Asrar Habib: Michael Madhusudan Dutt was a gifted multilingual person,a popular Bengali poet and dramatist of 19th-century. He has extra-ordinary talent in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit.
Madhusudan is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets in Bengali literature and the father of the Bengali sonnet. He pioneered what came to be called Amitrakshar chhanda (blank verse). Although his first love remained in poetry, Dutt showed impressive skill as a playwright. He was the first to write Bengali plays in the English style, segregating the play into acts and scenes. He was also the pioneer of the first satirical plays in Bengali – Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron and Ekei Ki Boley Sabyota. He also wrote poems about the sorrows and afflictions of love as spoken by women. He wrote the first successful tragedy of Bengali literature Sharmistha.
He was born on 25 January 1824 in Sagordari, a village in Keshabpur upazila of Jessore district. His father Rajnarayan Dutt was a pleader in the Sudder court. The nameof his mother was Jahnabi Devi.
His childhood education started in Shekpura village. It was an old mosque, where he went to learn Persian. He was an exceptionally talented student. Since his childhood, Madhusudan was recognized by his teachers as being a precocious child with a gift of literary expression. He was very imaginative.
Early exposure to English education and European literature at home inspired him to emulate the English in taste, manners and intellect. David Lester Richardson, Professor of Hindu College, Calcutta,(now Presidency College) was the first to influence at his early stage. Richardson was a poet who transmitted into Madhusudan adoration for English poetry.
At around 17 years of age Madhusudan began writing English poetry, sending his works to publications in England, including Blackwood’s Magazine and Bentley’s Miscellany. They were however, never published. It was also the time he begankeeping correspondence with his friend, Gour Das Bysack, which today form the bulk of the source on his life.
As a young student, Madhusudan was influenced by the thoughts and actions of the Young Bengal – a movement by a group of illustrious former students of the Hindu College of Kolkata against the atrocities, blind beliefs and customs they held as illogical, prevalent in the Hindu society of 19th century Bengal.
Madhusudan, aspired to be an English poet and longed to travel to England to gain fame. Concerning these trends his fatherarranged his marriage. Dutt refused to get involved in an arranged marriage which his father had decided for him. He had no respect for that tradition and wanted to be free from the confines of caste-based endogamous marriage. His knowledge of the European tradition convinced him of the superiority of marriage made by mutual consent.He rebelled andwas converted to Christianity.He expresses his rebel words,
Where man in all his truest glory lives,
And nature’s face is exquisitely sweet;
For those fair climes I heave impatient sigh,
There let me live and there let me die.
Madhusudan was converted into Christianity at the Old Mission Church ignoring the objections of his parents and relatives on 9 February 1843. He had to leave Hindu College on account of being a christian. In 1844 he resumed education at Bishop’s College, where he stayed for three years. Madhusudan describes the day he encompassed as:
Long sunk in superstition’s night,
By Sin and Satan driven,
I saw not, cared not for the light
That leads the blind to Heaven.
But now, at length thy grace, O Lord!
Birds all around me shine;
I drink thy sweet, thy precious word,
I kneel before thy shrine!
Madhusudan Dutt was the first Indian to marry a European or Anglo-Indian woman. On 31 July 1848, he married an Indo-Scottish-Britton, Rebecca Thompson McTavish, a 17 years old resident of the Madras Female Orphan Asylum. He assumed the name Michael when the marriage was registered in the baptismal register. They had four children. He wrote to his friend Gour Bysack in December 1855, ‘Yes, dearest Gour, I have a fine English wife and four children.’
Madhusudan returned from Madras to Calcutta in February 1856, after his father’s death in 1855, abandoning his wife and four children in Madras. In 1858, he reunitedwitha daughter of his colleague, Emelia Henrietta Sophie White,22 years old French origin, at the Madras Male Orphan Asylum. They had two sons, and a daughter, Sermista. Their relationship lasted until the end of his life.
In 1847, he moved to Madras due to severe family tensions and economic hardship, having been disinherited by his father. While in Madras, he stayed in the Black Town neighbourhood, and began working as an “usher” at the Madras Male Orphan Asylum. Four years later, in 1851, he became a second tutor in the Madras University High School. In addition, he edited and assisted in editing the periodicals, Madras Circulator and General Chronicle, Athenaeum, Spectator and Hindu Chronicle.
Madhusudan Dutt was spirited bohemian and romantic. He was greatly influenced by the works of William Wordsworth and John Milton. During his stay in Madras, he published such works as King Porus, The Captive Ladie (1849)
The Hurkaru, a prominent periodical at the time gave the self-published ‘The Captive Ladie’ unfavaorable reviews, and was in Madhusudan’s own words, “was somewhat severe”. John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, the then President of the Council of Education, was full of praise for the octo-syllabic in his letter to Bysack, and advised Dutt to “employ the taste and talents, which he has cultivated by the study of English, in improving the standard, and adding to the stock of the poetry of his own language.”Under the alias, Timothy Penpoem, he published his poems in the periodicals he edited.
The period during which he worked as a head clerk and later as the Chief Interpreter in the court, marked his transition to writing in his native language , following the advice of Bethune and Bysack. He wrote 5 plays: Sermista, Padmavati, Ekei Ki Boley Sabyata, Krishna Kumariand Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron. Then followed the narrative poems: Tilottama Sambhava Kavya, Meghnad Badh Kavya, Brajagana Kavya and Veerangana Kavya. He also translated three plays from Bangla to English, including his own Sermista.
His famous work Meghnad Bodh Kavya, the first epic of Bangla literature. It consists of nine cantoes and is exceptional in Bengali literature both in terms of style and content. The Slaying of Meghnad, the story of the final fight and demise of Meghnad, the eldest son of Ravana, is unanimously hailed as his magnum opus, although his journey to publication and recognition was far from smooth. However, with its publication, he distinguished himself as a serious composer of an entirely new genre of heroic poetry, that was Homeric and Dantesque in technique and style, and yet so fundamentally native in theme. To cite the poet himself: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Nevertheless, it took a few years for this epic to win recognition all over the country.
A volume of his Bangla sonnets was published in 1866. His final play, Maya Kannan, was written in 1872. The Slaying of Hector, his prose version of the Iliad remains incomplete.
He dedicated his first sonnet to his friend Rajnarayan Basu, which he accompanied with a letter: “What say you to this, my good friend? In my humble opinion, if cultivated by men of genius, our sonnet in time would rival the Italian.” His most famous sonnet is Kapatakkha Nod.
Always, o River, you peep in my mind.
Always I think you in this loneliness.
Always I soothe my ears with the murmur
Of your waters in illusion, the way
Men hear songs of illusion in a dream.
Many a river I have seen on earth;
But which can quench my thirst the way you do?
You’re the flow of milk in my homeland’s breasts.
Will I meet you ever? As long as you
Go to kinglike ocean to pay the tax
Of water, I beg to you, sing my name
Into the ears of people of Bengal,
Sing his name, o dear, who in this far land
Sings your name in all his songs for Bengal.
Sharmistha was Dutt’s first attempt at blank verse in Bengali literature. Kaliprasanna Singha organized a felicitation ceremony to Madhusudan to mark the introduction of blank verse in Bengali poetry.
Praising Dutt’s blank verse, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, observed: “As long as the Bengali race and Bengali literature would exist, the sweet lyre of Madhusudan would never cease playing.” He added: “Ordinarily, reading of poetry causes a soporific effect, but the intoxicating vigour of Madhusudan’s poems makes even a sick man sit up on his bed.”
Dutt went to England in 1862 to become a Barrister-at-Law, and enrolled at the Gray’s Inn.On the day before his departure to England Modhusudan wrote:
Forget me not, O Mother,
Should I fail to return
To thy hallowed bosom.
Make not the lotus of thy memory
Void of its nectar Madhu.
(Translated from the original Bengali by the poet.)
His family joined him in 1863, and thereafter they shifted to the much cheaper Versailles, due to the miserable state of their finances. Funds were not arriving from India according to his plans. He was only able to relocate to England in 1865 and study for the bar due to the munificent generosity of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. For this, Dutt was to regard Vidyasagar as Dayar Sagar(the ocean of kindness) for as long as he lived. He was admitted to the High Court in Calcutta on his return in February 1867. His family followed him in 1869.
When Dutt later stayed in Versailles, the sixth centenary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was being celebrated all over Europe. He composed a poem in honour of the poet, translated it into French and Italian, and sent it to the king of Italy. Victor Emmanuel II, then monarch, liked the poem and wrote to Dutt, saying, “It will be a ring which will connect the Orient with the Occident.”
His stay in England had left him disillusioned with European culture. He wrote to his friend Bysack from France, ‘If there be any one among us anxious to leave a name behind him, and not pass away into oblivion like a brute, let him devote himself to his mother-tongue. That is his legitimate sphere, his proper element.’
Madhusudan died in Calcutta General Hospital on 29 June 1873. Just three days prior to his death, Madhusudan recited a passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to his dear friend Bysack, to express his deepest conviction of life:
…out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Dutt was largely ignored for 15 years after his death. The belated tribute was a tomb erected at his gravesite.His epitaph, a verse of his own, reads:
Stop a while, traveller!
Should Mother Bengal claim thee for her son.
As a child takes repose on his mother’s elysian lap,
Even so here in the Long Home,
On the bosom of the earth,
Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep
Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.