RUDRA MUHAMMAD SHAHIDULLAH: ROMANTIC AND REVOLUTIONARY
BY MOHAMMAD SHAFIQUL ISLAM
Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, is currently working on his Ph.D at Assam University India; he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh. He writes poetry, fiction, research articles, and translates from Bengali to English. His research articles have been published in academic journals extensively and his debut collection of poetry and two other translation works are soon to be published. Islam dreams to see a world sans war, terrorism and poverty.
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Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah (1956-1991) is one of the most preeminent poets of Bengali literature. He is considered a great poet writing his time emphasizing the glory of his motherland that earned liberation from Pakistan in 1971 through one of the bloodiest wars in world history. As a patriotic poet, Rudra was courageous, and his voice was strident against the collaborators and quislings. He did not fear to stand against any incongruities found in a person, an institution or in the society, and poetry was his weapon of protest. Despite the fact that he was a revolutionary all through his life, his heart remained full of love, and he was outright a romantic poet. Like the English romantic poets of the 19th century, Rudra sought love, beauty and serenity that he had been shorn of throughout his life. He was simultaneously unbending and acquiescent – he never succumbed to any power to dissent the diabolic activities of people and at the same time, he would melt like a candle when love and beauty would tap his heart. A dissenter and romantic, however, lived in tandem in Rudra. This paper shows Rudra as a romantic and revolutionary poet through an in-depth study of his poems.
Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah is a very important name in Bengali literature. He wrote rebellious, romantic, and revolutionary poems in tumultuous times after the Liberation War of 1971, the most glorious chapter in the history of Bangladesh as the country earned sovereignty at the cost of thousands of valuable lives. An important feature of his poetry is his love for motherland, its people and heritage. He was committed to his land, people, and rich tradition. Rudra "would make a vituperative attack on the poets separated from the country and society," Kamal Chowdhury notes, " and call them hermaphrodites" (111). He was a stern voice against inequality, exploitation, dictatorship, and fundamentalism; he wrote his fiery lines whenever he found crimes or corruptions in the society. He also earned recognition as a blazing symbol of youth. He lived only for thirty-five years, but wrote many extraordinary poems and songs in this short period of life. His illustrious works have given him a permanent place in the history of Bengali literature. His poetry is both "artistic and popular" (Saha 5). Readers of Bengali literature love his poetry very much, and it will be difficult to find a reader who has not read "The Smell of Corpses in the Air," his most popular poem. Besides, his poetry meets the standard of artistic quality. Rudra published seven volumes of poetry that found wider readership. His Collected Works was published in two volumes after his death.
Rudra is one of the luminaries of Bengali literature, and it has been an irreparable loss for Bengali literature as the poet died so young. He was devoted to writing poetry with an objective of reforming society and restoring beauty and humanity. Rudra celebrates youth, and believes that youth can destroy old ills and help build a new society where people sing songs of beauty. He would suffer psychologically seeing the deplorable condition of his country and dream to transform it into a beautiful land. His poetry calls upon people to shun the path of artificiality and deceit. Despite unbearable afflictions in heart, he did not lose faith upon human beings. All his complaints were against those who would destroy the intrinsic flow of upright humanity. He describes the deplorable condition:
Modern pretty women are rushing towards
passive like precious furniture.
Civilization beholds its interior erosion
and the commended putrescence. ("A Glass of Darkness" 11-15)
Rudra observed many transitions in various sectors of the nation during his time. He saw city people falling apart yielding to debauchery and desires. The poet presents a glimpse of the corrupt city life and so-called aristocracy in these lines. He was sympathetic with victims – women in this poem fall prey to powerful people of society. By depicting a city picture here, Rudra reveals true nature of moneyed people who treat women as commodities, and the women endure sufferings silently. A shocking decay of civilization is summed up by the poet in a few lines of "A Glass of Darkness," one of his defining poems.
He also depicts deterioration of human condition in the society in a poem titled "Transitional Time":
They are looting the sun –
yet none says: come out everybody,
see, your warm clothes,
and the only medicine to heal wounds
are being snatched away. (1-5)
Time was gruesome, and so bad people took recourse to filthy activities and practices. They are the brats for a nation who are instrumental in destroying all sanity. Robbers and criminals were sporadic in cities in his time; they would loot properties of ordinary people. Common people with inherent simplicity were victims, but they could not do anything but suffer all afflictions. Therefore, the poet calls upon everyone to be awake and stand against all despicable dacoits and their activities. Rudra was writing poetry at a time when there were "tensions in politics, agitations, so many mournful incidents like random political killings, emergence of anti Liberation War forces, autocratic regime," (Chowdhury 109), thus he became revolutionary because his conscience would kindle his spirit to wage protests against them. The poet often suffered loneliness and a strong sense of alienation because he did not like traditional life; he was an anti-traditionalist indeed in thought and practice.
Many academics, poets and critics question the structure and texture of Rudra's poetry. Rudra retorts critics who talk much about style, technique, structure, and texture of poetry. To him, the word "technique" to poetry seems to be repulsive because the history of poetry is not the history of its technique. Rudra claims, "History of poetry belongs to the history of poetry itself" (Huda 21). He wrote poetry with his spontaneous overflow of emotion that many consider the essence of Rudra's poetic world. Rudra would not regard technique as essential as the content. He was more subjective when wrote one of his most celebrated poems "The Smell of Corpses in the Air" because it reveals a fiery poetic spirit that might be missing if he concentrated more on technique and style. This poem would lose extensive reception if it were written by the goals of an objectivist, imagist, or surrealist poet or by someone who is much concerned about elements of poetry. Rather, Rudra emerges as a humanist poet who shows hatred towards brutality upon human beings. For instance, the following likes represent this unbounded fiery spirit of his poetry:
Even today I can smell corpses in the air,
even today I discern death's naked dance in the soil,
in my trance I still hear the whimper of a raped woman –
has this country forgotten that nightmare night, that bloody time? ("The Smell of Corpses in the Air" 1-4)
Here Rudra tries to remind the nation of the nightmare, bloody days that they or their forbearers went through, and he calls upon each and everyone to resist all destructive forces. His writing has a radical call to action and to raise voices against atrocities done to women.
Rudra had intense consciousness to history and knew the social, psychological and national map of the Bengalis. As Huda points out, "This pro Liberation War ever young poet launched a lonely psychological journey with the dream of a new civilization," (22) but his expedition could not reach harbor. Life currents that flowed around during his time were unrelated to his own stream. Like many poets of the world, Rudra was also very lonely, and his loneliness curtailed his lifespan. As the poet claims, "I am alone, I am lonely like a particle of this universe" (qtd. in Huda 22). Rudra truly suffered the "distraught wonder" of Jibananda Das (1899-1954), a great modern poet of Bengali literature, who lived his whole life in search of a meaning. Rudra thus ponders over the degree of his loneliness:
Time is confined in complicacies of technology,
golden diseases fall from the full moon.
Hearing a call, I look back – there is none.
Alone, I'm waiting with a glass of darkness in my hand… ("A Glass of Darkness" 7-10)
In his young age, Rudra went through deep psychological sufferings in his personal life. He was physically ill as well and neglected his health. He was gradually feeling alienated and yielding to silence and solitude. His loneliness reached an unbearable scale: "Having been alone so long, I only played lonely, / trounced love stroke my subterranean heartland / with hard stones without flora" ("Fit of Pique" 1-3). There are such repeated references to loneliness and solitude in many of his poems. Though the poet was frustrated at malevolence of the people around him, he was still optimistic about human beings that they would wake up any time at the call of necessity.
Military rule was another chapter in the history of Bangladesh that very few poets and writers addressed, but Rudra expressed his hatred to this black reign of authoritarian regime in the country. He was extremely critical of military rule. In his poem "To Armed Forces" the poet addresses the army:
With rifles, you have targeted human beings.
Like cunning hyenas, you have lifted up bayonets.
Boots in legs, your heads are draped in well-protected helmets.
You are armed and organized, who touches you! ("To Armed Forces" 2-5)
Armed forces were in action in the post 1975 Bangladesh, and scores of dreadful army directed killings occurred during this time. Rudra wrote many poems against autocratic military forces, whereas many writers and poets were simply pliant to such forces against humanity. Against such a backdrop Rudra boldly criticizes soldiers who were prepared with rifles and bayonets to target people in Bangladesh. He dreamed of establishling a beautiful country devoid of statist control where peace would prevail.
In general, Rudra wrote poetry in post 1975 Bangladesh mired in political decay, social instability, and human degeneration. He strongly protested overall frailty of Bangladesh politics, and its abuse of power. He appreciated courageous Bengalis who would fight before bullets:
You are ready with bayonets,
you are all set with rifles,
you hired armed scalawags to chase us –
but forcing trucks towards our processions,
you could not stop us. ("Face to Face" 4-8)
Rudra actually dreamt of a Bangladesh that would be free not only of the grip of wrong people but of mayhem in the society created by collaborators. He would continue raising his voice against martial autocracy, bigotry, and clandestine power of the defeated forces. His poetry strives to build a society free from oppression, discrimination and fundamentalist belief and practice. He hails the indefatigable struggle of hard working people of Bangladesh in his poetry of protest. At the same time, he expresses sadness on the inhumna condition of workers, "Our farmers go to plough lands / with empty stomachs and phthisis" ("Communiqué" 105-06).
Undoutbedly Rudra was a visionary who could read both his time and history and created a voice through his poetry of resistance. Taslima Nasrin, who was married to the poet, writes about Rudra:
I did not tolerate Rudra's blunder of a small scale for a single day, I did not compromise with his one or two mistakes – then whirling in the surge of time, observing and poring over life more, I have realized Rudra was greater than many others; he was greater in heart, in belief. Rudra is second to none for his liberal outlook, vivacity, and for the absence of artificiality in him. (qtd. in Bagchi 21)
Rudra's quest for truth is insurmountable as his poems seek a world where nothing is judged on the monetary or power exchange but truth, beauty and knowledge. He would dream that a single person in the world should not remain unfed, and poverty must be addressed as a curse. He believed that equal distribution of wealth can be a solution to eradication of the gap between the poor and the rich in society. The poet was always strident against the discrimination that prevails in the society and showed extreme hatred when the poor suffered hunger.
This critique of class and the wealthy is especially noted in his poem "Communique". He points his fingers at so-called aristocratic people who gradually increase their properties whereas workers, laborers and peasants perspire toiling hard day and night with their emaciated physique. Quoting the poet:
They work least
and enjoy the most resources.
They eat the best foods,
and wear the most luxurious dresses.
Their males have obese and ugly bodies.
Skin of their women is covered in toiletries, none can see.
They're immersed in laziness and fatigue – disgusting! ("Communiqué" 168-74)
Here, Rudra offers a powerful critique of class and offers the glimpse of the power the privileged class enjoyed over the marginalized. His poem also constructs a vision of how the national construct negates the presence of a certain class of people.. Rudra was the first-hand observer of all these excruciating pictures in the society, and so he emerged as a revolutionary to write poetry of dissent against the sky-high gaps between the rich and the poor.
Abdul Mannan Syed, writes about the role of poetry during a nation's critical times, and states that "the fountain of ecstasy appears in creativity – mainly in poetry – the poetry that is a great gateway to freedom of our emotion" (qtd. in Bagchi 11). Syed refers to 1970s, the turbulent times in Bangladeshi history, when poets came out to play a dominant role as representatives of national consciousness, and they wrote about inevitability of change. Rudra was, no doubt, one of the strongest voices among many others that formed a school of poets to protest atrocities, domination, class conflict and other crises of the times. From the stage of Jatiya Kabita Parishad (National Poetry Association), Rudra announced, "I am reading out my poems in defiance of the autocratic government and all autocracies inside this very Kabita Parishad (Poetry Association)" (qtd. in Das 31). Rudra delivered this speech in the face of many adversaries and reminds one of the lines, "Our flag is clutched tightly today by that old vulture!" (Rudra "The Smell of Corpses in the Air" 13).
Rudra is, on the other hand, unquestionably a great romantic poet as many of his poems weave the lattice of love and beauty that seem to be his driving force in his poetic world. There are elements of both romantic and modern poetry in him. In the words of Chowdhury:
Rudra is simultaneously romantic and modern. Malice and mobility of city life, simplicity of country life have concurrently appeared in his insightful and spontaneous poetry….his poetry is not free from the context of Baudelaire….he did not want to make poetry stony taking recourse to artificiality. (109)
Rudra was conscious of ruinous state of city life and confused minds of city people. The Baudelaire connection is especially strong in the case of Rudra. One gets reference to Paris as an "unreal city" in Baudelaire's magnum opus The Flowers of Evil (1857); likewise, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) refers to London as an "unreal city" in his most celebrated work The Wasteland (1922). Rudra's Dhaka, though not as "unreal" as Paris and London, was as degenerated in the decline of city life. Rudra did not find peace anywhere as Chowdhury claims, "The hurt of flowers and thorns, celebration of beauty and ugliness, tumult from moonlight and darkness, taste of ambrosia and poison have messed up his life" (108). He found darkness around him that would pierce him, and he would suffer miserably in his life. A Baudelairean mood is thus strong in Rudra's works a is reminiscent of the 19th century Romantics.
Rudra's thoughts and spirit were far-flung and wide-ranging. He could portray the picture of human condition and society well in scathing lines of resistance through his poetry. "Breaking the society," as Chowdhury points out, "Rudra intended to rebuild it to be suitable for the self emergence of human beings in general" (110). The poet declared the victory of equality, freedom and humanity in his works and he emphasized on breaking all shackles only to establish a new society where every individual may come forward with his/her own qualities and virtues. He also reassures the demand of equality in that society:
Looking for equality among all,
We'll remove individual crises.
We'll slash off chains of wakefulness,
we'll be birds together in the free world. ("The Story Birds" 33-36)
The poet wanted to destroy causes of discrimination that made the poor people suffer more. On the other hand, the revolutionary poet also showed romantic strain in the line "We'll be birds together in the free world," as he looks for a world where he and his beloved would be free. Rudra searched for love and harmony at a time which saw a shocking rise of fundamentalists and autocrats. He speaks against bigotry and fundamentalism in religion in his renowned poem-- "Fanatics have no religion but greed and abominable astuteness" ("Fanatics have no religion…" 11). Through the means of his rebellious poetry he ushered the nation into questioning the norms of Bangladeshi society. One of the most salient features of his works is that it shows that he was not happy with post-independent Bangladesh and it was not what the valiant freedom fighters had dreamt of. He defined independence in post independent Bangladesh as:
Independence – my near and dear I found after a long search,
independence – my harvest bought with the blood of my loves.
The ravished sister's sari – that is the flag of my blood-soaked nation. ("The Smell of Corpses in the Air" 26-28).
The poet was not pleased with the condition of Bangladesh after independence, as the country was yet to be free from extreme poverty, corruption and gender inequality.
Rudra had grievances against the world he would live in, as it was replete with selfishness, corruptions, autocracy, artificial flamboyance and degeneration. Poetry became the only tool for him to raise his voice against all these bad things. He was extremely critical to all forms of avarice in people. His aversion to materialism and fondness for aestheticism and abstract beauty, the most significant ingredients for a poet's creative life, are illustrated in the poem "Fit of Pique":
I want a little – let it be a wrong or false solace,
let the desirous mind have a little space
in moonlight if not in the moon.
I want very little, too little indeed. (7-10)
The poet did not have many material demands to lead his life on earth, and it echoes in the above lines. He was happy with moonlight though did not want the moon. As the poem reflects, even if the moon remains far-off and beyond reach, the poet is content with its light. Like great romantic poets of the world, he was a dreamer but in addition, he dreamt of a world free from hunger, poverty, misrule, corruption and class conflict. He dreamt of a world where peace and beauty would exist. Rudra wished to convert to the religion of humanism and social diseases were more disquieting to him than his own ill health.
Rudra is aptly acknowledged as a successful figure in the history of Bengali literature. Through a glimpse of his writings, one discovers a poet who is committed to his raise his voice against oppression in society. He earned the pinnacle of success as a poet inspiring the nation to stand against incongruities. Whenever he spoke, he spoke against oppressors, dictators, discriminators and collaborators and was extremely critical of people who considered themselves a superior class in the society. His rebellion and fiery words became crucial in marking a change in the way people thought. The great poet Rudra will remain effervescent in every heart of Bengali readers as an incandescent emblem of romanticism, revolutionary ideals and an indomitable social fighter forever.
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Shahidullah, Rudra Muhammad. Rudra Muhammad Shahidullahr Sreshtha Kabita (The Best Poems of Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah). Ed. Himel Barkat. Dhaka: Howlader Prokashoni, 2012. Print. (Note: Author of this article has translated all poems referred to in the article.)