Classical Culture in British India, Part III: The Ovid of Calcutta

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Part I of this essay can be read here, and Part II here.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ in 19th-century Calcutta, and the extraordinary culture that arose in British India when Bengali writers, philosophers, divines and intellectuals began to adopt the English language, and transform elements of European culture into something all their own. Latin and Greek literature, and Greco-Roman Classics, underwent a stunning metamorphosis in the work of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824–73), the most original genius of modern Indian literature.

The second part of this series examined Dutt’s life, with a focus on how he learnt Latin and Greek, and sought ways of bringing the Classical traditions of Greece and Rome into his own culture, which has an ancient classical tradition of its own, rooted in the Sanskrit language, and the ancient holy texts which continue to be venerated by Hindus. Dutt converted to Christianity, and spoke and wrote English with exuberant eloquence; yet his greatest achievements are as a poet in the Bengali language, and the myths he explores are part of a living Hindu tradition, rather than the extinct religions of European pagans.

Now we will enjoy a glimpse of Dutt’s masterpieces, and see precisely how he enriched the traditions of his ancestors with the aid of his complete command of all the resources of English language and literature, and his knowledge of Greek and Latin epic – and above all his deep sympathy with Ovid.

Utpal Dutt in Modhu Bose’s 1950 drama Michael Madhusudan in the title role: in this scene, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (left) recites his epic poem the Meghnadbadh Kabya to a team of scribes.

Dutt’s English Oeuvre

Few of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s works have been translated into English; a new critical edition of his complete works, English and Bengali, is long overdue. Much of his journalism remains uncollected. At least there is a competent biography, of which an abridged edition exists in English. [1] Dutt’s letters demonstrate beyond doubt his complete mastery of the English language even as a teenager; his early English verse, whilst immature, allows a dim glimpse of what he was eventually capable of in Bengali. Here is his description of the goddess Kali (or “Kally”) from The Captive Ladie:

The fane was won,—’twas Kally’s—Frightfulness!
Lo! There she stood in martial majesty,
Gorg’d with the blood of Sembo’s cursed race,
And garlanded with heads! Her blood-red eye
Shot lightning; in her hand the gory blade
Shone like a brand of fire—while naked, wild
She trampled on her prostrate husband’s head,
And with a fiendish glare upon him smiled!
Her raven locks stream’d wildly bathed in gore,
And shed dark drops of blood on the slippery floor.

This is overblown, and unoriginal (none of his English verse overcame these qualities); Dutt was never free of Byron’s influence; nor could he outgrow the habit of following a long dash with an exclamation mark —! When the poet’s rhetoric or invention flags, the verses are inflated with borrowed vocabulary and expression. From Visions of the Past:

I woke—that vision of ethereal ray
Had melted—and ’twas night again and dark,
With stars of sickly smile and pallid brow:—
I look’d tow’rd [sic] that fair bow’r and as I look’d
I saw a sword of flame and fiery gleam
Wav’d round it by some viewless hand and fierce!
And on the silent plain that gentle pair—
Its tenants—wandered in dim solitude.
They wept—but were those tears which gently flow’d,
Oh! were they tears which dark despair will wake
T’embalm the memory of our blasted hopes?
They wept—but not in dark despair—they wept
As Guilt—all penitent—when, Mercy! thou
Dost plead—nor plead in vain—in gentle strains
To justice stern to win redeeming grace!

At least this is an advance on Henry Derozio’s shapeless narrative verse.[2]

A Romantic view of poetic inspiration rarely makes for attentive editing: Dutt remained throughout his life under the delusion that literature ought to be composed in short, exhausting bursts of activity; in much of his work he seems to run out of patience before the end: he appears not to have been fond of revising anything.

A further consequence of bad Romantic influence is the air of narcissism and self-pity in much of the early lyric verse; also, the sonnets are not always formally careful. Still, for all these occasional faults, Dutt remains an immensely attractive and addictive writer. His charm, natural ebullience and sheer force of personality shine through even in his English verse, which is the least impressive (or at least the least original) part of his oeuvre.

Gouache painting of Sarasvati (shakti of Brahma), the goddess of learning, speech and music, from Trichinopoly, c.1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London UK).

A Renaissance Poet?

At its best, Dutt’s work does not quite recall Milton, as he might have hoped; instead, his style and approach is more reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, and the Florentine poets of the Quattrocento; one thinks (or, at least, I think) particularly of Politian (1454–94), whose early neo-Latin Epicedion in Albieram (1473) and Italian-language Stanze per la giostra (1476) are propelled forward by the same fervid delight in invention: neither Dutt nor Politian wear their erudition lightly, yet it gives them such compulsive, out-of-control glee – their narrative poems are heated, improvisational commentaries on all of their favourite works of literature at once – that the reader happily indulges them.

Portrait of Politian (with the young Giuliano de’ Medici), Ghirlandaio, c.1485 (detail from a fresco in the basilica of Santa Trinità, Florence, Italy).

The closest equivalents in English (though cooler, saner, and more easily quotable) might be Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, or Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. When Dutt forgets the Romantics and finds more congenial shackles for his imagination, he achieves surprising effects; Canto 8 of the Meghnadbadh Kabya offers numerous superb examples. 

Gouache painting of the return of Rama, attributed to a follower of Sajnu (court painter to the Raja of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh), 1830s (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). 

This section of the poem, in which Rama descends to Yama’s realm (the Underworld, a mash-up of Homer’s and Vergil’s respective Hades-scapes, Dante’s Hell, and various Hindu versions of the same from Sanskrit and Bengali epics) slows up the narrative; yet Dutt can be forgiven this because he creates so many wonderful scenes, such as the following (in William Radice’s eccentric 2010 translation, whose features will be discussed below):

Maya spoke up again: ‘Look in front of you again, O enemy of the Rakshasas.’
The jewel of men saw another troupe of women, of ravishing beauty! Their hair was entwined with fragrant flowers;
Flames of desire were in their deerlike eyes; nectar of infinite sweetness on their honeyed lips!
Their necks were adorned with jewels like Indra’s conch! Bodices of thin gold thread covered their breasts only to reveal them, to arouse in hearts of lovers still greater desire!
Their waists were wafer-thin; their heavy thighs, despising,
So it seemed, the flimsy blue silk that (very thinly)
Covered them, merrily displayed their banana-tree-like grace; like the naked limbs of nymphs in Lake Manas when they gambol in the filthy waters.
Anklets jingled round their feet, and a girdle round their buttocks; vina,
Violin, cymbals and sarangi gently blended with the merry beats of a drum; the women were blissfully floating on waves of music.

From the other direction, a handsome band of youths appeared, smiling fetchingly;
They were comely as the mighty Karttikeya, the darling of the Krittikas; or,
O Rati, like Madan, your heart’s desire!
Maddened with desire at beholding that male company, the women shot coy glances from their eyes, and tinkled the bangles on their wrists.
Blown by their hot breath, the pollen in their flower-garlands quickly covered the sun of self-control in the men. They gave up the fight;
In such a battle, where are there men, ah! with the power to win?

Like a bird and its mate, when they flit here and there in the sport of love, the amorous women whisked those lusty youths off into the forest—their intentions writ large in their eyes.
Suddenly, the forest filled with a howling noise! In horror, Ram saw the men and women rolling horribly on the ground, scrabbling and scratching,
Thumping and kicking each other. They tore at hair and gouged at eyes, slashed at noses and faces with their hard finger-nails.
A stream of blood soaked the earth. Both groups fought viciously, like Bhim in the kingdom of Virata,
Disguised as a woman and fighting ferociously with Kichak. All the henchmen of Death who were there then pounced, quickly drove both groups away with iron clubs.

In gentle tones, the beautiful Maya spoke to Ram, the joy of the Raghu clan:
‘In life—listen, my child—
The men were the servants of Kama [the god of Love]; and the women too. Kama satisfied their greed unceasingly,
Sinking dharma, alas, in the waters of adharma,
Discarding shame; now they are being punished in this city of Yama! Like a mirage deceiving a thirsty man in the desert;
Like a golden-skinned makal-fruit duping the hungry; that is what happens when they fornicate; desire in both groups is vain.
What more shall I say, my child? Mark what you see.
This torment, O Fortunate One, is suffered by many sinners on Earth before they go to Hell:
This is what Fate prescribes to them. Wanton waste in their youth; beggary in old age.
An inextinguishable fire of lust burns in their hearts; in the form of lust, Fate’s unquenchable fury burns their bodies;
I tell you, great-armed one, this is the reward of these sinners in the end!’

Radice’s translation misses the formal and poetic qualities of the original; but at least he captures something of the tone, and surprise, of this passage.

As a poet, Dutt is not necessarily a phrase-maker; what one remembers from his work are conceits, situations, images: he has the gossip’s gift of relating memorable narratives, even if the specific words can be hard to recall afterwards. His work does not always lend itself to short quotations.

Gouache painting of Yama, the Vedic god of death, from Trichinopoly, c.1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The Ovid of Calcutta

It seems fair to characterise Dutt as an Ovidian writer. Of course, ‘Ovidian’ is a dangerously slippery term, and might be used to imply a broadly witty and sceptical attitude, an air of flippant or subversive irreverence, a certain louche air of eroticism, or else (as in the Metamorphoses) too many fictional characters turning into flowers. Yet there really does seem to be a sort of spiritual kinship between these two poets, in the style, tone and general approach of their most durable work – to say nothing of their preoccupation with women, and complex, sometimes self-contradictory attitudes.

Gouache painting of Rama and Sita enthroned, Mandi Kingdom (Himachal Pradesh), 1810s (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

We are not entirely clear on just how much of Ovid’s work Dutt knew. It seems reasonable to assume that he knew the Metamorphoses, although we have no way of knowing just how much of it he absorbed. There is nothing in his oeuvre to suggest a close acquaintance with Ovid’s love poetry, or the Fasti. Then again, not even Milton was enough of a pedant to allude to every single thing he read in the ancient languages (poets, even over-educated ones, tend not to operate like that unless their main reason for writing is to show off their learning). At least we know that Dutt studied, and responded closely to, Ovid’s Heroides, in the aforementioned Birangana.

Watercolour of a goddess attended by gods and devotees, attributed to the artist Mangnu, Chamba (Himachal Pradesh), c.1870 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). 

In Dutt’s narrative poems, all the most memorable characters are female – the wives of divine warriors are invariably more interesting to the poet than the warriors themselves. His women are never weak; in the Meghnadbadh Kabya especially, they have the annoying habit of winning arguments, and getting their way. Meghnad’s wife Pramila dominates much of the epic: at the beginning of Canto 3 she is first presented pining softly for her husband, like Andromache in the Iliad; but then her companion Vasanti tells her she cannot break through enemy lines and see her husband:

Stupendous Pramila grew angry! ‘What have you said, Vasanti?
When a river leaves its mountain-home to flow to the sea, who has the power to hold it back? I am the daughter of a Danav,
The wife of a Rakshas; Ravan is my father-in-law; Meghnad is my husband;
Why should I be afraid of the beggar Raghav? I shall enter Lanka today through my own
strength of arms; let’s see how that jewel of men can stop me!’

With that, and moving like a champion elephant, chaste Pramila furiously went back into her golden palace.
As when great Arjuna, scourge of his enemies arrived—with a horse for sacrifice—
Into the land where women alone lived, and roused them with his god-given conch, so Pramila’s warrior-women joyously armed themselves for battle;
War-trumpets blared on all sides; maddened with war-lust, the women streamed out,
Brandishing swords, twanging their bow-strings, flashing their shields!
The dazzling glare of burnished armour lit up the sky! Horses in their stables neighed, pricking up their ears at the jingle of women’s anklets,
Or the rattle of their waistbands, as when serpents dance to the rat-a-tat-tat of a drum.
Elephants in their stalls let out ear-splitting roars,
Like massive thunderclouds booming from afar! Echoes on the mountain-tops, in the forests,
In caves, waking with rapture, suddenly filled the land with a fearsome din.

For all her delicacy, Pramila turns out to be as aggressive as Vergil’s Camilla; she reaches her husband with ease, and in great style, terrifying Hanuman and his forces on the way.

Gouache painting of Hanuman seated with an elderly sage, from Murshidabad, 1760s (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). 

The previous passage does not obviously recall any specific lines of Ovid. But in his Bengali work Dutt never responds particularly closely to any single author: his echoes of his sources and inspirations are invariably vague and contaminated. His work brings to mind scenes and situations from his influences, not single lines or passages.

Let it also be remembered that the above lines are from a (somewhat) literal English translation of a Bengali poem. Even if he wanted to signal his great learning and sophisticated intertextual references to his audience, Dutt had no obvious or reliable mechanism for doing so, within his own literary tradition at least, as an English-language poet might take for granted.

Gouache painting of Indrajit attacking Rama and Lakshmana with snake-arrows, by the School of Sajnu, Mandi kingdom (Himachal Pradesh), 1820s (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Hellenising Hindu Myth, or Hinduising Greek Myth?

The Meghnadbadh Kabya (“The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad’”) is, in nine cantos or books, Dutt’s longest and most perfect work; he planned it with unusual care, and the effort shows. He explained his intentions most clearly in a letter to Raj Narain Bose in June 1860, shortly after the first book had been completed:

It is my ambition to engraft the exquisite graces of the Greek mythology on our own; in the present poem, I mean to give free scope to my inventing Powers (such as they are) and to borrow as little as I can from Valmiki. Do not let this startle you. You shan’t have to complain of the un-Hindu character of the Poem. I shall not borrow Greek stories but write, rather try to write, as a Greek would have done.

Not that he was too concerned about blasphemy. From an earlier letter:

I must tell you, my dear fellow, that though as a jolly Christian youth I don’t care a pin’s head for Hinduism, I love the grand mythology of our ancestors. It is full of poetry. A fellow with an inventive head can manufacture the most beautiful things out of it.

Gouache painting of the divine messenger Narada visiting the poet Valmiki (frontispiece to a manuscript of Valmiki’s Ramayana), Kangra (Himachal Pradesh) c.1775–1800 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

Dutt’s main narrative source for his epic was the Ramayana, both in its Sanskrit version by Valmiki, and in a 15th-century Bangla version by Krittibas. The Miltonic invocation to the fourth canto lists all his Indian sources for stories about Ram:

I bow to your lotus-feet, master poet Valmiki! O crest-jewel of India,
I follow after you like a humble subject journeying to a distant pilgrimage-place for a sight of his king! Many pilgrims,
By meditating day and night on your footprints, have entered the temple of fame, have conquered world-conquering,
Pitiless Death there, and are now immortal! Bartrihari, author of the Bhattikavya;
Sweet-voiced, learned Bhavubhati; honey-tongued Kalidas,
Famed in India as Bharati’s favoured son; Murari, whose music is as enchanting as Krishna’s flute;
Fame-dwelling Krittibas, ornament of Bengal! O father,
How can I ever play with all these swans in poetry’s lake, if you don’t teach me! I shall stitch a new garland,
Having carefully picked flowers in your poetry-garden; I want to adorn with a manifold array my language; but where shall I find
(Unworthy as I am) those ornaments, unless you give them, O fount of ornaments?
Be generous, O master, to one who has nothing.

Dutt’s fundamental attitude to Valmiki, and to the Ramayana in general, was in truth ambivalent, in ways that are not the case where Western poets are concerned; the above passage hints subtly at this attitude. The imagery is eccentric, and ambiguous by design. Dutt’s original audience would have remembered that swans are revered in Hindu mythology; yet it might not have dawned instantly on all listeners or readers that swans are not necessarily known for tuneful singing. But the poet’s irreverence is not always so tactful.

Gouache painting of Brahma on a swan, Himachal Pradesh, c.1700 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA).

The Meghnadbadh Kabya is outrageous from a Hindu point of view: most obviously, Rama is presented as a passive-aggressive cheater. The hero of the poem, Meghnad, is traditionally a demon. But Dutt makes him into a splendidly noble, doomed hero, modelled on Homer’s Hector. The presentation is in no way ambivalent, as Milton’s is of Satan in Paradise Lost; Meghnad is the one exemplary male character in the poem, and his death is made to seem appalling and unfair – genuinely tragic.

Dutt deplored the fact that Rama’s allies in the Ramayana are bears and monkeys; his epic plays down the fantastic aspect of the narrative as far as possible, to turn it into a story of men and gods like the Iliad – albeit with rather more women. He never fully succeeds in making Hindu mythology seem more austerely Homeric or ‘Classical’; nor can he expel all magic from the narrative. But at least he manages to poke sly fun at the inconsistencies within traditional Hindu stories, as in Book 2, where the appeal of Indra (the King of Gods) to the goddess Durga is interrupted by Ram’s prayers on Earth:

Thus did demon-defying Indra plead with the chaste goddess.

Then suddenly, the heavenly city filled with a sweet fragrance; conches and bells sounded all around,
And sounds of praise as sweet as when birds gather and sing in a distant flower-forest.
Durga’s gold throne quaked. Tenderly addressing her companion Vijaya,
Siva’s consort asked, ‘O moonlike one, who and where—
Tell me quickly—is worshipping me so exceptionally, and why?’

Singing out mantras, doing calculations on the ground with chalk, Vijaya smilingly replied:
‘It is Dasarath’s son, O daughter of the mountains, who is doing puja to you in Lanka.
Having painted in vermilion, on two water-filled pots, an image of your beautiful feet,
The Raghu lord is worshipping you with blue lotus-flowers—I can see that through my calculations. Give him a gift of fearlessness,
O fearless one! The son of Kausalya, the greatest of the line of Raghu,
Is your supreme devotee. Rescue him from danger, O Rescuer!’

Gouache painting of an astrologer, from Trichinopoly, c.1875 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The calculations in chalk are magnificent, a typically snide touch. Dutt takes Meghnad seriously, and little else. Yet his overall take on this mythis by no means perverse: the fourth canto of Dutt’s epic features a moving lament from Rama’s wife Sita, describing her kidnapping by Meghnad’s father Ravana, which is at the heart of the events depicted in the Ramayana (as Queen Chitraganda acidly reminds her husband in the first canto). Dutt’s allegiance is to individuals, not to any side in this pointless and avoidable war. Ravana remains the true villain of the piece, along with the gods – most obviously the hapless Indra, not so much a Zeus figure as a henpecked colonial governor, with no control over the natives.

Ink and wash drawing of Rama and Lakshman fighting Ravana, Punjab, mid/late 19th cent. (Previously in the collection of J. Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard’s father), and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The Innovation of a Classical Form

Other than Horace’s Odes and Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, the ancient poetry Dutt knew best was in hexameters. Of course, Homer’s two epics, Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses have been among the most widely-circulated Classical texts since the advent of printing; also, Dutt’s ambition and thirst for fame meant that he was naturally attracted to the most prestigious models available for what he wanted to create; but above all he seems to have been attracted to the irresistible sound and movement of the hexameter, and its hypnotic rhythm.

Sanskrit verse is not without these particular qualities; but the ancient Indian tradition lacked a Vergil, Ovid or even a Lucan who was willing to experiment formally without creating a new form altogether. Then there was the example of Shakespeare’s infinitely versatile dramatic verse, as well as that of Milton’s even more innovative use of epic blank verse, that increased the possible range of registers within English-language poetry still further. Dutt wanted to achieve something like this for the literature of his own mother tongue – something that could enable epic grandeur whilst maintaining a flexible verse line, to allow for a greater expressive range (not to mention more imaginative freedom).

Formally, the Meghnadnabh Kabya had far-reaching consequences for Bengali literature: it was by no means Dutt’s first attempt at composing blank verse in his mother tongue, but it set an example that no subsequent poet could ignore.

Gouache painting of a pandit instructing Brahmin students in a Sanskrit school, from Benares, c.1860 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). 

The most common of the traditional metres in Bengali verse involves rhyming couplets with fourteen syllables a line, and no enjambment between couplets, only within them. This is comparable to the English ‘fourteener’, in which Chapman’s translation of The Iliad (1611) and Golding’s Metamorphoses (1567) were composed – bound by relentless end-stopping, yet slightly too rambling and expansive to allow the polished tidiness of, say, Pope’s heroic couplets.

Dutt’s innovation, beginning with his Tilottamasambhab Kabya, was to keep the syllable count of the old metre, but lose the rhyme entirely, along with the regular caesura after the eighth syllable of each line, whilst permitting enjambment freely wherever needed. Dutt quickly learnt how to make use of this new metre more or less as Milton did with English-language blank verse; the long periods and varying rhythms permitted more than compensated for a certain loss of neatness and closure. In a letter to the actor Keshab Chandra Ganguli he discusses his hopes for this metrical innovation:

I need scarcely tell you that the Blank form of verse is the best suited for Poetry in every language. A true poet will always succeed best in Blank verse as a bad one in Rhyme. The grace and beauty of the former’s thoughts will claim attention, as the melody of the latter will conceal the poverty of his mind… When I first began to write, my ear used to rebel, but now I have grown completely reconciled to Bengali Blank verse, and its melody and power astonish me. The form of verse in which [Padmabati Natak] is written, if well recited, sounds as much like prose as English Blank verse sounds like English Prose—retaining at the same time a sweet musical impression… Take my word for it, the Blank verse will do splendidly in Bengali and that in course of time, like the modern Europeans, we too shall equal, if not surpass, our classic writers. What we want at present are men of zeal, of diligence, of energy, of enthusiasm, of liberal views to give our language a jolly lift. If we have no ‘genius’ among ourselves, let us prepare the way for future ones.

Dutt successfully introduced to Bengali literature the flexibility and grandeur of the lines in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes; thus it seems logical that any attempt at a poetic translation of the Meghnadbadh Kabya would be in English blank verse. Alas, no such rendition seems to exist as yet.

Undated lithograph of Dutt.

Disappointments and Frustrations

With all the current scholarly interest in post-colonial studies, comparative literature, and the reception of the Greco-Roman tradition especially, it is baffling that Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s work remains so little studied outside his ancestral land. At the height of his success, Dutt seems to have predicted the outcome of his aspirations, in his ‘Atma-bilap’ (“Lament For Myself”), of which Nirad Chaudhuri translated a mere three lines—the most successful of all existing English versions of Dutt’s verse:

Of hope, the lure was great, but small the gain;
Still, Life seeks the dark-blue, boundless main;
I know not how to stem that tide.

Not even three full lines. Dare we hope for more like this – verse translations of Dutt’s poetry into readable, unembarrassing English, by a poet who knows and respects all the traditions that nourished Dutt, and can successfully bring his work to new audiences?

Manuscript page from the Persian poet Nizami’s Iskandarnama (a mythologised epic poem on the life of Alexander the Great), northern India, c.1500 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

At the moment there are two available English translations of the Meghnadbadh Kabya: one by Clinton B. Seely, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, and another by the poet and Orientalist William Radice, former Senior Lecturer in Bengali at the School of Oriental and African Studies, whose mother was Betty Radice (1912–85), Classicist, translator, and joint editor of Penguin Classics.

Professor Seely’s The Slaying of Meghanada: A Ramayana from Colonial Bengal (Oxford UP, 2004) may be downloaded for free from the author’s personal website. Radice’s The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad was published by Penguin Books India in 2010 and remains easily available outside India.

Seely’s translation is a straightforward crib for classroom use, meant to help beginning students of Bengali literature make sense of Dutt’s poem. In this respect it may be an ideal introduction; certainly it features a wealth of useful supplementary material. The author explicitly claims to literary pretensions. That, in a sense, is his problem. Lacking even an amateur knowledge of Greek, Latin or English poetry, Seely too often mistakes archaism for linguistic accuracy. Also, he has no ear for tone. His translation often makes Dutt sound like a telemarketer from a call centre in Gurgaon.

A more recent monument to Michael Madhusudan Dutt in Jessore, India.

Radice, on the other hand, is almost absurdly overqualified to render Dutt’s epic into English. Not only is he a distinguished and sensitive translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and short stories, and a poet in his own right; he has also meditated on Dutt’s work for decades. His (unpublished) 1986 doctoral dissertation is entitled “Tremendous Literary Rebel: The Life and Works of Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824–73)”. His version of the Meghnadbadh Kabya boasts explanatory footnotes at the bottom of every page, and a genuine literary flair – it can be fun to read; but with respect to metre and diction, what was he thinking? He explains himself thus:

The tight structure of the epic, so formidable an indication of the power of Madhusudan’s mind, is, I believe, closely linked to the way in which his blank verse works, with its mastery of phrasing, pause, and enjambement. In rendering it into English poetry, I have therefore adopted a simple form based on three phrases per line, a phrase being defined by a punctuation mark [these are my bewildered italics]. This means that the lines vary greatly in length, from the short to the very long.

This is madness. It is almost as insane as moving to Versailles to save money whilst studying at the Inns of Court in London, as Dutt did in 1864.[3]

Bust outside the Michael Madhusudan Dutt Museum at the poet’s birthplace in Jessore, India. 

Radice’s introductory essay, whilst often charming and sometimes informative, could lose at least thirty pages without sacrifice. There are almost a hundred pages again of “Source Notes” at the end of the translation; these are unfocussed. Obviously, Dutt is an allusive poet; but unless a commentator is going to work hard solidly to establish references (as opposed to equivocal “maybes” and “could haves”) then the reader is better served with an essay on the subject. In general, Radice’s notes are too vague for a specialist or student of (say) Comparative Literature, yet of little interest to the casual reader – at whom this translation is surely aimed.

Radice’s translation of the Meghnadbadh Kabya is still worthy of (qualified) commendation. The translator’s sympathy and affection for Dutt are obvious, and this is not merely the best translation faute de mieux (though of course, it is that as well). But it is chopped prose. Michael Madhusudan Dutt surely deserves to be translated into recognisable blank verse. Is there nobody alive who could do the job in a way that would honour him?

The actor Chhabi Biswas looking at his reflection; still from Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958).

What did the Empire Give Michael Madhusudan Dutt?

One of the irritations involved in attempting to discuss the British Empire is the sheer magnitude of the phenomenon, and the slipperiness of the terms used to talk about it. Instead we might usefully restrict ourselves to the Hindoo College and Bishop’s College in Calcutta, and ask ourselves what they did for Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

Lithograph of Bishop’s College, Calcutta, G. Hutchinson, c.1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).  

In his surviving letters from 1842, Dutt frequently vents his violent hated of James Kerr, the Vice-Principal of Hindoo College. But he loved the Principal, David Lester Richardson; and all in all he seems to have thrived there, albeit perhaps more socially than intellectually. He perfected his English to a degree that seems impossible in most of the modern world. Some of his classmates became lifelong friends, supporters and patrons. For the rest of his life, his imagined audience as a poet consisted largely of the people he knew from the Hindoo College.

On the other hand, Dutt quickly outgrew the Hindoo College. Much of the teaching staff had no idea of what to do with him, or how to control his provocative flippancy and attention-seeking antics. He seems often to have been understimulated and overindulged. The College was ill-equipped to handle a genius.

Also, the lingering legend of Henry Derozio, and the ‘Young Bengal’ culture of alcoholic high jinks, flamboyant defiance and a superficial embrace of ‘enlightened’ ideas had a terrible influence on Dutt. Throughout his life he too often sought approval from peers who dissuaded him from serious effort because they thought he was more ‘fun’ as a self-defeating drunken clown.

‘Terribly Sympathetic’, satirical lithograph of Sir Joseph Bampfylde Fuller, by Gaganendranath Tagore, 1919 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Bishop’s College saved Dutt from himself, for a little while anyway. For the first time in his life he was compelled to work hard, and stretch himself intellectually. Through the discipline of systematic learning (Latin and Greek cannot be taught by Derozio-style improvisation), Dutt acquired a sound reading knowledge of Classical languages and ancient literature that became the basis for his innovations and originality as a poet.

The teaching staff at Bishop’s College looked after their most brilliant alumnus even after he left the institution. They helped him find his first job in Madras, and provided him with the training that enabled him to train for the Bar. Discreetly they nurtured his poetic talent, and gave him the background he needed to transform his work into something more than an eccentric performance for his friends. Ultimately they helped him grow into his role, as the father of modern Bengali literature.

Obviously, guidance and pastoral care can only go so far. Dutt’s intemperance, poor judgment and lack of self-control were his own fault. If as a Christian he lapsed and failed to save his own soul, that was his responsibility, not theirs. At least Bishop’s College gave him everything he needed for the literary immortality that he enjoys, in Bengali if not English. But had he devoted himself to English literature, he would have remained a mere provincial eccentric – a writer with no real audience outside the Hindoo College.

Portrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, reproduced from the volume Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and Reformer: A History of the Renaissance in Bengal; from the Bengali of Pandit Swanath Sastri (Calcutta, 1907).

The Hindoo College gave Dutt the treasures of English language and literature, and encouraged him in his vocation. Bishop’s College gave him the Greek New Testament, the Classical Greek in which to read it, and the Latin literature that was the foundation for the poetry he loved most, and would inspire his own creations, which are not merely an ornament, but a permanent gift to his ancestral language, culture and people.

Whatever the shortcomings, faults, sins or crimes of individuals within the British Empire, it must be admitted that there must have been something fundamentally decent about or within the culture itself, at least insofar as it enabled Michael Madhusudan Dutt to fulfil his calling as fully as he did. Whatever he suffered, and wherever he may have failed, his greatest achievements are truly classic.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written for Antigone on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, on the pleasures of Poussin here, on Neo-Latin syphilis here, on Apuleius the ‘witch’ here, and on V.S. Naipaul and Latin here.

Part I of this essay can be read here, and Part II here.

Further Reading:

Clinton Seely’s and William Radice’s translations of the Meghnadbadh Kabya will serve for the moment whilst we await a version of this epic in English blank verse, ideally composed by a poet who will not need to read footnotes to recognise Dutt’s allusions to ancient literature. Of course, one of the dirty secrets of ‘reception studies’ is that such footnotes are almost never genuinely illuminating, except as an aid to those who have not done their reading but wish to pretend that they had. Dutt’s next translator should be one with no need to be told this.

I have not yet received a copy of Professor Ananda Lal’s Indian Drama in English: the Beginnings (Jadavpur University Press, 2019), but this is clearly a publication of the first importance: Lal is said to have recently discovered an autograph manuscript featuring passages from Dutt’s English-language verse drama Rizia, Empress of Inde. Fragments have previously been published, although Dutt seems never to have completed the play. This volume may prove very promising indeed as a springboard for further research.


1 Ghulam Murshid, Lured By Hope:  A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (trans. Gopa Majumdar, Oxford UP India, New Delhi, 2003).
2 For more on Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809–31), see the first essay in this series.
3 For this episode, which is more inexplicable even than Radice’s choice of literary form, see the second essay in this series.