Nazrul’s ‘Rebel’ poem was celebrated in an exhibition in Japan. Great art has no country-time-boundaries. Bengali poet Nazrul became relevant in the world in the crisis of new era and new times. Organized on the occasion of Nazrul Jayanthi.
End of August 2014. Agraja called fellow writer and journalist Manjurul Haque and asked him to visit the art museum in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo. The ‘Yokohama Triennale’, Japan’s largest triennial world art exhibition, is going on there. The three-month-long exhibition is organized with about 400 works of art by 65 artists from 19 countries. Exhibition coordinator Yuko Suzuki, art director Yasumasa Morimura.
Yasumasa Morimura himself is Japan’s most famous painter. He has generated much discussion by re-imagining the artworks of Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo and using himself as an art element. Having this artist involved means there will be something exceptional about it. That exception was found at the Yokohama Triennale. But we have to be surprised by that exception. Because, on the occasion of this exhibition, Morimura created artwork and one of its elements is Kazi Nazrul Islam’s timeless poem ‘Bidrohi’.
I also had a surprising connection in that different dimension exhibition.
Yasumasa Morimura characterized the exhibition as ‘Swimming the Sea of Oblivion’. This oblivion is not biological, but a byproduct of power politics. Between the state and the people, literature or creativity, based on books, is the source of memory and rebellion. Books are therefore forever a victim of state ire. Morimura reached the poet Nazrul for that reason.
Whether ‘Bidrohi’ written in Bengali letters in big font has been placed in the ranks of art and literary works that break the rules celebrated around the world! The participation of this poem in Bengali language in the symbolic last book of the world was carried away with emotions.
At the Yokohama Triennale Morimura titled his installation and performance artwork ‘Art: Fahrenheit 451’. The name is reminiscent of American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s 1950s novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’. 451 F is a temperature at which paper cannot survive; It caught fire. Ray Bradbury in his dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ envisions a state where all books are burned one by one.
The latest book in the world
Yoko Suzuki, the curator of the exhibition, took us to the third chapter of the exhibition, set up on the second floor of the grand museum building. There is a wooden altar placed in the center of a room. Up the small stairs is a tall bookshelf. Put the book on it. In Morimura’s words, the last book on earth. The entire book contains essays and pictures in eight different languages in different chapters. The title of the book is ‘Moye Nai Koto’ or ‘That which does not burn in fire’.
The book also includes a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, banned in Stalin’s ironclad Soviet Union, which lived on in people’s memory. There is also a play by Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek. The 2008 Nobel laureate in literature is a woman writer who has always been vocal against three evils: people reduced to commodities, Austria’s fascist past and patriarchy’s systematic exploitation of women.
There is also a poem by Chit Phumisak of Thailand, who was killed by reactionary forces. Born in 1930, Fumisak is a poet, historian and communist guerrilla. His most popular book is The Real Form of Thai Feudalism.
The World War II-era blank wall of the Hermitage Art Gallery in St. Petersburg, painted by Russian artist Vera Milutina, is also part of the book.
The book also featured a representation of the Kitakami region of Miyagi District, which was swept away by the tsunami following Japan’s catastrophic earthquake in 2011. Part of Shiga Liko’s spiral photography series ‘Razen Kaigan’ is printed in the book. Revolutionary Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi’s hand-drawn illustrations and short lines written against world imperialism are printed. And there is a final note by Okinawan poet Nakaya Kokichi, written in Morimura’s own hand, with embellishments.
A different rise of the ‘rebel’
As I said earlier, the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s timeless poem ‘Bidrohi’, which was under the British government’s fire, aroused my mind. Whether ‘Bidrohi’ written in Bengali letters in big font has been placed in the ranks of art and literary works that break the rules celebrated around the world! The participation of this poem in Bengali language in the symbolic last book of the world was carried away with emotions.
Organizers called the ‘Book of Oblivion’ composed of writings or works of art related to the history sought to be erased, another exhibition within an exhibition. Nazrul’s poetry also became significant in the composition of that ‘book of oblivion’!
Kazuo Watanabe designed this book, which is quite thick and large in size. Artist Toshio Ohio was involved in the binding.
During the exhibition, there was a arrangement to get a glimpse of this book by lining up on the altar. In the course of the Yokohama Triennale, works in various languages printed in books are also read and performed irregularly. And this source called me. I have to recite Nazrul’s ‘Rebel’ poem in front of art lovers from different countries.
I was already overwhelmed by Nazrul’s ‘rebel’ in this book which is at the center of global events. Now the authorities request to read it really left me speechless.
While reading ‘Bidrohi’, I felt like presenting the beauty and courage of the Bengali language to the world. I had forgotten that I was standing in Japan, far away from Bangladesh, none of the visitors around knew Bengali. As I read the poem, I went back to my youth, to our history and movement, where the ‘rebels’ taught us to hold our heads high, showed us the way, inspired us again and again. I keep on reading, ‘Bal Bir/ Chir Udmada Maam Shir’, keep on reading, ‘When the tyrant’s sword does not strike on the battlefield of mercy…’
Nazrul’s impeccable sound, rhythm and unabashed sense guide my voice. Sometimes in a high tone, sometimes in a low tone—I finish the reading of ‘Rebel’ in a whirl.
At the end of the poetry reading, I looked around and saw that the eyes of the audience were infected. Yuko Suzuki e-mailed me the next day to say that the poem had touched her core. Unintelligibility of language was not a barrier at all. The universality of rhythm and sound is the bridge of poetry.
It should be said that although Rabindranath Tagore is known to a limited extent in Japan, Nazrul is an unknown name. Taking place in the fighting words and images of the ‘Book of Oblivion’, ‘Rebel’ proved that the fire of art cannot be extinguished by pouring cold water of power, cannot be covered with the cloak of oblivion.
In the same e-mail, Yuko requested that during the exhibition’s three-month run, we would go there occasionally at convenient times to read ‘Insurgent’. Despite being so busy, I could not respond to his request. And every time I noticed wonder and fascination in the eyes of new visitors.
Not all ends in fire
On the last day of the exhibition, readings were organized for the last time from the last book placed on the high altar of the third chapter of the museum, writing in each language. Artist Yasumasa Morimura himself attended the reading. At the invitation of the authorities, I had the opportunity to read ‘Rebel’ again with Japanese revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi, Korean artist Kim Young Gik, and readers of various languages. The event took a different dimension in front of countless cameras and countless spectators.
The legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut made a film called Fahrenheit 451 based on Ray Bradbury’s novel. At the end of the reading, Morimura came out of the altar with the book, dressed as a firefighter in the movie.
Someone from the audience read aloud a text from a book. As soon as his words were gone, someone else wrote another stanza at the other end. From the other side, two or three voices were heard together. The audience’s curious eyes began to wander around with the hesitation of various voices. This is like a revival of the final scene of Truffaut’s film. Books can be taken away or burned, but not erased from memory.
The exhibition will conclude with one last event outside the gallery. Morimura himself composed the performance called ‘Dhwanser Sagare Chhota’. The director is Kono Yuichi.
In the darkness of night in an artificial reservoir in front of the gallery, a woman in a special costume took the book from Morimura’s hand under the light of a spotlight. He walked on water. A wooden boat caught in the sudden narrow light. Another wooden altar is similar to the gallery on the boat. The woman placed the book on him. Suddenly some ominous figures in uniform came running from all sides. Arms in hand to fire them. They went to the boat and set fire to the book. Now many others came running. Frantically, they set fire to more books and works of art kept on the boat. The fire continued to burn in the middle of the water.
The front part of the tall building of the museum was filled with sparks. This is like a great flood. Someone remembered the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011 and the scene of destruction that followed. Daudau is burning in ships or people’s houses that have drifted in the sea.
Now a man dressed as a fireman rushed to rescue the wreckage of the book from the burning boat. It is not only destruction or oblivion, but the rebuilding of life by digging up memories. The vitality and creativity of people survives the way that people and life continue to flow despite the strong influence of the state or nature. Akhmatova, Fumisak or Adachi survive. Poet Nazrul is alive.