You are currently viewing Why do you think Michael Madhusudan Dutt stopped writing in English and started writing in Bengali midway through his career as a writer.

Why do you think Michael Madhusudan Dutt stopped writing in English and started writing in Bengali midway through his career as a writer.

Why do you think Michael Madhusudan Dutt stopped writing in English and started writing in Bengali midway through his career as a writer.

Michael Madhusudan Datta who began writing in Bengali, when he realised the “impossibility of being European”, was not, in fact, ahead of his time, but very much of it. Madhusudan had, till 1940, been feted by middle class Bengalis across the spectrum as a legendary poet. However, the brilliant aura around him began to be muddied by critics whose modernist provenance was an even more powerful impulse than the Marxist. This paper recontextualises strategies of reading and representation, which change historically in response to evolving and shifting cultural paradigms. It shows how readings of a particular writer or a period are orchestrated through a multiplicity of exchanges in politically charged situations. It neither redeems Madhusudan nor resurrects the idea of the Bengal Renaissance.

Michael Madhusudan Datta who began writing in Bengali, when he realised the “impossibility of being European”, was not, in fact, ahead of his time, but very much of it. Madhusudan had, till 1940, been feted by middle class Bengalis across the spectrum as a legendary poet. However, the brilliant aura around him began to be muddied by critics whose modernist provenance was an even more powerful impulse than the Marxist. This paper recontextualises strategies of reading and representation, which change historically in response to evolving and shifting cultural paradigms. It shows how readings of a particular writer or a period are orchestrated through a multiplicity of exchanges in politically charged situations. It neither redeems Madhusudan nor resurrects the idea of the Bengal Renaissance.

The nationalist understanding that a country’s literature needs to be formulated in the authenticity of the mother tongue was first formulated mid-way through the 19th in Bengal, curiously enough, in a symbolic moment in the life of Madhusudan Datta. Following the publication of Madhusudan’s English narrative poem Captive Ladie in Madras in 1849, John Drinkwater Bethune, a leading educationalist and an advocate for women’s education in Calcutta, wrote to Madhusudan’s closest friend, Gaurdas Basak, that Madhusudan “could render far greater service to his country and have a better chance of achieving a lasting reputation for himself, if he will 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 poems in his own language, if poetry, at all events he must write”.

This advice was endorsed by Gaurdas, who memorably added, “We do not want another Byron or another Shelley in English; what we lack is a Byron or a Shelley in Bengali literature”, the upshot of which was, according to standard texts of Bengali literary criticism, that Michael Madhusudan then turned away from the foreign to return to the welcoming arms of his native literature.

Such an understanding persists, curiously enough, in presentday postcolonial texts such as Provincialising Europe, itself a book that launches an acute and effective critique of European historicism. In it, an English poem by Madhusudan, written in 1842 for the Literary Gleaner, is quoted by Dipesh Chakrabarty in full, followed by the observation: “Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the young Bengali author of this poem, eventually realised the impossibility of being European and returned to Bengali literature to become one of our finest poets.” It is doubtful, though, whether Michael ever really stopped “being European”, or, realised the invalidity of using European forms to create his own. Also, paradoxically, this moment of “return” inaugurated not the triumph of a pure Bengali, but of a composite literature written as a participant in the world literary culture, for it would not be unreasonable to point out that the literary arena, even while it wrestled with the nationalist burden of expectation as well as gloried in it, was, throughout its existence, also involved with the notion of modernity as it was located in a world culture of literary practice.

In these years, even as civil society hummed with speculation about whether Bankimchandra had read Ivanhoe or not before he wrote Durgeshnandini (1865), Michael had left no one in doubt about his grasp of what he deemed the best of world literature, as in letter after letter, he expounded theories that spoke of the wisdom of taking eclectically from the best of world literature, and of how he was preparing to embellish “the tongue of my fathers”

by studying Tamil, Hebrew, Greek, Telugu, Sanskrit, Latin and English. Famously placing his first Bengali play, Sharmista, (1859) emphatically within a world tradition of modernity in literary practice, he wrote to his friend Rajnarain Basu:

but if the language be not ungrammatical, if the thoughts be just and glowing, the plot interesting, the characters well maintained, what care you if there be a foreign air about the thing? Do you dislike Moore’s poetry because it is full of Orientalism? Byron’s poetry for its Asiatic air, Carlyle’s prose for its Germanism? Besides, remember that I am writing for that portion of my countrymen who think as I think, whose minds have been more or less imbued with western ideas and modes of thinking.

This creative exchange, which is fundamentally at odds with Chakrabarty’s idea that once Madhusudan began writing in Bengali, he realised the “impossibility of being European”, was to remain one of the hallmarks of the late 19th century literary project, which was written as a narrative of the victory of a modern literature that survived the baneful influence of either the colonial (and foreign) or the popular (but vulgar) inheritance. Consequently, despite Madhusudan’s various allegiances to Homer, Virgil and Milton, which have been prominently marked, as has his equally eclectic borrowing from Kalidasa and all that he knew of the “grand mythology” of his ancestors, his achievement in welding all these together to create an accomplished Bengali literature has been duly celebrated.

Michael himself was responsible, however, in no small part, for the propagation of this imagery of return, reconciliation and fulfilment when, in some of his most famous sonnets (Kabimatribhasha, Atmabilaap, Bangabhumir Prati, Bangabhasha), he held forth passionately on his own neglect of, and return to his mother tongue, his mother land, his native shores, as here in the last mentioned poem that began: He Banga, bhandare taba bibidha ratan-

O Banga, your store has many gems;- All of which (ignorant as I am), I held in contempt; Intoxicated by the riches of others, I journeyed To other countries, at an importunate moment, as a beggar. Many days did I spend forsaking happiness! Sleepless, I dedicated my body to starvation, gave My mind to fruitless meditation, receiving the unacceptable;- Played with moss; having forgotten the lotus groves! In a dream, your Kulalakshmi then said to me: “O child, your mother’s store is ranged with jewels Why are you then in this beggar’s state today? Go back, you un-awakened, go back to your home! Happily did I obey the command; finding, in time A mine in the form of my mother tongue, fully a web of gems.

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