Rage over Rahman unites both Bengals
Thanks to Oscar-winner AR Rahman’s musical stunt in the film Pippa and the fury of Bengalis worldwide, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s name may finally travel beyond its current confines
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) is a difficult man to fathom. And consequently, less marketable. Which is probably why, unlike Rabindranath Tagore, his fame has never really spread beyond Bengalis — whether in West Bengal or Bangladesh. Rebel poet, lyricist, composer, a proud pluralist who was a devotee of the goddess Kali despite his Islamic faith, dedicated husband to a Hindu wife, British Army soldier, a socialist from head to toe — he wore several hats well.
Despite his apparently ‘less than’ stature, however, most Bengalis have no trouble with ‘Rabindra-Nazrul’ uttered in the same breath, and Nazrul’s songs (Nazrul geeti) and poems are very much part of the staple diet in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, a newly independent nation when he moved there four years before his death.
When that death came in 1976, he may have been a sad, broken old man, but Bangladesh declared two days of national mourning, and the Indian Parliament observed a minute’s silence in his honour.
Now, thanks to Oscar-winner AR Rahman’s musical stunt in the film Pippa and the fury of Bengalis worldwide, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s name may finally travel beyond its confines and become justifiably known to far more people than it currently is.
Also thanks to Rahman, West Bengal and Bangladesh seem to have set aside their differences and united in condemnation of what they see as a desecration of an inspiring and generationally beloved composition.
The song in question, Karar oi Louhokopat (the iron prison gate), was written and composed in 1922, ostensibly at the request of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das’s wife Basanti Devi, when Das was imprisoned by the British. According to the poet’s grandson Anirban Kazi, the song was first recorded in 1949.
Born in Burdwan district of West Bengal and having spent almost his entire life in India, Nazrul could have had no idea that the song would also become one of the driving forces of the 1971 War of Liberation which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh.
In Rahman’s hands, the song has transformed into what sounds like a light-hearted dance number with a synthetic folksy music arrangement and perfectly harmonised vocals. Nothing raw, earthy, or unsophisticated about it — adjectives which apply just as well to Nazrul himself.
A look at the comments section of Rahman’s YouTube channel where the song has been posted provides a perfect example of the unity that the ‘new’ song has fostered between Bengalis on both sides of the border, divided and united by memories of a bitter Partition, and seemingly unable to bridge their religious and cultural differences despite speaking different versions of the same language.
As a protest, I don’t want ‘special thanks’ to our family in the film’s credit line. That was one of the clauses in our agreement with the production house.Anirban Kazi, grandson of Kazi Nazrul Islam
Elsewhere on social media, while prominent voices have remained largely quiet, perhaps for fear of antagonising a man of Rahman’s eminence, a notable exception has been popular Bengali vocalist Raghab Chatterjee. “As a singer from Bengal I am not at all accepting the way Mr. Rahman has tampered the original tune and claims to be the composer of the song itself. Also, the singers who have sung the rendition are mostly Bengalis who have not even uttered a word or protested,” he wrote on Facebook.
One reason for the general outrage is possibly childhood nostalgia for a song that countless Bengalis have grown up listening to. Much in the manner of the new version of Snow White from Disney starring the now infamous Rachel Zegler, Rahman’s reworked version seems to have evoked rage because of the ‘tampering’ with a treasured memory.
From the poet’s surviving relatives on both sides of the border to ordinary listeners unfettered by fears of angering an influential composer, the condemnation has been well-nigh universal.
Speaking to the Times of India, the Kolkata-based Anirban Kazi said, “We could not fathom that an artist like Rahman could be so insensitive and murder the song like this. As a protest, I don’t want ‘special thanks’ to our family in the film’s credit line. That was one of the clauses in our agreement with the production house. I have shared my reservations with the production house.”
On the other side of the border, speaking in Dhaka, the poet’s granddaughter Khilkhil Kazi didn’t hold back either. “I am appalled at the act of a renowned composer like Rahman. He has simply demeaned himself,” she told a Bangladeshi TV channel, announcing her intention to hold a press conference in Kolkata, and lending the controversy a faintly political overtone by claiming that “Indians have been doing this with my grandfather for a while now”.
The proverbial silver lining, however, should not be lost sight of. Greater renown for the ‘poet of the people’, and a rare spirit of unity on both sides of the border — gains indeed.