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Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824--73)
One of the most profound and creative cross-fertilizations between two different cultures in the modern age took place in Bengal in the late eighteenth, the nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The first province to feel the full weight of the British presence in the eighteenth century was Bengal; and Calcutta, once three neighbouring villages by the river Hooghly in the south-western part of that province, emerged as probably India's first colonial city, its capital and the second city of Empire.
Collaboration, in the early days, between Bengalis and the British took, primarily, two forms. The first was trade and commerce, with entrepreneurs like Tagore's grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, benefiting immensely from acting as middlemen for the East India Company. The other was the phenomenon of scholarly and intellectual collaboration in the first half of the nineteenth century, before the so-called Mutiny in 1857 polarized colonized and colonizer permanently, as historians such as C. A. Bayly and others have shown; collaboration which produced, among other things, the first Bengali grammar, the reconstruction of Indian history by Orientalist scholars, and institutions like the Hindu College, where Western-style education was imparted. These complex phenomena -- trade, the reconstruction of Indian history, the teaching of English, the creation of the Bengali grammar, the Indian students at these colleges -- brought into existence a new, indigenous bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. This bourgeoisie set about redefining tradition in radical ways even as its members frequently led private or domestic lives more in keeping with conservative Hindu or Victorian mores; from the beginning, then, there was a self-division in this social class, a concern with genuine change but also with role-playing and concealment, all of which became part of a continual crisis of identity but a fundamental source of creativity as well. Intellectual and social change was precipitated in roughly two ways; first, for instance, by breaking caste or dietary taboos (by eating beef), and, morc seriously, by instituting social reform (say, in support of widow remarriage). On the other hand, there was an attempt, on the part of this bourgeoisie, at recovering the very tradition that, at other times, it seemed intent on redefining or even disowning. In other words, this bourgeoisie created, for the first time in India, a secular space in which tradition was no longer an autochthonic, hierarchical set of codes that must be adhered to, but an inseparable part of the Indian self and memory that was being reconstructed in the nineteenth century, the renewing power of that tradition sanctioned by no higher an authority than the individual himself.
The figure of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824--74) belongs to this context. In his personal and creative life, we see again the twin impulses towards, on the one hand, the disowning or, at best, redefinition of tradition, and its recovery as a creative constituent of the secular self on the other; contradictory but persistent and linked impulses that would contribute to the shape of the Bengal Renaissance, and of modern India itself. Dutt studied at the Hindu College, and wrote poetry in English (he sent a poem to Blackwood's Magazine dedicated to William Wordsworth, but there was no response from the journal; see also the extract below) in his quest to become a canonical 'English' poet. When still at the college, he converted to Christianity; whether as a perverse reaction against the Hinduism he'd come to dislike, or in defiance of his father, or in his desire to become more completely 'English', it is not known (at any rate, he does not seem to have led a particularly 'Christian' life). If he then disowned his past, his past, or, more specifically his father, disowned him as well. He was striking in personality and appearance, and reminded those who knew him of Othello; his life compensated in eventfulness what it lacked in stability. He abandoned his English wife, an indigo planter's daughter, and his children in Madras, in 1855, the year in which his father also died. Returning to Calcutta, he started from scratch; took another Englishwoman, Henrietta, as his life's companion; took up a series of jobs; wrote Bengali plays and translated two of them into English. Now, after the long process of disowning, came the process of recovery. In the letters below (both the extract from the essay and the letters are originally written in English), one sees how the Hindu gods and goddesses return to Dutt, but not as they would to a believer; instead, they inhabit the secular stage of Dutt's consciousness, as they would, increasingly, that of modern, secular India, in a way such that their significance is never quite fathomable, but never quite lost. At the age of 37, then, he remade himself as the first modern Bengali, and Indian, poet of true importance. Dutt chose as subject-matter for his epic Meghnada Badha Kabya (1861) an episode from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, which he had heard from his mother as a child, but made the son of Ravana, the hero Rama's traditional adversary, the tragic protagonist of his poem. Dutt was an admirer of Milton, and while approximating Miltonic blank verse in Bengali with startling effects, he used the Miltonic inversion of Paradise Lost, where Satan is a contested but unforgettable protagonist, to make the transition from the certainties of a religious epic, and religion itself, to the ambivalences of a secular work and the construction of a new secular self as reader and writer, caught between the simultaneous processes of disowning and recovery. 'I hate Rama and all his rabble,' said Dutt; perhaps neither this statement nor the epic poem would have been quite possible in today's BJP-ruled India, which has witnessed the demise, in one sense, of the struggle for a kind of redefinition which began in the early nineteenth century. The diverse provenances of Dutt's epic -- the oral transmission, in Bengali, of the Ramayan; classical Bengali metre; Milton; Miltonic and Greek epic simile; the progressive culture of the Bengali bourgeoisie -- remind us that the cosmopolitanism and multilingual, eclectic modernism that would come to Europe in the twentieth century had come to Bengal and India in the nineteenth, at a time when Victorian England was still relatively provincial and inward-looking. In 1862, indeed, he left for England, registered at the Gray's Inn, was joined there later by his wife and children, and spent a miserable period studying law. Running out of money, he moved to Versailles in France, but returned to England eventually to take his exams at the Bar. He returned to Calcutta in 1867, and began practising law at the High Court. Dutt led an extravagant life, and spent more than he earned as a barrister; he often borrowed money from his indulgent friends, some of whom were towering presences in their own right. His health deteriorated in 1872, and he died tragically at the age of fifty in a hospital, three days after Henrietta died at home. He is buried in the Park Circus cemetery in Calcutta.
from 'The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu' (1854)
I stand before you -- not as a Columbus, proudly claiming the meed of a discoverer of unknown worlds; I stand before you -- not as a Newton, whose god-like vision penetrated the blue depths of ether and saw a new and a bright orb, cradled in infinity; I deal in no mysteries; I am no sophist, ravishing the ear with melodious yet unmeaning sounds; captivating the eye with sparkling yet meretricious ornamentalism -- beautiful, yet artificial flowers, glittering yet false diamonds. No! -- the fact I enunciate, is a simple one; -- even he who runneth may read it. But its simplicity ought not to destroy its grave importance You all know it -- you all see it. Why has Providence given this queenly, this majestic land for a prey and a spoil to the Anglo-Saxon? Why? I say -- It is the Mission of the Anglo-Saxon to renovate, to regenerate, to Christianize the Hindu -- to churn this vast ocean, that it may restore the things of beauty now buried in its liquid wilderness; and nobly is he seconded -- will he be seconded, by the Science and the Literature of his sea-girt father-land -- the Literature of his country--baptized in the pure fountain of Eternal Love!1 And here let me pause for a moment.
When a man suddenly stands before her, to the golden shrine of whose beauty, his impassioned soul kneels in the sinless idolatry of love; the lustre of whose eyes is dearer far to him than the light of sun, or moon, or star; the sound of whose voice is sweeter far to him than strains from angel-harps; a lock of whose raven hair -- in the enthusiastic words of the Prince of the Persian Lyre -- is far more priceless to him than Samarkand and Bokhara -- he is as one dumb. What tongue can utter the thoughts of delirious joy, which oppress his bosom? I acknowledge to you, and I need not blush to do so -- that I love the language of the Anglo-Saxon. Yes -- love the language -- the glorious language of the Anglo-Saxon! My imagination visions forth before me the language of the Anglo-Saxon in all its radiant beauty; and I feel silenced and abashed.
I have heard the pastoral pipe of the Mantuan Swain;2 I have heard that Mantuan strike, with a bolder hand, the lyre of heroic poesy and sing of arms and the man whom the hatred of white-armed Juno imperilled both by land and by sea! I have listened to the melodies of gay Flaccus, that lover of the sparkling bowl, and the joyous banquet; I have heard of bloody Pharsalia,3 and learned to love Epicurus, the honour of the Greek race;4 I have sighed over the sad strains of him, who in his cheerless exile, sang of the hapless and the absent lover;5 the harp of the blind old man of Scio's rocky isle,6 singing of the wrath of Achilles, the direful spring of woes unnumbered to Greece, has often hushed my soul to awe; I have seen gorgeous Tragedy, in sceptered pall come sweeping by presenting Thebes' or Pelop's line;7 I am no stranger to the eloquence of fiery Demosthenes, of calm and philosophic Cicero; I am no stranger to marvelrelating Livy; to sententious Thucydides; to the delightful out-pourings of the father of historic novelists -- the man of Halicarnassus;8 I have heard the melodious voice of him9 who from the green tree of Poesy sang of Rama like a Kokila; I have wept over the fatal war of the implacable Courava and the heroic Pandava;10 I have grieved over the sufferings of her who wore and lost the fatal ring; I have wandered with Hafiz on the banks of Rocknabad and the rose-bowers of Mosellay: I have moralized with Saddi, and seen Roustum shedding tears of agony over his brave but hapless son; I have laughed with Moliere; the melody from the dismal prison-cell of Torquato Tasso, has soothed my ears. I have visited the lightless regions of Hades with Dante; I know Laura's sad lover11 who gave himself to fame with melodious tears; but give me the literature, the language of the Anglo-Saxon! Banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, banish him not thy Harry's company; banish plump Jack and banish all the world!12 I say, give me the language -- the beautiful language of the Anglo-Saxon!
I have heard would-be Quinctilians talk disparagingly of this magnificent language as irregular, as anomalous. I disdain such petty cavilers! It laughs at the limit which the tyrant Grammar would set to it -- it nobly spurns the thought of being circumscribed. It flows on like a glorious, a broad river, and in its royal mood, it does not despise the tribute waters which a thousand streams bring to it. Why should it? There is no one to say to it -- thus far shalt thou go, and no farther! Give me, I say, the beautiful language of the Anglo-Saxon.
1. Cowper 2. Virgil 3. Lucan 4. Lucretius 5. Ovid 6. Homer 7. The Greek Tragedians (Milton) 8. 1-Herodotus 9. Valmiki 10. The MahaMarata 11. Petrarch 12. Henry IV Part I
My dear Raj Narain,
I ought to apologize to you for not having replied to your kind and welcome letter so long; but I must warn you not to expect anything like regularity in me as a correspondent. I am by nature a lazy fellow, besides, I have a great deal to do. I have my office-work to attend to; I generally devote four or five hours to Law; I read Sanskrit, Latin and Greek and scribble. All this is enough to keep a man engaged from morn to dewy eve and so on. However, here you are -- as I have just half an hour to devote to the pleasant task of writing to an old friend whom I have at last learnt how to value.
Some days ago I wrote to my publisher to send you a copy of the new drama; I am very anxious to hear what you think of it. I am of opinion that our dramas should be in Blank-verse and not in prose, but the innovation must be brought about by degrees. If I should live to write other dramas, you may rest assured, I shall not allow myself to be bound down by the dicta of Mr. Viswanath of the Sahitya-Darpan. I shall look to the great dramatists of Europe for models. That would be founding a real National Theatre. But let me know what you think of Padmavati.* I am sure I need not tell you that in the First Act you have the Greek story of the golden apple Indianized.
Tilottama is printed, though the Printer has not yet sent it out. You shall have a copy as soon as possible. As I believe you are one of the writers of the Tattwabodhini Patrika, will you review the Poem in the columns of that Journal? That would be giving it a jolly lift indeed. If you should review the work, pray, don't spare me because I am your friend. Pitch it into me as much as you think I deserve, I am about the most docile dog that ever wagged a literary tail!
I feel highly flattered by the approbation of your wife. She is the first lady reader of Tilottama and her good opinion makes me not a little proud of my performance. I did not read that part of your letter to Rangalal, who is often with me, for we were boys together at Kidderpore and he used to call my mother (God rest her soul!) mother. He is a touchy fellow, but, I have no doubt, is ready to allow that, as a versifier, I ought to hang my hat a peg or two higher than his. My opinion of him is -- that he has poetical feelings -- some fancy, perhaps, imagination, but that his style is affected and consequently execrable. He may improve. Tilottama seems to have created some impression on him, as you will find in his very next poem.