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Background: Multiple Traditions

In 1816 a group of the leading Indian residents of Calcutta established Hindoo College, which opened its doors to Hindu students the following year, expressly "to instruct the sons of the Hindoos in the European and Asiatic languages and sciences."[5] Hindoo College proved to be the intellectual incubator for an amorphous group known as Young Bengal—youths eager to assimilate new and progressive ideas as well as to denounce what they viewed as superstitious, obscurant practices among their fellow Hindus. Starting in 1833, when he was nine years old, Dutt attended the junior department of this college.[6] He had been born in a village in Jessore district (now in Bangladesh) into a fairly well-to-do Hindu family. Dutt's father commanded Persian, still the official language of British India's judicial system, and was employed in Calcutta's law courts. It was to Calcutta that the senior Dutt brought young Madhusudan for his education.

Even outside institutions of formal education, there was at this time considerable enthusiasm for English and for knowledge of all kinds. Various periodicals helped satisfy this need, as did a number of societies. One of these, the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, came into being in 1838 with a membership of around 150 of Calcutta's educated elite, including one "Modoosooden" [Madhusudan] Dutt.[7] With such a supportive environment at Hindoo College and within the upper echelons of society (epitomized by the Society), it is not surprising that Madhusudan Dutt began his literary career writing in the English language. English, after all, was the language of the literature he had been taught to respect, the literature for which he had cultivated a taste. As his letters to a classmate make clear, he dearly loved English literature and wanted fiercely to become a writer in English. Boldly he sent off some of his poetry to a couple of British journals, identifying himself to the editor of Bentley's Miscellany , London, in this way:

I am a Hindu—a native of Bengal—and study English at the Hindu College in Calcutta. I am now in my eighteenth year,—"a child"—to use the language of a poet of your land, Cowley, "in learning but not in age."[8]

Of his fantasies there can be no doubt, as a letter to his friend Gour Dass Bysack reveals:

I am reading Tom Moore's Life of my favourite Byron—a splendid book upon my word! Oh! how should I like to see you write my "Life" if I happen to be a great poet—which I am almost sure I shall be, if I can go to England.[9]

In 1843, the year after he wrote the above letters, Dutt went even further in his acceptance of things Occidental: he embraced Christianity, in the face of very strong opposition from his father. As a Christian, Dutt could no longer attend Hindoo College and so transferred to Bishop's College, where his cur-


riculum included Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.[10] At the start of 1848, he left Bengal suddenly, going south to Madras, where he secured employment as a schoolteacher and married, within his profession, the daughter of a Scottish indigo planter. Early on during his sojourn in Madras, the first signs appear of a shift in aspirations from that of becoming a noted poet in English to that of devoting his creative energies to writing in his mother tongue, Bengali.

A year after he arrived in Madras, Dutt published "The Captive Ladle," a very Byronic tale (the epigram for the first canto came from "The Giaour") in two cantos of well-modulated octosyllabic verse. One reviewer—J. E. D. Bethune, then president of the Council of Education, whose opinion Dutt personally sought—advised Dutt to give up writing in English and put his talents to work on Bengali literature. Wrote Bethune to Dutt's friend Bysack, who concurred and passed the advice on to Dutt:

He might employ his time to better advantage than in writing English poetry. As an occasional exercise and proof of his proficiency in the language, such specimens may be allowed. But he 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 of his own language, if poetry, at all events, he must write.[11]

Bethune went on to say that from what he could gather, the best examples of Bengali verse were "defiled by grossness and indecency." He suggested that a gifted poet would do well to elevate the tastes of his countrymen by writing original literature of quality in Bengali, or by translating. Dutt's biographer points out that such counsel was not reserved for Dutt alone but offered by Bethune to the assembled students of Krishnagar College.[12] Given Bethune's stance, it seems safe to assume that he was not simply judging literary merit in the case of "The Captive Ladie." (The piece is actually quite effective poetry.) Rather, he wanted to encourage the writing of Bengali literature, not just good literature per se. It should be noted, moreover, that the following year Bethune was among the founders of the Vernacular Literature Society.[13]

Bysack rephrased parts of that letter and then encouraged Dutt to heed Bethune's words:

His advice is the best you can adopt. It is an advice that I have always given you and will din into your ears all my life. . .. We do not want another Byron or another Shelley in English; what we lack is a Byron or a Shelley in Bengali literature.[14]

The precise impact of Bethune's and Bysack's advice cannot be known with certainty. In an off-cited letter to Bysack a month later, Dutt boasted of a nearly impossible daily regimen of language study: "Here is my routine; 6


to 8 Hebrew, 8 to 12 school, 12-2 Greek, 2-5 Telegu and Sanskrit, 5-7 Latin, 7-10 English." He added that "I devote several hours daily in Tamil" and concluded, with rhetorical panache: "Am I not preparing for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers?"[15]

Earlier that year, though, even before Bethune's unexpected, unenthusiastic reception of "The Captive Ladie," the first signs of Dutt's impending conversion to his mother tongue for creative writing had already shown themselves, well before "The Captive Ladie" had even been published. He wrote Bysack, asking him to send from Calcutta two books. The books requested were the Bengali re-creations (not really translations) of India's Sanskrit epics and were among the first books printed in Bengali, published from the Baptist missionaries' press at Serampore. The stories and characters from these two epics, known to Dutt from childhood, provided about half the raw material for what he would write in Bengali, including Meghanadavadha Kavya .

In 1856, at the age of thirty-two, Dutt returned to Calcutta. Between 1858 and 1862, when he finally got an opportunity to go to England (to study law), Dutt wrote and published in Bengali five plays, three narrative poems, and a substantial collection of lyrics organized around the Radha-Krsna theme. Along with all this, he found time to translate three plays from Bengali into English.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the original ideals of the Young Bengal group—an earnest, enlightened quest for knowledge coupled with a rejection of what they viewed as demeaning superstition—had been misinterpreted by some to mean aping the British and flouting social norms. In particular, patronizing dancing girls, meat-eating, and the drinking of alcohol (taboo among devout Hindus), along with speaking a modicum of English, came to symbolize for some their "enlightenment." Quite otherwise was Dutt's embrace of things Occidental. He had a good liberal education, was a practiced writer (although much of that practice had been in English), and had drunk deeply from European and Indian literature. Of a fellow writer Dutt wrote in 1860:

Byron, Moore and Scott form the highest Heaven of poetry in his estimation. I wish he would travel further. He would then find what "hills peep o'er hills"—what "Alps on Alps arise!" As for me, I never read any poetry except that of Valmiki, Homer, Vyasa, Virgil, Kalidas, Dante (in translation), Tasso (Do) and Milton. These kavikulaguru [master poets] ought to make a fellow a first rate poet—if Nature has been gracious to him.[16]

There was little or no doubt in his mind that in his case Nature had indeed been kind. And by the end of the 1850s he felt himself prepared "for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers." The pattern—of beginning one's literary life writing in English and then switching to one's mother


tongue—was not an uncommon one. R. Parthasarathy, himself an Indian poet who also writes in English (not his mother tongue), refers to Dutt as "the paradigm of the Indian poet writing in English . . . torn by the tensions of this 'double tradition.'"[17] But it was in Bengali that Dutt made his lasting literary contributions, foremost among them Meghanadavadha Kavya .

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