The Reception: Mixed Blessings
Different audiences received Meghanadavadha Kavya differently, though in general it met with approbation and congratulations. Dutt himself, no disinterested judge, tells us through his letters that his poem was gaining acceptance almost daily.
The poem is rising into splendid popularity. Some say it is better than Milton—but that is all bosh—nothing can be better than Milton; many say it licks Kalidasa; I have no objection to that. I don't think it impossible to equal Virgil, Kalidasa and Tasso. Though glorious, still they are mortal poets; Milton is divine.
Many Hindu Ladies, I understand, are reading the book and crying over it. You ought to put your wife in the way of reading the verse.
Even before the entire work had been published (cantos I through 5 appeared first), a man of letters of the day and patron of the arts, Kali Prosanna Singh, understood the importance of Dutt's accomplishment and felt it essential that Dutt should be honored. This was done under the aegis of the Vidyotsahini Sabha (Society for Those Eager for Knowledge), one of various private organizations formed during the nineteenth century by educated Bengalis in Calcutta. Singh's letter of invitation to a small circle of guests read in part:
Intending to present Mr. Michael M. S. Dutt with a silver trifle as a mite of encouragement for having introduced with success the Blank verse into our language, I have been advised to call a meeting of those who might take a lively interest in the matter.
Following the ceremony, Dutt wrote to Raj Narain Bose:
You will be pleased to hear that not very long ago the Vidyotsahini Sabha—and the President Kali Prosanna Singh of Jorasanko, presented me with a splendid silver claret jug. There was a great meeting and an address in Bengali. Probably you have read both address and reply in the vernacular papers.
On the whole the book is doing well. It has roused curiosity. Your friend Babu Debendra Nath Tagore [Rabindranath's father], I hear, is quite taken up with it. S— told me the other day that he (Babu D.) is of opinion that few Hindu authors can "stand near this man," meaning your fat friend of No. 6 Lower Chitpur Road [where Dutt resided], and "that his imagination goes as far as imagination can go."
And still later, writing to the same friend:
Talking about Blank-Verse, you must allow me to give you a jolly little anecdote. Some days ago I had occasion to go to the Chinabazar. I saw a man seated in a shop and deeply poring over Meghanad. I stepped in and asked him what he was reading. He said in very good English—
"I am reading a new poem, Sir!" "A poem? I said, "I thought that there was no poetry in your language." He replied—"Why, Sir, here is poetry that would make any nation proud."
I have not yet heard a single line in Meghanad's disfavour. The great Jotindra has only said that he is sorry poor Lakshman is represented as killing Indrojit in cold blood and when unarmed. But I am sure the poem has many faults. What human production has not?
Jotindra Mohan Tagore's reservation aside, few if any readers (and it should be noted that "readers" implies the educated elite who could in fact read this erudite work) took umbrage at Dutt's iconoclasm. As Pramathanath Bisi, a contemporary literary scholar, tells us:
Disgust toward "Ram and his rabble," the sparking of one's imagination at the idea of Ravana and Meghanada—these attitudes were not peculiar to Dutt. Many of his contemporaries had the very same feelings. What was native seemed despicable; what was English, grand and glorious. Such was the general temperament. . . . Dutt cast Ravana's character as representative of the English-educated segment of society.
We may not choose to accept all of Bisi's statement at face value, but history forces us to conclude that Dutt's attitudes were indeed not peculiar to him alone. Meghanadavadha Kavya did not go unappreciated: by the time Dutt died in 1873, his epic poem had gone through six editions.
Four years after Dutt's death, Romesh Chunder Dutt (not a relative), one of the most respected intellectuals of the day, wrote in his The Literature of Bengal :
Nothing in the entire range of the Bengali literature can approach the sublimity of the Meghanad Badh Kabya which is a masterpiece of epic poetry. The reader who can feel, and appreciate the sublime, will rise from a study of this great work with mixed sensations of veneration and awe with which few poets can inspire him, and will candidly pronounce the bold author to be indeed a genius of a very high order, second only to the highest and greatest that have ever lived, like Vyasa, Valmiki or Kalidasa, Homer, Dante or Shakespear.
As might be expected, however, over the years not everyone has been enamored with Meghanadavadha Kavya . Rabindranath Tagore, born the year it came out, was one of Dutt's harshest critics. Dutt's "epic" was an epic
(mahakavya ) in name only, he declared. Tagore found nothing elevating or elevated about Dutt's characters or in his depiction of the events. There was no immortality, as he put it, in any of the protagonists, not even in Meghanada himself; none of these characters, he contended, would live with us forever. Tagore published those opinions when he was twenty-one. Later, in his reminiscences, he recanted:
Earlier, with the audacity that accompanies youth, I had penned a scathing critique of Meghanadavadha Kavya . Just as the juice of green mangos is sour—green criticism is acerbic. When other abilities are wanting, the ability to poke and scratch becomes accentuated. I too had scratched at this immortal poem in an effort to find some easy way to achieve my own immortality.
But despite the retraction, Tagore never accepted Dutt fully. Edward Thompson, Tagore's English biographer, quotes Tagore as follows:
"He was nothing of a Bengali scholar," said Rabindranath once, when we were discussing the Meghanadbadh; "he just got a dictionary and looked out all the sounding words. He had great power over words. But his style has not been repeated. It isn't Bengali."
Whether something is or is not the genuine article, whether it is "really Bengali," has been for some time a criterion by which Bengali critics judge the artistic accomplishments of their fellow artists. Pramatha Chaudhuri, colleague of Tagore and editor of one of the most prestigious and avant-garde journals from the early decades of this century, Sabuja Patra (Green leaves), wrote in the initial issue of that magazine:
Since the seeds of thought borne by winds from the Occident cannot take root firmly in our local soil, they either wither away or turn parasitic. It follows, then, that Meghanadavadha Kavya is the bloom of a parasite. And though, like the orchid, its design is exquisite and its hue glorious, it is utterly devoid of any fragrance.
But what Pramatha Chaudhuri looked upon as suspect has since come to be recognized as the normal state of affairs. As our colleague A. K. Ramanujan, a man of many literatures, has commented:
After the nineteenth century, no significant Indian writer lacks any of the three traditions: the regional mother tongue, the pan-Indian (Sanskritic, and in the case of Urdu and Kashmiri, the Perso-Arabic as well), and the Western (mostly English). Poetic, not necessarily scholarly, assimilation of all these three resources in various individual ways seems indispensable.
Perhaps Dutt was just a bit ahead of his time.
Attacked by Tagore and Pramatha Chaudhuri as un-Bengali, Dutt's poem has also been praised for—of all things—being in line with international communism. Since in Meghanadavadha Kavya Rama is more man than in-
carnation of Visnu, Bengali Marxists lauded Dutt, in their underground publication Marksavadi (The Marxist), for debunking religion and the gods.
Though now, like Milton's Paradise Lost , read more as part of a university curriculum, as the first great modern work of Bengali literature, than as a best-seller, there was a day when Meghanadavadha Kavya qualified as required reading for the educated Bengali-speaking public at large, the sine qua non of the cultured Bengali. Of Dutt's standing in Bengali literature, an assessment by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, though made some four decades ago, still applies today. "In addition to his historical importance," wrote Chaudhuri, "the absolute value of his poetry is also generally undisputed; only his reputation, like that of every great writer, has had its ebbs as well as tides, its ups and downs; and his most modern Bengali critics have tried to be as clever at his expense as the modern detractors of Milton." Also generally undisputed has been the conclusion that Dutt's raksasa raja is decked out in some very regal new clothes. That this conclusion has been so widely accepted proves how deceiving appearances can be, for Ravana, in truth, wears no new attire. Instead, the master poet has slyly—to borrow Chaudhuri's term—woven his central Ramayna episode so as to suggest heroic raiment for Ravana rather than for Rama. Clothed in cunning finery, Meghanadavadha Kavya presents a deceptive exterior. The raja—redressed though he may be—wears no new clothes, even though the reader sees what in fact is not there.