Syed Badrul Ahsan
Heritage defines Bangladesh. Culture has been its hold on history, to a point where it has underpinned its politics.
Not many days ago, Bengalis celebrated the birth anniversary of the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who remains the most significant window to the outside world for people who speak the Bengali language in both Bangladesh and neighbouring West Bengal state of India as also the Bengali diaspora around the globe. Tagore’s territory has been vast, covering as it does his poetry encompassing love between man and woman, between man and God, between man and nature. And if Tagore is the defining image of Bengali nationhood in terms of literature, he is also an influential commentator on such significant issues as nationalism and the colonial legacy in pre-independence India. Of course, Tagore died six years before the departure of the British colonial power from India, but the spirit of freedom, social as well as individual, he embodied continues to be ideals to which Bengalis are consistently drawn.
If Tagore is a symbol of Bengali cultural tradition, KaziNazrul Islam remains the spokesman for spirited rebellion which has consistently been the forte of the people of Bangladesh every time they have found themselves subjected to political repression. Nazrul was, of course, unable to write or speak after the 1940s owing to a severe form of illness, but the poetry and songs he composed prior to that even as he struggled to make a living through his poverty-stricken conditions are powerful literature Bengalis have fallen back on to give their struggles against subjugation a much needed impetus. Nazrul’s songs along with Tagore’s were powerful intellectual weapons in the struggle by Bangladesh’s people to free themselves of Pakistani colonial rule in 1971. Besides, like Tagore, Nazrul remains noted too for his romantic and religious poetry. His songs of love have endured in the Bengali consciousness, giving Bangladesh’s culture a depth which has enriched it in the global community.
The Bengali intellectual canvas has had wide space for a good number of other literary figures. Michael MadhusudanDutta, in his early life a devotee of western, indeed English culture and given to composing poetry in the English language, was to switch over to Bengali. His poetic compositions in Bengali have always been poignant and potent expressions of the power of the Bengali language to handle difficult literary themes. The epic quality of his literary works is yet a benchmark for those Bengalis who see in his work a universal appeal, a coming level with the outside world as it were, indeed a base which inspires them in a fulfillment of their own literary aspirations. And add to that the serenity of JibanandaDas’ poetry. Jibananda personified the timeless appeal of rural Bengal. Indeed, his poetry is a tranquil trek through the pastoral landscape of Bengal as it once was, recreating in the mind images of what has been and what could yet be. Jibananda’s poetry conveys to western minds the sort of resonance thrown off by the likes of Thoreau’s reflections and Robert Frost’s thoughts on nature. In a bigger way, Jibananda is for Bengali literature what the Romantics have been for English literature.
For Bengalis, Buddhadeva Bose is but another name for modernity in the literary arena of West Bengal and Bangladesh. His fiction explores some of the more sensitive aspects of life, sexuality for instance, that have not quite been studied by other writers. But it is also Bose’s literary criticism and his poetry, his disinclination to being influenced by Tagore (he was among the rising young Bengali writers who deliberately chose to stay out of Tagore’s long shadow), that has carved for him an important niche in the Bengali literary tradition. Speaking of modern Bengali literature, one has sheer power flowing through the poetry of ShamsurRahman, Al Mahmud, AbulHasan, Nirmalendu Goon and a host of others that defines the post-liberation ambience in Bangladesh. And, yes, there are the powerful literary critics, notably Khandkar Ashraf Hossain, who relate Bengali literature to that of the West, eventually succeeding in portraying Bangladesh as a society which has come level with the rest of the world in terms of the aesthetics which gives literature a global appeal. For Bengalis, in the divided halves of the old Bengal, the tapestry of literature defines their outlook on the world around them. It is a tapestry rich in substance, in symbolisms and in the realities which flow from it to permeate everyday life.
(Syed BadrulAhsan, biographer of Bangabandhu Sheikh MujiburRahman and Tajuddin Ahmad, writes on literature, politics and history. He divides his time between Dhaka and London)