On Tuesday, one of the great Bangladeshi intellectuals, Prof. Kabir Chowdhury, passed away at the age of 89.
He was a true champion of Bengali secular nationalism. He, like all proper leftist nationalists, saw nationalism as a way to internationalism, and lived his beliefs through practice, chairing the Bangladesh Afro-Asian Writers' Union, the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Union, and the Bangladesh-Soviet Friendship Society amongst others. His loss is a profound one for all of us who share in the secular values he dedicated his life's work to preserving in Bangladesh.
I remember how warm and welcoming he was, the wide range of books, paintings and sculptures at his beautiful, modernist flat, how effusively he spoke about Bengali culture, secularism and the Language Movement. I was honoured to meet him, spend some time with him over tea, and benefit from his knowledge and wisdom. I'm so sad I will never have that chance again.
Below is a transcription of my interview with Prof. Kabir Chowdhury, in Dhaka, on 23 March 2008.
KC: The call for the recognition of Bangla was first raised in 1948, by Dhirendranath Dutt. Sometimes we forget about that and focus on 1952, which is understandable because 1952 was the major eruption of Bengali nationalist feelings. Ultimately it was a political movement firstly for autonomy and later the demand for total independence. And it grew, unlike political movements in other countries, over the question of language and culture. This is quite a difference in comparison to other liberation struggles in other countries. Because of the West Pakistan military rulers’ insensitiveness and inability to understand the Bengali people’s total commitment to language and through language, culture, because they didn’t understand this, the situation got out of hand. There was nothing revolutionary in accepting two languages as state languages. Think of Canada, Switzerland and other places. But because of their ignorance they made tensions worse, and then of course later they made things even worse by committing genocide.
From culture it became a political movement. Major highlights were 1952, then 1969, the mass movement and 1970. And then the Liberation War 1971. I’m giving a talk on 1971 the war and our literature tomorrow at the Independent University, Bangladesh. Firstly I will talk about the liberation wars of all countries leave an impact on all cultures. That manifestation one can see in all walks of life. In art, in poetry, novels, everywhere. For example in the Soviet Union: I have visited all the regions of the Soviet Union of the earlier days, and I have seen beautiful sculptures and paintings. You can recall in the European context, Delacroix’s painting of Liberty symbolised as a woman, leading the people. She is holding a flag, running and people are running behind her. In Bangladesh there are many paintings and sculptures. You will know Shahabuddin, who has exhibited in many places in Europe. He is now an expatriate living in France. He has one picture, Muktijuddha, Freedom Fighter, with a sinewy, muscled, half-clad man with a flag running. I have decided to speak about the impact of liberation war, and specifically talking about Bangladesh liberation war and literature. There has not been a complete overvew done of the cultural impact of our liberation war, so I will begin by categorising the books that reflect all of this, historical accounts, memoirs, diaries, compendiums, novels.
Then I’ll come to literatures specifically – that is the main thing. In all branches of culture we find this reflection of our liberation war – poetry, grammar, short stories, novels, sketches. By extension, films, there have been many films about the war. But poetry is especially touching – in fact all the senior major appreciated poets, young poets, and unknown poets, all have written at least on poem on the war. There are hundreds of poems. Some highlight the glories and courage, some highlight the pain and sorrow and devastation. Shamsur Rahman’s very well known poem “Liberty.” There is another remarkable poem whose words we tend to forget – Written on the night of the genocide on 25 March 1971, just before he left for India, Ghulam Mustafa wrote a stunning poem. He printed a few hundred copies for publication, and then he fled to India. The poem is astoundingly beautiful. I have translated it. It is “Bangla Charo” “Quit This is one of the earliest poems which possesses a very militarised tone.
In terms of novels, Rabeya Khatun has written quite beautiful stories upon the war, Selina Hossain has written both short stories and novels. Anwara Shamsul Haq – Syed Shamsul Haq’s wife, has also written stories.
NA: What was happening in terms of culture in the Pakistan period? I know that Kabar was performed at Dhaka Central Jail – but was it performed anywhere else during that time?
KC: In Dhaka cultural things were happening, but things were also happening all over the country during this period. In 1952, Kabar happened in Dhaka but it was also performed all around the country. There is Mumtazuddin Ahmed, at that time, his plays were performed in the large open park in Chittagong, and his plays also expressed a strong militant sense.
There was a poem by Shamshur Rahman “Na Ami Jabo Na” “No I won’t go’ - “I won’t go, I stay with them who are fated to die.” “Obishap Dicche” uses classical image of Greek mythology, the Tantalus myth.
Going back to novels, there are also Anwar Pasha’s Rifles Roti Women and Shaukat Osman’s Jahannam Hocche Bidhay and Neke Aranya. The West Pakistanis incompletely missed the meaning of Kritadaser Hasi. Missed in the sense, it was a symbolic story of the defiance of the downtrodden against the oppressor. And finally, the defeat of the oppressor in the sense of what is demanded he couldn’t get in the last chapter in the scene. But, they thought it was a novel featuring Harun ur Rashid, he was projected as a cruel sultan. That point was missed but because somebody from East Pakistan has written a novel about Harun ur Rashid, they gave it a prize.
Others who have written dramas include Abdullah al Mamun, also there is Syed Shamsul Haq’s Payer Awaz Pawa Jai. Zahir Rahain has written about 1952 but he didn’t live to write on the liberation war. He was a very talented filmmaker, but also wrote stories – Arek Phalgun, on 1952. As well as the celebrated Jibon Theke Niye. Like Osman, he wasn’t able to present facts in the direct fashion but had to use metaphoric images. Ahmed Safa’s Omkar, is similarly metaphorical - he uses an image of a dumb girl who witnesses all the repressions. She cries out at the end, finally, and then dies.