Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengalby Nurul Kabir
KAZI Nazrul Islam’s secular humanist worldview naturally influenced him to draw equally from Muslim and Hindu myths to an unprecedented extent in the history of Bangla language and literature. Abdul Mannan Syed rightly observed that ‘no Bengali poet but Nazrul could simultaneously use history and myths of both the Hindus and the Muslims with surprising ease’. [Abdul Mannan Syed (ed.), Prabeshika (Introduction) to the Otit Diner Smriti (Memories of the past), op-cit, p 4] Besides, he routinely used Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic and Persian words with extraordinary ease, without paying heed to Hindu or Muslim reactions, positive or adverse, in an age when Arabic-Persian words were to be identified with Muslim writers and Sanskrit-Hindi words with Hindu authors.
Even Sukumar Sen, a historian of Bangla literature who appears conservative when it comes recognising Nazrul’s literary and linguistic contributions, admitted that ‘his use of Arabic-Persian-Hindi words with tatsama and tadbhaba ones has infused gravity into his literary style’. [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Fifth Volume, Sixth impression, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 2010, p 301] However, the fact remains that Nazrul’s ‘use of Arabic-Persian-Hindi words with tatsama and tadbhaba ones has infused gravity’ not only into his own ‘literary style’ but also enriched Bangla language and literature as a whole by increasing the language’s wealth of vocabularies on the one hand and adding new colour to the literature on the other, let alone secularising the language and literature to a significant extent.
Nazrul Islam’s literary endeavour to secularise Bangla language and literature understandably ran into communal interventions, conscious or sub-conscious, by Muslim and Hindu literary camps. While it is well-known that a conservative section of Muslim writers and journalists branded Nazrul as a kafir for using Hindi words and Hindu myths in his works, a conservative section of Hindu writers and journalists refused to recognise him as a secular litterateur for using Arabic-Persian-Urdu words and myths relating to Islam. The historical controversy over the use of a particular Persian word, khun, for blood, instead of the Sanskritised rakta, remains an interesting example of linguistic communalism pursued by contemporary Hindu litterateurs of Bengal.
The controversy over khun started in the late 1927, with none other than poet Rabindranath Tagore publicly objecting to the use of the word in poetry to denote ‘blood’. It all began with two reports simultaneously published in the Kolkata-based weekly Shanibarer Chithi and daily Bangalar Katha, in which Rabindranath Tagore was quoted to have criticised a ‘young Bengali poet’ for using a Persian word, khun, in place of Sanskritised rakta, to mean ‘blood’. Tagore did the criticism while responding to a reception accorded to him by Rabindra Parishad on December 13, 1927. He reportedly objected to the idea of using khun for rakta for the sake of doing something new and said: ‘I tell you, we will leave the space for the younger generation. But if they abandon what is universal, if they trouble [the literature], if they somersault, then we will stay back, we will continue to live even after death, will never leave any space.’ [Tagore’s speech as published in the Poush 4, 1334 BS (c 1927) issue of Bangalar Katha, is cited in Bhuiyan Iqbal, Rabindranath O Muslim Samaj, op-cit, p 403]
Tagore’s ‘young Bengali poet’ was immediately interpreted by many contemporary Bengali litterateurs to be Kazi Nazrul Islam. The Kazi, who enjoyed Tagore’s affection, reacted sharply to the latter’s stance. In an immediate response to Tagore’s observation, he wrote an article, headlined Barar Pireeti Balir Bandh, which was published in the December 30, 1927 issue of the weekly Atmashakti. The Kazi wrote that he had ‘unfortunately sang out to the Kabiguru’ one of his songs, ‘the sun will rise again, coloured with our blood’ [উদিবে সে রবি আমাদেরই খুনে রাঙিয়া পুনর্বার।] ‘the other day’, in which he used khun for blood, ‘which perhaps prompted Kabiguru to make the statement’ about khun. ‘He was for rakta.’
Kazi, then, explained: ‘I use khun in my poems not to add the colour of Bolshevism or Islam. The poet (Tagore) has raised the objection, because he perhaps does not like any of the colours in question these days.
‘I use a lot of Arabic and Persian words, other than khun, in my works. And I have an answer for that. I believe that the goddess of world poetry has a Muslim style, which does not affect the beauty of the goddess. The late Ajit Chakrabarti had much appreciated the idea.
‘When decorated with a couple of Iranian ornaments, the goddess of Bangla poetry does not get outcaste; she rather looks more beautiful.’ [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Barar Pireeti Balir Bandh’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume VII, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 31]
He also wrote that he was ‘surprised over Kabiguru’s newly developed fear of words, particularly when he has created innumerable new words beyond dictionaries.’ [ibid, p 32]
Despite his sharp reaction to Tagore’s observation about the use of the Persian word in question, Nazrul always held Tagore and his works in high esteem. In a poem composed on Tagore’s death, the Kazi asked the Bengali boys and girls to ‘read his writings’ to have their ‘strength and courage renewed’ in the event of ‘feeling weak’. [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Mrityuheen Rabindra’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume XI, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 271]
Meanwhile, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s article drew the attention of Pramatha Chowdhury (1868-1946), a reputed prose writer of the time who had been present at Rabindra Parishad’s reception and had himself heard what Tagore exactly said. In response to the reaction of ‘Kazi Nazar-ul Islam’, Pramatha Chowdhury wrote an article, Banga Sahitye Khuner Mamla, in defence of Tagore, arguing that the Kazi had no reason to take the criticism upon himself. In the article, published in Bangalar Katha on Feberuary 3, 1928, Chowdhury wrote: ‘I was present at the meeting in which Rabindranath [Tagore] made those remarks, but it did not occur in my mind that the remarks were meant for Kazi Shaheb. As far as I can remember, he referred to the word khun while giving an example of new words cultivated by a rising young poet. He did not critique any risen poet.’ [Pramatha Chowdhury, Agranthita Rachana – 2, Malayendu Dinda (ed.), Manfakira, Kolkata, 2011, p 23] Chowdhury also argued that ‘Rabindranath could never stand against the use of khun in Bangla poetry, for one would find the word in the Balmiki Pratibha, which Tagore had composed in his adolescence much before the Kazi was born.’
However, Chowdhury generally argued for the use of Persian words, for, as he said, ‘if Arabic-Persian words are to be abandoned, then, we would be forced to abandon, before everything else, the kalam — the pen.’ He was not ready to leave the kalam. He, however, was against inappropriate use of Arabic-Persian words. He wrote, ‘Using khun for rakta on every occasion is a literary crime, because it is equally criminal to use rakta for khun on every occasion.’ [ibid, p 24] In this regard, he argued that no lawyer of Bengal had so far taken any ‘rakter mamla’ in the criminal courts, as no Bengali had so far been charged as ‘rakter asami’. What Chowdhury meant to say is that everybody uses khun, instead of rakta, to mean murder in such cases. They are therefore called ‘khuner mamla’ and ‘khuner asami’ instead of ‘rakter mamla’ and ‘rakter mamla’ respectively. Again, he argued that the ‘goddess Kali does not mind any khun’ in the sense of murder, but none is supposed to offer at her feet ‘khun-jaba’ flower, instead of rakta-jaba.
Meanwhile, some Muslim and Hindu litterateurs continued to debate on the issue, for and against the use of khun to denote blood.
Tagore did not immediately take part in the controversy sparked by his reported comments on the use of khun in Bangla poetry. However, the controversy took a different shape when Tagore published his controversial speech, as Kabir Abhibhashan, in the February issue of the Prabashi in 1928. In the written text of the speech, it was discovered that Tagore had referred to ‘a Bengali Hindu poet’. He said: ‘People loudly boast of newness only when they lack in creative abilities. They do not have the ability to pour the nectar of freshness into the traditional pot; they search for chaotic peculiarities to prove their unique ability in loud voice. I came to notice the other day that a Bengali Hindu poet has used the word “khun” for rakta. If the old word rakta fails to colour his poetry in red, one would take it to be his failure. Having failed to create colour [in the poetry], he wants to startle [the reader].’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Kabir Abhibhashan’, Rabindrasamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 12, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2013, p 510]
Rabindranath Tagore’s published speech might have pacified Nazrul Islam, as it suggested that the latter was not the former’s target, because Nazrul was not a ‘Hindu poet’. However, it still remained controversial, as speculated by Dr Sumita Chakrabarti, whether or not Tagore, on a second thought, or on the advice of his admirers, had later inserted the word ‘Hindu’ before the ‘poet’ to save the situation created out of the reports published in Shanibarer Chithi and Bangalar Katha. [Sumita Chakrabarti, Sristi-Swatantre Nazrul, Pustak Bipani, Kolkata, 2007, p 165] Chakrabarti also speculated that the editor of Prabashi might also have inserted the word Hindu, ‘maybe with a verbal permission from Rabindranath.’
The question of ‘insertion’ came because, as Chakrabarti rightly underlines, Pramatha Chowdhury, who heard the Tagore speech in question, did not mention that the poet used the word Hindu in the first place. Had he heard it, Chowdhury would not have to base his thesis that Tagore did not mean Nazrul Islam, for the former talked about a ‘rising young poet’, while the latter was already a ‘risen’ one. Besides, two newspapers could have hardly any reason to resolve to deliberately omit the word ‘Hindu’ from the sentence.
However, Chakrabarti raises, and raises rightly, a more serious question about the controversy. She argues that even if the judgement in the ‘case of khun in Bangla literature goes in favour of Tagore, the larger issue involved in the case still remains, which is, as she points out, the question of linguistic communalism.
In this regard, she argues that Tagore might not have any objection to the use of khun by the Muslim poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, but he appears to have objection to the idea when it comes to a ‘Hindu poet’. She based her argument not only the controversial text of Kabir Abhibhashan, but also on that of another speech he wrote earlier in 1925. In the speech he wrote:
‘If Bangla is the mother tongue of Bengali Muslims, then their Muslim identity can well be expressed through that language. The contemporary Muslim writers of Bangla literature are routinely proving the proposition. The talented ones among them would become immortal in this language. Besides, they can strengthen Bangla language further by injecting into it Mussalmani materials. There is, after all, no dearth of such materials in Bangla language, while that has not affected us in any way.’ [The speech was supposed to be delivered at the annual session of Bangiya Sahitya Sammilan, but Tagore did not attend the session; it was eventually incorporated into a book titled, Sahityer Pathe. For the full text, see Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Sahityasamnilan’, Rabindrasamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 12, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2013, pp 504-507.] Sumita Chakrabarti rightly notes, ‘Rabindranath [Tagore] does not have any objection to Muslim writers pouring “Mussalmani materials’ into Bangla language, but he perhaps could not approve the idea for Hindu writers.’ [Sumita Chakrabarti, Sristi-Swatantre Nazrul, op-cit, p 166] Chakrabarti interprets the phenomenon as ‘linguistic communalism’ and observes that people ‘subconsciously become the prisoner’ of such ‘linguistic communalism’, which is ‘very dangerous’.
However, for Tagore, it was not a ‘subconscious’ thought that infusion of Arabic and Persian words in everyday use into Bangla language as well as portrayal of the lifestyle of Bengali Muslims in Bangla literature is primarily, if not solely, the responsibility of Muslim writers of Bengal. Because, long after he had suggested in 1925 that Muslim writers of Bengal ‘can strengthen Bangla language further by way of injecting into it the Mussalmani materials’, Tagore wrote to Abul Fazal in 1940 that ‘powerful Muslim writers have not adequately described Muslim lifestyle in Bangla literature’ and that Bangla literature would be enriched, ‘if, in the course of depicting Muslim lifestyle’, Muslim writers take efforts for ‘natural entry’ of Arabic and Persian ‘words used in the daily lives of Muslim society’ into ‘Bangla language’. [Rabindranath Tagore, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 16, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2011, p 459]
Besides, Tagore did keep in mind the controversy over the poetic use of the Persian word khun taking place in 1927-1928 until the last days of his life, for Tagore raised the issue of khun again in his letter to Abul Fazal in 1940. He wrote: The [Bangla] language has easily accepted the [Persian] word khun-kharabi. It would be an obscurantist act on our part if we do not accept this fact. But the [Bangla] language has not accepted khun in the sense of rakta. The word may be acceptable to a particular family or a particular community, but Bangla language in general would refuse to accept khun to denote rakta. [ibid]
Before, he wrote to Abul Fazal about the rakta-khun controversy, Tagore had referred to the issue once more in 1934. In a letter to MA Azam, editor of the Kolkata-based Ghorer Maya, he wrote: ‘Thousands of Persian and Arabic words have naturally been assimilated in Bangla language. There was no trace of forcible attempts in the process of assimilation. However, one cannot but find it a forcible attempt to impose on Bangla language Persian and Arabic words that are not used in the everyday life of the common people, or the use is limited to a particular class of people. The use of [the Persian word] khun to mean murder does not sound artificial, [and therefore] the word has been naturally accepted by Bengalis in general. But khun in the sense of blood has not been accepted, and therefore it is meaningless to argue about it.’ [Ghorer Maya published the letter immediately, in 1934. The letter was then published in Prabashi the same year. For the present reference, see Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 16, Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka, 2011, p 457]
Kazi Nazrul Islam never complied with Rabindranath Tagore’s prescribed rule of using Persian word/s and continued to use Sanskritised words with those of Arabic and Persian origin in his poetic and prose works without caring for the particular bias for and against the words by opposing religious communities of the time. Meanwhile, the debate over the use of the word khun remains a typical example of the linguistic and literary division that the two religious communities of Bengal caused in Bangla language and literature.
To be continued.
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