Prof Syed Ali Ahsan (1922-2002) SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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Prof Syed Ali Ahsan (1922-2002) SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Professor Syed Ali Ahsan was by far the best intellectual, poet and pedagogue in Bangladesh in the second half of the last century. He was born on March 26, 1920 to a Sufi family in Alokdia (Magura), and died in the early hours of July 25, 2002, at his Kalabagan residence in Dhaka.

As Vice-Chancellor of three universities, professor at three other universities, Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and Minister of Education, Syed Ali Ahsan influenced his contemporaries with his unparalleled speech and writing. He was a voracious reader of world literature and author of many well-read books.

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At one time, Syed Ali Ahsan was a poet without comparison. During the 1940s, there were four outstanding poets among Bangle Muslims: Farrukh Ahmad, Abul Hussain, Ahsan Habib and Syed Ali Ahsan. Initially an Islamic conservative like Farrukh Ahmad, Ali Ahsan then turned into a modern Westernized poet. His Ekok Sandyay Boshonto, Sohosha Sochokito, Uchcharon, Amar Protidiner Shobdo and Samudre Jabo contain many verses of lasting interest. Here we quote a short poem translated by Pritish Nandy:

Handle

You were suddenly beautiful

When you undressed,

There is a noble wealth in the body

The many greens of desire,

The soft wet darkness of the monsoon

Or a crow’s feather,

I caught fire in both my hands

Or maybe it was the sun

On the sea in the arteries

On bouquets of flowers,

If only you could be like this

Always, all the time.

In the mid-1960s, the poet Ahsan caused a sensation among the younger generation with his trio-poem My East Bengal (I, II, III), evoking

(a) A wonderful cold river!

(b) A pile of charming tomal in the dark

(c) The sound of rain on the leaves of the trees in the depths of the night

Likewise, he alerted intellectuals in West Bengal with his poem, which ends with the phrase “Amar protidiner shobdo” (Words of my daily use). Here he cursed those who caused genocide in 1971.

After the liberation, he was officially asked to translate our national anthem into English. Much later, he was asked by the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee to recommend a name for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Syed Ali Ahsan was also a very good prose writer. He has written several short stories, a novel and numerous autobiographical essays. Besides numerous philosophical articles, he even wrote a book on cooking. He was also good at cooking, especially French and Chinese cuisines. In addition, he has written two books on art. For quite a long time he taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University.

Professor Ahsan was above all a moralist – if we consider his essays and lectures. As a rare genius – an expert on old Hindi – he was honored by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.

Professor Ahsan has organized two Asian poetry festivals in Dhaka. At the last festival, British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes participated along with several other poets from around the world.

Professor Ali Ahsan was also the founder and chairman of PEN Bangladesh.

On the 20th anniversary of the death of this literary genius, I remember him with great respect and wish him eternal peace in the world without return.

Professor Mahmud Shah Qureshi is a Bangladeshi scholar. He has received numerous accolades, including Ekushey Padak and the French Legion of Honor.