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Poetry and History

Ashok Vajpeyi

By Priti Kumar Mitra
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 330, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Kazi Nazrul Islam is a legendary poet in the modern literature of India in the twentieth century. Inspite of the fact that Rabindra Nath Tagore was active and alive, he became the most popular poet of Bengali of his time. Unfortunately, for those who are not able to read him in the original Bengali, his poetry in translation has not so far come through as innovative, intense and powerful as it is in the original. It has not been possible to fully understand the respect and popularity this maverick poet has enjoyed in Bengali, both in India and Bangladesh. It is in this context that a book exploring the tumultuous career of a poet as also the connection of poetry with history written by a Bangladeshi historian Professor Priti Kumar Mitra of Rajshahi University is a singular contribution. While poetry and history have a famously dialectic relationship, there are very few historians who would care to pay critical attention to poetry as an important element in the historical process acknowledging that there are times when poetry embodies, questions and deviates from history. In Mitra we have a literate historian in the tradition of the economist Amartya Sen who has written so illuminatingly about the ideas and vision of Rabindra Nath Tagore. While it is always noted and analysed widely when history intervenes in poetry, there is very little notice taken critically of poetry intervening in history. As yet, there is insufficient acknowledgement, much less understanding, that writers and artists are also makers of history and, once in a while, their role is not confined to supplying incidental evidence but of holding powerful testimony, of being main witness in a way.   Mitra in his readable and illuminating critical discourse identifies five areas of Nazrul’s dissent: against the British colonial rule, the Gandhian nonviolent means of nationalist struggle, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu cultural chauvinism and the hegemony of Rabindra Nath Tagore in the world of Bengali literature. The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Marxist ideology on Nazrul is well known and Mitra places it in perspective in the over-all vision of the poet who struggled to absorb many elements in his rather complex life of social action and poetic practice. The ultimate vision as embodied in poetry was also deeply personal; it kept on growing and it would be unfair to reduce it to its ideological components. While Mitra looks ...

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