Nazrul Islam: Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man

NazrulPratibha Basu (translated by Khademul Islam)
Of the three youths who at that time were the talk of the whole of Bengal, one was Subhas Chandra Bose, one was Nazrul Islam and the third was Dilipkumar Roy. Their names were on everybody’s lips, uttered in every house…I had learnt a lot of songs from Dilip da – his own songs, Dwijendralal’s songs, songs by Atulprasad, all their songs of course, but most of all Nazrul Islam’s songs. Dilip da taught me many ways to control and modulate my voice. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes something in between…From this polished, educated, complete young man I not only learnt how to sing, but through contact with him I also learnt the meaning of the word ‘culture’…

Bonogram(1) then was a lower middle-class neighbourhood. There was hardly anybody with whom I could talk to – especially a girl of my age. I used to feel lonely due to lack of friends. Dilip da had come into my life like a huge wave – when he had been present(2) there was always a rush, songs at one place today and then tomorrow there would be songs at another place, going here today, there tomorrow, and the whole day would pass by in a delightful daze. My sadness at his departure now would not leave me.

I have never liked evenings. As the day comes to a close and evening falls a kind of desolation fills my soul. On just such an evening I was standing on the upstairs free-hanging verandah. A phaeton (a one-horse carriage) came to a stop at our door. How lovely, I thought, at last somebody has come to visit. Some of the afternoon’s weight seemed to lift from my heart. I hastily turned around to run down the stairs and opened the door to see, in comparison to the average Bangali, a robust, good-looking figure standing there, with a huge smile on his face and arranging and re-arranging a red ochre chador as he barged into the house almost throwing me to one side. He looked at my face and still laughing said, “You must be Ranu(3), right? Tell me, aren’t I right? Aren’t you the one who’s Montu’s student?” ‘Montu’ meaning Dilip da, whose nickname it was.

Something in my heart thundered. I thought to myself: ‘Can it be him?’

I had never seen Nazrul Islam before. I had heard a lot about him but nobody had ever described his face to me. Yet, astonishingly, I knew that this had to be Nazrul Islam. Awestruck, I could only manage to stammer out, “You are… you are… ”

“I am Nazrul Islam.” Then followed a full-throated laugh. Nazrul Islam then was thirty-two or thirty-three years old, maybe slightly older. Youthfulness flowed in his eyes and face, laughter like a river’s current would sweep through his whole body, race onward. Only those who have seen him at that age will understand the riotous overflowing joy with which the two riverbanks of his character brimmed. Very large black doe eyes, unruly dense babri hair, a sharp nose, skin the colour of burnished copper, easy unpretentious ways, a huge laugh, a tremendous exuberance – all of these combined to make him a character indeed! And that old dusty red ochre chador whose ends trailed after him!

His coming to Dacca was characteristic of him. In Calcutta he had gone to see a football match at Gor’er Maath (Kolkata’s famous maidan). While arguing heatedly about East Bengal versus Mohunbagan with a friend he suddenly found himself at Shealdah railway station. There he saw the Dacca-bound Mail standing on the tracks, waiting to leave. And immediately it occurred to him that while the train was there and waiting, why not board it and go on a visit to Dacca? Barely had the thought formed that action followed. He immediately bought a ticket and got on board. Some time back Dilip da had visited Calcutta and had regaled people with stories about Dhaka, and it had made Nazrul curious. So why let go of such a golden opportunity?

There was a good reason why on seeing Nazrul Islam I knew it was him. Stories were floating around that Nazrul Islam had come to Dacca, but nobody could tell for certain. At that time the whole country was mad for Nazrul Islam’s songs. Even those who could not hold a tune would go around with their heads nodding singing fulsomely ‘Kay bideshi bon udashi.’ On top of that he had returned from a war. His rebel speeches echoed throughout the land, boys were being herded into jails with his ‘Durgam giri kantar moru dustor parabar hay’ on their lips, and in the meantime I too by singing his love songs was gaining more than my share of fame.(4)

Nazrul was a man who dispensed with conventional courtesies. There was a small cot in the drawing room and without further ado he strode straight there and seated himself on it. By that time my mother and father were standing in the doorway, and on seeing them he called out invitingly, “Come in, come in. I have heard all about you from Montu, and I feel like I know you all intimately. I came day before yesterday, do you know? I have a friend here at whose home I’m staying. Kazi Motahar Hossain, he knows all of you very well. He has come here often with Montu. From the moment I came here I’ve been telling him, let’s go, let’s go and listen to that girl singing, since Montu has been telling around that she sings my songs so very well that I’m becoming famous because of her” – and here he burst out laughing. His laughter filled the house. When the laughter stopped he went on, “You see, the thing that happens with these educated fellows, now he has to go to his friend’s college, then it’s time for some student to come by, then again there’s some book that has to be finished, he can’t leave before it’s done – so I’ve left my friend to his own devices and somehow found my way to your home.”

My mother and father were star-struck at this man’s appearance. They didn’t know what to do. They bade him leave the living room and took him upstairs. In a short while a harmonium appeared. After that there were songs and songs and songs. All the songs that I had learned from Dilip da were sung for Nazrul. He swayed his head in time to the music and kept saying “Unforgettable, unforgettable.”

Nazrul Islam’s singing voice was somewhat broken. That brokenness was his singing’s distinguishing characteristic. How sweet was that note, how enchanting! And part of the enchantment of listening to him was also seeing him sing. The music and the tunes seemed to flow through his whole body. His eyes would sparkle, his love for songs would almost physically manifest itself as a dusky glow. It was as if his songs transformed themselves into a real-life tide of happiness that flooded through the house. Both my father and mother were mad for songs, and just like Nazrul who would lose track of time if there were songs and singing going on, so too would they. That first day after introductions were over Nazrul made them forget what time of the day it was and became one of us, and how and when the clock’s hands tremblingly crept from 6 o’clock in the evening to 10:00 at night nobody had the slightest idea.

Nazrul Islam in my memory is somebody with a harmonium in his hands, a potful of paan by the side, and amazing songs in that voice of his. His laughter and songs were as one, and it was unstoppable. That day, even after he left, for a long time the house was full of a sweet breeze blowing through it.

He came the next morning. We hadn’t dared to hope for it. He was very restless as he walked in – he had written a new song last night and he just had to teach me how to sing it. “Come, come, be quick, bring the harmonium.” We were then barely having our breakfast tea, and my face still bore the marks of sleep. He sat down. “Please, quick, a cup of tea. I fled before the day could begin. Those boys there, once they get hold of me then God only knows where I’d end up, they’re always dragging me along somewhere. I wrote a song last night, I need to set the tune to it, otherwise there’ll be mistakes.”

The morning began to dazzle. Again there was the harmonium, the pot full of paan, the endless cups of tea. The song was ‘Amar kone kul ai bhirlo aaj tori, ai kone sonar gai/Bhati’r taan ai abar keno ujaan jete chai.’ I saw that the song’s wording was not complete, that its tune was off-key. He corrected it as he sang it, as he taught it to me.

Professor Kazi Motahar Hossain(5) then lived in Burdwan House. He was a very decent person. He had accompanied Dilip da on the latter’s visits to our house. He loved to play chess. After Dilip da left he would come by himself, and had forged a special relationship with my father and mother. Nazrul had put up at his house. It was from there that very early in the morning he would walk over to our home. He would say, “My morning walk has taken on a life of its own. I walk along composing a song in my mind, and never know when that walk comes to an end.” This man who had gone to war, had served time in jail, had been confined to a solitary cell, went on hunger strikes, wrapped an ochre red shawl about himself, wore on his head a Gandhi cap and khadi clothes – that very man’s poems and songs were making a whole nation go out of its head. Who among us wouldn’t be enchanted with him? He came for a few days (to Dacca) to satisfy his curiousity but stayed far longer. Our relationship with him deepened, the bonds grew close, he became a dear member of our household…

Suddenly Nazrul began to write and compose a lot of kirtans. Though there was a reason behind it. Our friends on seeing Nazrul had said, “O Ma, this man is dark Krishna himself indeed!” On hearing that my pishima would jokingly call him ‘Kalo Krishna.’ He too would tease her by calling her snub-nosed. Pishima would reply, “Well, whatever you say, snub-nosed or not, at least my skin is fairer than yours.” She would extend her arm and say, “Here take a look, compare the two…” So one day Nazrul said, “This can’t go on, I have to prove the virtues of being dark-skinned.” That very night he composed a song in the kirtan form:

Kayno pran othay kadiya, kadiya, kadiya go
Joto bhuli bhuli kori toto aakraiya dhori
Toto mori shadhiya shadhiya go…

1. The area of Dhaka where Pratibha Basu’s family then resided before moving to Wari some years later.
2. Dilipkumar Roy had then left Dhaka for Pondicherry’s ashram.
3. Ranu was Pratibha’s nickname.
4. Pratibha Basu at an early had begun to record songs for the Gramaphone Company of India.
5. Dr Kazi Motahar Hossain was a famous educationist and teacher.


*From Pratibha Basu’s book Jibonayr Jolchobi (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers; Falgun 1405; Fourth Printing). Khademul Islam is Literary Editor, The Daily Star.

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