [aura] or inquire at the lost-and-found office.'
'I wouldn't dream of it. I like it here. You are the only person who has recognized me. Besides, dignity bores me. And it amuses me to think that some bad poet will pick up the [aura] and straightaway adorn himself with it. There's nothing I like better than making someone happy – especially if the happy fellow is someone I can laugh at. Just picture X wearing it or Y! Won't that be funny?'
The same scene, Benjamin notes, is found in Baudelaire's diaries, except that the ending is different. In that version: 'The poet quickly picks his aura – but now he is troubled by the feeling that the incident may be a bad omen.'
Aura, sometimes also translated as 'halo', is a treacherous signifier. It signifies many things for many an age. The good German critic Walter Benjamin, in his early work, discusses aura in a variety of ways – for example, 'in relation to drugs and nature, in relation to fascist warrior-fixation and art and reproduction.' 'However,' as Leslie Esther, a Benjamin scholar, once regretfully observed, 'the emphasis of most critical literature has been overwhelmingly on the related but quite circumscribed set of thoughts around the decline of aura or, more specifically, its abolition in the face of the technical production of art.' Benjamin, however, discusses the question of declining aura extensively in a rather late work, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. Aura's decline is manifest in such technologically overdetermined cultural forms as film and photography.
This emphasis has unfortunate consequences, for the other, perhaps a more radical, sense of aura in Benjamin: 'aura as an aspect of experience in general'. In this sense, 'aura relates to perception and cognition in everyday life. It is evoked in relation to the experience of sunlight on a summer's day in the countryside or in the context of drug-induced vision,' as we are reminded. The decline of aura does not imply, however, that aura has seeped out of all of experience tout court, 'for art is only a subset of possible experience.'
With actuality we land on more treacherous ground. Actuality makes poor sense in English. Its continental counterparts – Aktualität in German or actuelle in French – evoke the contemporary significance of a thing, or even the underlying, decisive 'spirit of the epoch'. Aktualität speaks to the current moment, or to the contrary of the eternal. 'Actuality', then signals a break with the traditional emphasis on eternal value in relation to cultural form, as Walter Benjamin suggested in 1928. It is in such a sense that, I would say, Nazrul Islam spoke of his enterprise in 1925.
Let us consider a few stanzas of Nazrul Islam's 'My Apologia,' a poem taken for a cause, a manifesto of sorts. I will make a reference to 'Amar Koiphiot' published first in the Kolkata journal Bijli (vol. V, no. 41, Ashwin 1332 BS) in 1925 which is to be found in the collection Sarbohara printed next year. It was 'with a severe review' of this collection in the foremost Bengali magazine, Prabashi, that the noted Nirad C Chaudhuri's first incursion into Bengali journalism was made.
'I am a poet of actuality, comrade, and no prophet of the eternal I happen to be.
Call me a poet or charlatan, whatever as you prefer, it makes no difference to me!
Some say, o, your place in times to come
Is there for sure with poets who would be!
Where is that kind of message for eternity like the ones coming out of the hands of our Rabi?
All blame me, I do know, but what else to do but to keep singing my own morning Bhairabi!'
This passage (and, no doubt, thirteen others that make up 'My Apologia') renders the possibility of lyric poetry problematic. The man who wrote these lines is no joker. He is passing, of course in an ironical form, a comment on Rabindranath Tagore. In the third stanza, the reference is no more ironic, however. It is, to frankly put in proper context, iconoclastic.
The master says, 'So, sword off the cuff you embark on shaving chins of myriad folks!'
In her weekly Saturday Mail, my love reproaches: a crow you are, tongue in cheek!
I say, shall I break the jar apart then, spill it all out?
Her mail comes to a grinding halt all of a sudden at this howl.
I left it all behind and got married. The Hindus would say, 'Bye bye uncle, O!'
Knowing not what I happen to be, an Yavan or a Kafir, I grope for pigtail, beard,
And lo! I just keep wagging my loincloths on!'
This resonates well with Baudelaire's own experience: 'Lost in this base world, jostled by the crowd, I am like a weary man whose eye, looking backward into the depths of the years, sees only disillusion and bitterness, and looking ahead sees only a tempest which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain.'
Of all the experiences which made his life what it was Nazrul Islam too singled out the crows, but albeit a motley crowd. It is the crowd of the communal question, or the Hindu-Muslim discord in Bengal which appeared as the decisive, unmistakable immediate experience for our poet. Colonialism, in Nazrul Islam's work, has given this daily experience the stamp of prolonged suffering. 'Baudelaire named the price for which the sensation of modernity could be had: the disintegration of aura in an immediate shock experience.' 'He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration,' says Benjamin. That is why, as Benjamin asserts, Baudelaire's poetry 'appears in the sky of the Second Empire as a star without atmosphere.'
As the last stanza of 'My apology', the only one in which two lines are missing, has it: 'I don't care if I survive the age or not, when its craze is over. But don't you worry, there is that Rabi [the sun, also a pun on Rabindranath Tagore's own name] burning above, and besides, there are hundred sons around. Let us pray, may these, my blood-dripping, letters inscribe of a doomsday meant for all those plunderers who are plundering us three hundred thirty millions of our all, bread and butter!' This poetry, needless to say, in the firmament of the British Empire in India, appeared like an 'atmosphere without a star.'
The contribution this atmosphere made to the disintegration of aura in Bengali poetry of the early twentieth century has long been underestimated. And, I will say it once more here, it was a mistake. Kazi Nazrul Islam's poetry made a lasting contribution to the disintegration of many traditional concepts such as 'creativity and genius,' 'eternal value and mystery' and all that – which, as Walter Benjamin had the sagacity to warn us long ago, 'used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism.' Fascism is hardly dead, by the way!
Dhaka, 12 April 2015
- Water Benjamin, 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,' in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, trans., Howard Eiland et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 170-210.
- Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility' [Second Version], in The Work Of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, trans., Edmond Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 19-55.
- Nirad C. Chaudhuri, 'The Literary Situation in Bengal,' in Thy Hand, Great Anarch: India 1921-1952, reprinted (London: The Hogarth Press, 1990), pp. 147-159.
- Kazi Nazrul Islam, 'Amar Koiphiot,' in Nazrul Racanabali, vol. 2, ed., Abdul Kadir (Dhaka: Central Board for the Development of Bengali, 1967), pp. 41-44.
- Esther Leslie, 'Actualities of Aura: Twelve Studies of Walter Benjamin' [Book Review], Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 24, no. 1 (2007), pp. 147-151.