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There was always a rebel figure fascination with Michael Madhusudan Dutt

A new book by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal on the first modern poet of Bengal seeks to reinvigorate interest in the troubled genius who never got his due

Detail from '‘Victory Of Indrajit’ by Raja Ravi Varma, 1905. Dutt, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on 25 January, upturned the Hindu hierarchy by focusing on a ‘rakshasa’ rather than a god.
Detail from '‘Victory Of Indrajit’ by Raja Ravi Varma, 1905. Dutt, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on 25 January, upturned the Hindu hierarchy by focusing on a ‘rakshasa’ rather than a god.

“The idea of Ravana elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow,” wrote Michael Madhusudan Dutt to his friend Raj Narain Basu in 1861. In the same letter, the poet and dramatist calls himself an “industrious dog” for having finished, in just one and a half years, what the scholar William Radice calls “the only true classic of Bengali literature.”

In his free-verse epic Meghnadbadh Kabya, Dutt upturned the Hindu hierarchy by focusing on a rakshasa—the unfair slaying of Raavan’s son Meghnad by Lakshman—rather than a God. Its genius is something even Rabindranath Tagore, who came three decades after Dutt, grudgingly recognized as something he would never be able to do.

In another letter to his friend Gourdas Basak, Dutt wrote, “In matters literary, old boy, I’m too proud to stand before the world in borrowed clothes.” It’s a line that reveals the polyglot in all his fanciful glory. And it is letters such as these that lend voice to a new book by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal on Dutt. Betrayed By Hope: A play on the life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt is a contemporary look at the life of one of 19th century India’s most tragic literary figures.

Born as the only child of privileged parents, Dutt studied Latin, Greek and English at Kolkata’s Hindu College where he was encouraged by his professors to emulate the Romantics in their pursuit of the Ideal. For him, this also led to rejecting Hinduism and converting to Christianity, which led to his father disowning him. Despite a hard life, often spent in bouts of severe financial difficulty between Kolkata, Madras, London and Paris, his literary output remained constant until 1873. Dutt may have adopted Christ and Western attire but he repeatedly faced racial discrimination. Even in death, the riddle of his identity continued. The Anglican church to which he had converted opposed his funeral and burial.

A European by education but a Bengali in his heart, Dutt battled a lifelong crisis of identity. When he finally found his métier in his mother tongue, he experimented with a variety of forms, including Petrarchan sonnets. He was a true polyglot with a command over Bangla, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, Tamil, Telugu, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian and English. But his genius was perpetually mired with a certain tendency to self-destruct. Perhaps the greatest revealing moment is that when he finally does achieve the literary recognition and success he so craved with Meghnadbadh Kabya in 1861, he decides to leave for London to become India’s first barrister. Given his luck, he succeeded in becoming only the third.

It is these complexities that drew Gokhale and Lal, who have more than fifteen books each to their credit. Betrayed By Hope is their third book together. The pair spoke to me about their fascination with Dutt’s life, his tragic legacy and why his works need to be translated to more languages. Edited excerpts:

Betrayed By Hope: By Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, HarperCollins India, 136 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Betrayed By Hope: By Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, HarperCollins India, 136 pages, 399.

‘Betrayed By Hope’ is a culmination of more than 15 years of engagement. Tell me how both of you got drawn to the subject.

Namita Gokhale: In 2004, I reviewed two books on Michael by the Bangladeshi scholar Ghulam Murshid: a biography Lured By Hope and another book based on his letters, The Heart of a Rebel Poet. Something about the structure of the letters naturally formed a five-act play. But it didn’t quite come together till Malashri and I got talking.

Malashri Lal: I wrote a review of William Radice’s translation of Meghnadbadh Kabya in 2011. It had an introductory essay in which Radice outlined how underappreciated he was in his time. There was always a rebel figure fascination with Michael Madhusudan Dutt but other than Meghnadbadh Kabya people really don’t know much about the man.

Why did you choose to go with the structure of a play based on his letters? Was the narrator, a young Bangladeshi research scholar, meant to be a stand-in for the two of you?

ML: I find the epistolary mode very fascinating because authors don’t write that with an audience in mind. There is an honesty and self-reflection that comes out of such letters. We introduced the narrator because we needed someone to intervene, comment and analyse. It had to have a structure that was dialogic.

NG: I was drawn to the letters because it’s Dutt speaking so it’s not us being presumptuous. About the ambivalent narrator, I think she gives the book its edge because she provides perspective. Otherwise, how do you handle such a vast canvas?

One of your early titles was ‘Byron in Calcutta’. Michael’s persona also reminds me of Mozart and Shelley—in the way they tried to balance prodigious outputs with social needs. What other artists did you find to be similar in temperament?

ML: In Michael’s letters, there are references to Milton and Shakespeare. Milton, quite obviously, because he too was going against the grain of established religion. He created the magnificent character of Satan in Paradise Lost. Michael borrowed a lot from Milton from the point of view of poetic structure. Also Shakespeare because of the ability with which they both created convincing characters quite unrelated to themselves.

Both of you have engaged with feminist texts through your careers. At one point, as your narrator points out, Dutt “moves out of the arena of the male gaze”. Do you believe he had a genuine shift or was it part of his larger goal to take a subversive approach to Hindu epics? In his personal life, he wasn’t known to be very sympathetic to women.

NG: As a novelist, I have no bias or beliefs. I look at people as they are. I have been amused and observant about Michael but it is not in me to be judgmental about his life choices. I’ve always been drawn by his tragic failure. I don’t know whether he had secret sympathy with the women in his texts or if he was being textbook subversive.

ML: It’s difficult to say whether he had feminist sympathies or not but we must remember that he was living at a time when the social reform movement in Bengal was at its height. Things like the Widows’ Remarriage act etc in which reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had an important role to play. Michael was drawn to these social changes. He wrote journalistic and socially oriented pieces. Two very strong ones in particular, Ekei Ki Bole Sabhyata (1860) and Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron (1860), were criticisms of conservative society. It’s important to note that in Meghnadbadh Kabya, he created the character of Meghnad’s wife, Promila. Later he wrote women-oriented plays such as Sermista (1859) and Krishnakumari (1860). He also did a whole series called Virangana Kabya (1861), focused on women who are brave but not given their due.

It’s true that his marriage with his first wife was not legally annulled. He left his second partner Henrietta in Versailles when he returned to Kolkata but he’s written in his letters that he did that because he believed his children would have a better education in Europe.

Malashri Lal
Malashri Lal

Do you have misgivings about the fact that Dutt’s tumultuous life precedes all discussions of his work?

ML: This book was written not at an academic level alone but with deep emotional sympathy. We hope that is visible in the final act. Letters can take you only so far but the final act is in his voice (Who am I? Am I but the accumulation of my failures and my regrets?). It is a biographical approach but what was important was a postcolonial approach and that’s where the Bangladeshi PhD scholar’s perspective takes us.

Michael was shaken by the words of the Anglo-Indian educationist JED Bethune who told him that he might “employ his time to better advantage than writing English poetry”. It was Bethune who suggested he write in Bangla. And Michael had to actually teach himself Bangla in a literary way. He developed a post-colonial identity. That is the real story of Michael. A return to his mother tongue.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of attraction for the power of his writing and some amount of disdain almost for the kind of life that he led. He need not have died a pauper. He inherited a good legacy, he need not have put his family through the grueling conditions that he did. My fascination with Michael is this duality: the brilliance of his writing on one hand and then one is completely exasperated by his private life.

NG: He did have a strong instinct towards self-destruction.

A writer is also a persona, a construct that is shown to the public. Tagore was a very distinct persona. He used to wear those long coats, that beard… everything in life came together to say “great man, great writer”. In Michael, here was a man who was just so caught up in his own despair that he was unable to project anything. He was never very likable except to his closest friends, though towards the end the Bangla literary community did love him and accept him. There were 1,000 people for his funeral drawn from the literati of the city. What he represented meant something to them. But as time passed, he became more the emblem of the dissolute.

His genius needs to be appreciated beyond Bengal. It is our hope that this play will be performed widely. There need to be more translations of Michael’s works.

Namita Gokhale
Namita Gokhale

William Radice assertively says that Dutt has given Bangla its only true classic, a fact that Tagore recognized. Do you believe one has been celebrated at the cost of the other?

ML: When we are talking about the legacy of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Tagore is bound to come up. Tagore’s initial response to Michael was not very favourable but he changed his mind later. He gave him credit for being an experimenter. Some of this is an attribute of the kind of Bangla they were using. Michael’s Bangla is rather archaic when we look at it now. It is not accessible. Whereas, Tagore one can read with easy fluency even now.

Besides, there’s the aspect of their personalities. Michael was a known contrarian. Tagore was an institution builder with family and friends and an artistic community in Santiniketan.

I was surprised he did not translate his work himself, as Tagore did.

NG: He did not have the publishing apparatus. He had to push his friends to buy copies of his work even in Bengali. There was no room for translations. Besides, in terms of personality, I don’t think he had the patience to sit and translate either!

Do you believe that he saw something of himself in his magnum opus, in the tragedy of the slaying of Raavan’s son Meghnad?

NG: For me, he is certainly a shadow self there. That Promethean impulse was always there in him, like when he said, “I shall come out like a tremendous comet.”

ML: I see Michael in the moods of Meghnadbadh Kabya in the sense that Michael had a very inquiring mind. This is a mind that is constantly looking into notions of justice and injustice, of good and evil. He was not ready to accept the given counters of those moral categories. It is with that questioning that he wrote his magnum opus.

Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.


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