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The 21st February and Creativity
Syed Manzoonrl Islam

There are some movements in history whose events decide not only the fate of the present, but of all time to come, setting the stage for the emergence of the free spirit of man and his realization of the ends of his creation. These events are shaped by the inevitable forces of history, and they take a clear dialectical pattern of conflicts involving good and evil, justice and injustice, freedom and bondage, truth and falsehood. And in course of time these historical movements take on other dimensions as well, sometimes transferring their significance on to a purely symbolic realm. Through a strange transvaluation which only history can explain, these events get firmly entrenched in popular imagination, supplying matter even for folklore. Such movements of apocalypse are not numerous in the history of nations; but when they take place they become more than mere historical events- they become occasions for a celebration of life, its vital principles and its uncompromising truth..

In the long history of the land and the people of Bangladesh; there have not been many occasions of unmixed joy. Our proudest events have often been weighed down by incalculable loss and suffering, our victories and our celebrations have brought forth more tears than laughter. But the proud people go on fighting, turning their songs of sorrow into chants of victory. tFtteimmortal 21st February reminded us every year that death is not always the end, but can also be a great beginning; that it is not always a sad waste, but can also be a matter of the deepest glory.

The events of the 21st February 1952 are matters of history now, and need no recapitulation here. What they represented in symbolic terms however, was the reawakening of a great nation when confronted with its first real challenge in a new geographical entity. This reawakening involved not simply a reassertion of its political will, or its maturity as a nation, but also a realization of its total cultural identity. For a long time the nation had been pursuing a common objective with other nations of the region-namely, independence-which became, if anything, a matter of conscience as well, especially after India's fate was sealed in a battle that took place in a mango grove of Bengal two hundred years earlier. It was perhaps only fitting that Bengal led the movement for independence of the subcontinent. When that independence came, the nation was even content for a while to share a common goal with other people within the framework of Pakistan. But it was quite obvious from the very beginning that they were `yoked by violence together' and were not destined to co-exist till eternity. So when the first protesters were shot down in the streets of Dhaka in that fateful afternoon of the 21st February, 1952, more than a severance of links was presaged. It also signalled the emergence of the nation of Bangladesh. The 21st gave us, to use a phrase from George Steiner, a "mythology of our future." The 21st made inevitable the freedom movement of 1971, and ensured our continuation as a free nation in the world.

The immortal 21st- it is now called by this epithet-influenced our arts and literature in two distinct ways. First, it made us aware of our rich cultural past and our true heritage by bringing us face to . face with our real identity as a nation. Secondly, it inspired us to create, and continue adding to the living culture of thousands of years. In a sense all true revolutions are inspirational. They embolden their chidlren to break more new grounds than they had covered. Tolstoy in his Literature and Revolution had suggested that a post-revolution poet will have to meet certain historical necessities "The poet of the new epech," he wrote, "will re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind and re-feel its feelings." it is - seen in our history of literature that the best periods of creativity had always coincided with or followed periods of gravest crises and conflicts. Each conflict- political, social or cultural- brought us closer to our own true selves. They generated the required dynamism which is a pre-condition for creativity. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his Autobiography, all art is born out of conflicts - of opposites. In our political history too, the more savage and ruthless the rulers were, the freer was our spirit, the more strident was our protest.

The 21st implied therefore a new look at our own selves and our culture, and a reassessment of our forgotten and neglected traditions of creativity. This close look is important as it enables a nation to find its strength as well as its weaknesses. The victory of the French over England in 1066, for example, followed a long period of creative vacuum in England, as the situation was perhaps too painful to allow for a closer look. But eventually, the English did face the situation. The result was the rich and wonderful creation of the pre-middle and middle English, and a revival of its older techniques in literature. The self-realization of the Bengalee nation after the 21st was coupled with a sense of pride and gratefulness that our old traditions existed not as matters of academic or historical interests only, but as living traditions from which we could take as much as we needed to, and which could set in motion our full capabilities of creativity.

As a result, we have a distinct body of literary and aristic creations which derive their origin from the 21st. Essentially the literature of the 21st refers to the literary works dealing directly or indirectly with the events of the language movement. We have the songs of the 21st, for example, which commemorate the movement and its martyrs. One such song, written by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury and set to music by Altaf Mahmud, who himself was killed by the occupation Pakistan Army in 1971, has become the theme song of the 21st, attaining a ritualistic significance over the years. The lyric is full of pathos and anguish, but there also is, quite explicitly, a call for revenge.-The music of Aftaf Mahmud combines the sombre with the inspirational, the long drawn melancholy with the sublime. It is a haunting, echoing music whose effect is incantatory and obsessive. The first few lines of the lyric stress a sense of loss, but a call for action is unmistakable

How can I forget the 21st of February

Spayed with the blood of my brothers?

How can I forget the 21 st of February

Washed by the tears of so many mothers?

... ... ... ... ... ...

Wake up Gorgons, wake up Gorgons, wake up Nor'westers Let the world shake with rage against child-killers! But the main body of the literature of the 21st is not extensive, possibly because historical-cultural events like these have their self­ imposed limitations. They tend to transcend the factual, narrative level of accomplishment to assume mythical proprotions, and become types and symbols. Language often fails to transform the apocalypse of the mind into communicable patterns of experience. "There are no words for the deepest experience," lonesco has said. At a certain stage language lapses into silence. So the symbolic-mythical rather than the factual-narrative had to be the dominant literary mode.

The theme of the 21st, broadly speaking, is protest. The literature of the 21st therefore, is the literature of protest. The protest may take many forms- political, cultural or aesthetic-leading finally to self­realization and self-analysis. In this sense, a large part of literature written after 1952 is influenced by the 21sY'1T [ou - c~eJ_the hidden well-spring of creativity in our writers and artists. There is no genre which was not enriched by its experiences Put the most pervasive influence is felt in the field of poetry as the large number of poems written on the 21st and collected in hundreds of commemorative volumes which come out throughout the country in the month of February every year testify. These commemorative volumes constitute the bulk of the literature on the 21st, but because of their sheer number, it is not possible to treat them separately in this easy. However, they amply prove the vital connection between the 21st and creativity. Their importance is immense and far-racking in the development of the consciousness of the 21st.

The formative influence of the immortal 21st has shaped the creative imagination of our poets, noveliests, short story writers, dramatists, essayists, musicians, painters, architects, journalists, film makers and just about anyone working with ideas. The play The Grave by Munier Chowdhury or the film Taken from Life by the Late Zahir Raihan are evidently the products of two different sensibilities at work with forms and techniques different from each other. But their central energy and their unifying force are provided by the events and symbolism of the 21st. Perhaps another example of how instantaneous and total the effect of the 21st was on the nation's creative impulse is the astonishingly simple yet eloquent design of the Shaheed Minar (the martyrs' monument). The monument has a long history of its own during which it was built, destroyed and rebuilt severall times. The final shape in which it now stands is a long way off from its original design, although the basic principles have been, preserved. The deceptively simple structures contain a distilliation of the pathos of a grieving mother. The tall structure in the middle which is bent at the top represents a mother who is flanked by weeping children represented by the four shorter structures. Hamidur Rahman in his original design tried to retain the tragic grandeur of his elegized subject while imparting a sense of grace to the structures. Like the pieta figures of the Quattrocento in Italy, the monument captures a haunting sense of the sublime and the sacred.

It should be recalled here that the consequence of the 21st, far from being an outright victory of our cause, was an escalation of repressive measures by the rulers. The situation was nightmarish, with arrests and torture of intellecturals, students and politicians. All creative efforts were suspect, any writing smelling even distantly of protest or rebellion was frowned upon. In such a situation, in February 1953, a slim volume of collections of poems, short-stories, songs and essays about the 21st came out, edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman and Muhammad Sultan, both deceased now. (The book was promptly banned by an edgy and nervous government). The volume titled 21st February, also contained a linocut and.sketches by Murtaja Baseer and others. These were probably the first such works on the February movement. Murtaja Basecr's later works, which included a series called Epitaph show the same elegiac grandeur and tight control of emotion that he displayed in his famous linocut. The volume went through several subsequent editions, but the first edition had already set the tone for the later wirters to follow. An analysis of the contents of the volume will show a common concern and aspiration that the works shared. The works are generally characterizd by the dual themes of anger and anguish. Shamsur Rahman's untitled poem, for example, attempts to infuse a Promethean spirit into the long drawn struggle for self-hood and his anguished cry echoes throughout the poem

My sunlit voice will rend the air,

Like the song of Prometheus.

The stillness'of the Egyptian sphinx will crumble, The bright star of your nights, and your mighty sun Will slip from their eternal orbits....

Shamsur Rahman's voice is strident and confident. So is Alauddin Al Azad's

They have destroyed your monument of memory. Have they?

Lose not your heart, friend.

We are still a family of forty million

We are still standing tall. Our foundation

No King could ever break.

But in comparison, Abu Zafar Obaidullah's poem captures the vivid immediacy of a mother's grieving heart in its elegant elegiac strain

The creeper is heavy with pumpkin flowers The tree shoots green sajna stems And 1, I've dried and stored bits of dal cakes for you. When will you come, my son When is your vacation ..?" The letter was in his pocket. tom. And splattered with blood.

Hasan Hafizur Rahman's untitled poem, on the other, hand, takes us directly into the heart of the tragedy. "Will the mother ever call him by his name?" asks the first line of the poem. It is seen that at the emotional centre of most of the works written about the 21st, the figure of a bereaved mother takes a dominant place. She is, to a large extent, the only real alive and concrete figure, and hardly subject to cold abstractions as other figures often are, like the enemies. This sometimes takes the works dangerously close to sentimentalism. But the symbolic juxtaposition of the mother with the country saves her from disintegrating along emotional lines.

It is surprising, however, that the 21st did not inspire dramatic works although the conflict and the action that result are authentic elements of drama. Except for Munier Chowdhury's Kabar (The grave) no other play of any significance has been written on the theme. The problem is perhaps the same as the one faced by the Victorian writers in England. The Victorian age was also a time of great conflicts-between science and religion, faith and disbelief, technology and nature, industrial progress and utopiac dreams-but it failed to produce a dramatic work of any worth. When actions are placed in a.larger sphere of ideas, when they become too much conceptualized to permit the free play of imagination, they lose their dramatic potentials. They may then provide good matters for poetry, even for lyrical poetry, but sustaining a play on a set theme becomes very difficult indeed. Munier Chowdhury's treatment of the 21st is a little different. In Kabar he focusses on the practice of removing the bodies of those killed by police firing by Government security people and dumping them all in one grave so that casualties are not listed. The setting of the play is a.graveyard, where reality and fantasy are interposed in order to project a startling picture of man's cruelty and inhumanity and his sheer callousness.

A substantial body of fiction has, however, been written about the 21st among which there are a number of short stories and at least three important novels. Shawkat Osman, one of the leading writers of fiction of the country, has written a novel on the theme- The Cry of Anguish. His short story "No More Dumb" which was included in the volume 21st February, forms the first chapter of the novel. The story, like the novel itself, relies heavily on description and the symbolism of a journey. An old man whose son has been killed in the movement is travelling in a bus. The time is evening, and the world outside is gloomy and murky. Inside the bus, fellow passengers realize the dignified difference of the man and maintain a respectable distance from him. Suddenly when the silence becomes too oppressive, the old man gives out a convulsive cry. "What was his fault? Why did they have to shoot him? What was his fault? Oh!" He passes out, as the passengers spring to life. They catch hold of him and nurse him. Shawkat Osman describes the reaction of the passengers thus : "In their burning eyes, flames start rising. The howls of lions are stifled in their voice and the veins of their neck tremble with pent up rage." But all the while, "the bus, indifferent to all this, keeps moving." The story's halting progression is rather uneventful, and more than once it verges on the melodrama (the novel is not free from it, though). It is only rescued in the last moment by the symbolic contrast introduced between the passengers' agitated outburst and the total indifference of the bus-the machine-suggesting thereby the large dichotomy of people and government. Other writers like Sayeed Atiqullah and Atoar Rahman treat the subject more centrally, relating the events closely to the lives of their characters to establish their validity. In a short story however, it is sometimes difficult to develop the larger perspective of the movement or place characters against a clear background. But in a novel it is possible to be at once historical and fictional, to have a deeper penetration into the character while allowing for events to develop out of their own causal relationships and interactions. The novels by Zahir Raihan and Selina Hossain attempt to do precisely this. Zahir Raihan's Another Falgoon (Falgoon is the Bengali month overlapping February, when the event took place) treats the events of the 21st including the police firings and their sequels, and brings real characters like Barkat to give the narrative a historical verismilitude. Selina Hossain's novel Eternal Bells is based purely on historical and real life characters. As a novelist she possesses a lucid and confident strength which makes her close encounters with history a matter of lived experience. There are no doubt fictional dimensions to those characters and events, but she maintains the precarious balance between fact and fiction quite successfully.

The crisis of identity that resulted from the events of the 21st also affected other areas where creativity of a different kind is demanded.

Journalism, for example, which demands objectivity but which sinks into insipidity and mere chroniclism without a degree of imagination, took a new turn to accommodate, in Marshall McLuhan's phrase, "new configurations of perception." The brief but intense spate of

creative journalism that we witnessed till the coming of Ayub Khan owed its origin and guiding force to the immortal 21st. The imposition of Martial Law with its draconian press censorship measures in 1958 ended that phase and created a crisis in journalism from which the nation took a long time to recover.

The 21st also made its presence felt in many obscure regions of our nation's creative life. The rickshaw painters of Bangladesh, to take an extreme example, also drew their inspiration from the movement. This form of naive art, whose rise coincided with the growth of commercial painting in the country, was dominated for a while by the harmonious design of the martyrs' monument and scenes of police firing. These motifs have disappeared now as more attrractive and commercial displays have taken their place.

The 21st has bestowed on the nation a legacy of imaginative creativity whose greatest gift is the liberation of the mind from convention and from a blind adherence to a tradition which did not even include our true past or our cultural identity. This liberating principle worked with a mysterious power of affirmation to create a new myth. At the centre of the myth are the fallen heroes of the movement who have come to embody our hopes and aspirations. The 21st has taught us to look at ourselves, to tear up the veils of unknowing that hang between us and reality. The reality itself is uncompromising and sometimes cruel in its insistence on a complete commitment to life. In 1971 the nation applied these lessons and drove away a powerful enemy. That was on the level of action. On the level of ideas, contemplation and imagination, we are still fighting the eternal battle against evil and the forces of oppression and disintegration. And the inspiration for the struggle we still draw from the 21st.