I used to know only one Amir Hamza – the protagonist of an Indo-Persian epic. He was also often described as the Persian Alif Laila. Fifteen years ago, I read the epic with fascination, and the name has stuck with me since.
'Dastan-e-Amir Hamza' is a voluminous and extraordinary book. Page after page of the book carry tales of romance, affair and Hamza's bravery.
In the seventeenth century, Amir Hamza's legendary tales came to the rural Indian subcontinent through poetic tales and religious stories. The rare scripts are now preserved in the Bangla Academy.
But yesterday when I heard the name of one Md Amir Hamza, chosen for this year's Independence Award, I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of him or his work ever.
It was not just me, average readers and those who are keyed into the literary scene have never heard of him either. And there were no reasons to stumble upon his name either.
Thanks to the Independence Award (Swadhinata Padak) – the highest civilian award in Bangladesh for an outstanding contribution to the country – we are now aware of his existence.
But how did this person, who no one knows about, win the highest award in literature: this has become the number one question since the announcement.
Available information suggests Md Amir Hamza is a mystic and folk singer. He wrote two books (actually one). Sarathi Foundation in Magura' Sreepur published his maiden book 'Bagher Thaba' in 2018. Later in 2019, another book named "Prithibir Manchitre Ekti Mujib Tumi'' was published with selected contents from the previous one. Some claim that the third book by late Amir Hamza named "Ekusher Panchali'' was published in 2021.
The question that came to my mind is whether he has been nominated for his book "Prithibir Manchitre Ekti Mujib Tumi"? Did this songbook earn him the award? Amir Hamza got the highest award in the country by writing just a songbook? The math doesn't add up.
Saymon Zakaria, a folk researcher and playwright, who is the assistant director of Bangla Academy's folklore department, took to his social media handle and commented on the Amir Hamza issue.
"…We are sure that many mystic poets and their works still remain out of our discussion. Amir Hamza, the late poet who received the Independence Award this year, is one of them.
He was born on 10 November 1931 in Magura. He used to compose and perform traditional music on various topics. In addition to religious music, he had composed songs on different contemporary topics, politics and history.
A collection of his songs has been published under the titles of 'Bagher Thaba', 'Prithibir Manchitre Ekti Mujib Tumi' and 'Ekusher Panchali'. This year, it is a historic event that Amir Hamza, one of the mystic poets, has been awarded the Independence Award in the literature category.
As a dedicated folk researcher, I would like to thank the nomination board for awarding him the Swadhinata Padak," he wrote.
If we buy into Saymon's words, it must be said that this is truly a historic event. There is no doubt that the government has done a great job by discovering a rural poet and awarding him for his work.
But is Amir Hamza more prominent than Baul musician Shah Abdul Karim, Durbin Shah or Bijoy Sarkar? None of the people I mentioned received the Independence Award.
Saymon Zakaria went a step further and said, "Take for example when the Nobel Committee awarded Rabindranath Tagore or Bob Dylan in literature, Amir Hamza has been awarded for the same reason."
Poet Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection Gitanjali published in London in 1912. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in the same category in 2016 by almost redefining the boundaries of literature through his songwriting.
It is difficult to stay quiet after this comparison. How is Amir Hamza being compared to Bob Dylan or Tagore? Except for a maniac, no one would accept this comparison.
Bob Dylan is a world famous singer, songwriter, composer, and at the same time a poet with a strong sense of irony. Are the lyrics of his songs comparable to the lyrics of Amir Hamza?
The panel that selects the nominees for the Independence Award comprises 13 ministers and 10 bureaucrats – not one of them is involved in literature.
Recent media reports suggest it is not the value of Amir Hamza's literary works, but his son – a top bureaucrat – that helped the man get selected. The son proposed the name to the government and a senior secretary endorsed the proposal.
I feel pity for the late Amir Hamza. He never sought the award and he was not supposed to be humiliated.
It is worth mentioning here that similar criticisms prompted by a nomination blunder led to dropping one Rois Uddin from the Independence Award list just a few years ago.