Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899 – 1976) was a Bengali polymath, poet, writer, musician and revolutionary. Debjani Chatterjee, author of Kazi Nazrul Islam Bilingual Poem Posters, published by Survivors' Poetry, London. Review by Rashida Islam
Like his older contemporary and India's national poet Rabindranath Tagore, Bangladesh's national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam is dearly loved by Bengalis everywhere. But, on the whole, Nazrul has not been well served by the efforts of his translators.
Debjani Chatterjee's six bilingual poem-posters (in Bengali-English) and accompanying booklet are a most welcome exception. They contain translations that are highly accessible and a pleasure to read.
Being the work of a poet in English, as well as of a literary translator, means that Debjani's translations read like original poetry.
Here, for instance, is the beginning of 'The Rebel':
O rebel-hero, speak.
Say: I tower over the highest peak!
In my presence the snow-topped mountain bows its head!
The entire pack, neatly rolled in a cardboard tube, is aimed at secondary schools and targets pupils in Key Stages 3 and 4. Designed to support teachers of English and English as a Foreign Language, they are also relevant in other subject areas - in particular, Bengali, History, Music and Moral Education.
The posters are also accompanied by an A4 pamphlet of teaching notes to provide an excellent educational resource. Debjani discusses its use in teaching about the February 21st Language Movement in Bangladesh and about International Women's Day.
It is an exciting introduction to the life and work of a great world poet and powerful evidence of the continuing relevance of Nazrul's poetry to today's political struggles. Each poster is colourful, a large A2 size and suitable for display on school walls. My one disappointment is that they are not laminated: it would have given the posters a longer lasting durability.
The first poster is an introductory one that offers a short and interesting biography of Nazrul and also photographs of the poet at different stages in his life, his signature, a map of Bangladesh and some national symbols like the jackfruit and the water lily. Read in association with the teachers' notes, it becomes even more meaningful. The notes also offer a chronology of Nazrul's life and, as in the case of each poster, there are a range of activities and questions for discussion.
Of the remaining five posters, four contain extracts from: 'The Rebel', 'Woman' and 'Poverty'. The extracts are sensitively chosen to reflect these long and best-known poems by Nazrul. They invite the reader to access the whole poem. The teaching notes provide insightful comments, a glossary and interesting exercises. The notes on 'Poverty', for instance, comment on Nazrul's own experience of poverty and offer the following questions for discussion:
The fifth poster depicts a photograph of Nazrul playing on a reed flute and there are pertinent visual images from its song: a bracelet and anklets on a dancer and a peacock with its tail feathers fanned out. The poster also contains a short song in its entirety, 'Who is that Beauty?' The translation captures the song's playful and lyrical beauty:
I am the playing of her flute and her anklets' tinkling -
who is that beauty, who is she?
I am her pleasure-filled Jamuna, love-sick in parting -
who is that beauty, who is she?
In her notes on this poster, Debjani explains how its structure is influenced by the ghazal form and comments on Nazrul's translations of Persian ghazals as well as his composition of original ghazals in Bengali.
All the posters are striking, have vivid colours, plenty of visual details and appropriate photographs or line drawings ('Woman' has Nazrul's wife Pramila Sen Gupta’s photograph in the background).
The Bengali poetry extracts are in Nazrul's bold and inimical style, and are served well by Debjani's fine English translations. Combined with the teaching notes, they form a valuable and impressive literary and educational pack.
About the author
Rashida Islam was born in Ishwardi in Pabna District, Bangladesh, and developed an early interest in singing and in Bengali Literature. She has an MSc in Biochemistry from Dhaka University and an MPhil from the University of London. She came to Britain in 1969 and has lived in Doncaster since 1976. She is a Bengali poet, and retired scientist and teacher who has worked in Aberdeen, Coventry, Sheffield and Scunthorpe.
She co-edited, with Debjani Chatterjee, three bilingual anthologies of prose and poetry: Barbed Lines which won the first Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize in 1990, Sweet and Sour, and A Slice of Sheffield. She was awarded an Arts Council of England bursary and her bilingual retelling of Bengali folk tales, Grandma's Treasure Trove, was published in 2000. Rashida's debut poetry collection Echoes of the Heart was published by Sahitya Press in 2006. Rogan Wolf has described her work as 'a talented and passionate celebration of her Bengali language and traditions'.