Poet of the past, present and future

Print edition : October 19, 2012

Michael Madhusudan Dutt's photos did not survive. When he died in 1873, he left a daughter who was hurriedly married three months before his death at the age of 13 and a half, and two minor sons. The daughter died within six years and one of the sons died soon after his father. The youngest and only son was six when Michael died. His life story and photos were thus sadly lost. All that was left was some distorted, twisted and exaggerated memories in the minds of his friends. The only photo that still exists was distorted and retouched (as a result one side of his nose is significantly shorter than the other side). His best image is the painting by Atul Bose at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, reproduced here.-COURTESY: GHULAM MURSHID Michael Madhusudan Dutt's photos did not survive. When he died in 1873, he left a daughter who was hurriedly married three months before his death at the age of 13 and a half, and two minor sons. The daughter died within six years and one of the sons died soon after his father. The youngest and only son was six when Michael died. His life story and photos were thus sadly lost. All that was left was some distorted, twisted and exaggerated memories in the minds of his friends. The only photo that still exists was distorted and retouched (as a result one side of his nose is significantly shorter than the other side). His best image is the painting by Atul Bose at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, reproduced here.

Meghnadbadh kabya makes the imaginative worlds of the great epic poets, and the triple heritage of Hindu, Greco-Roman and Christian mythology, ever present, ever alive to each generation. But it also speaks to dilemmas, uncertainties and anxieties relevant to our times.

Amidst all the celebrations and commemorations in 2011 of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, another 150th anniversary passed almost unnoticed. In 1861, Michael Madhusudan Dutt published in Calcutta his Meghnadbadh kabya, one of the great masterpieces of modern Indian literature and in my view a major contribution to the canon of epic poetry worldwide. Towards the end of 2010, in time for this anniversary, Penguin India published my translation of the epic, with a long introduction and extensive notes. It is not selling as fast as my translation of Gitanjali, and this does not surprise me because Madhusudans poetry makes considerable demands on the reader. Madhusudan himself was well aware that, at any one time, his works would not appeal to many. On the title page of his Tilottamasambhab kabya (1860), he put two epigraphs: Neque te ut miretur turba labores contentus paucis lectoribus (Do not work for the crowd to admire you, [be] content with a few readers) from Horace and Fit audience find tho few from Milton. That was his fate in his lifetime, and maybe it is also his fate now.

Nevertheless, Madhusudan aspired to write a classic, a work that would accumulate numerous readers and scholars over time, and though it is still early dayswhat is 150 years in the life of a great epic poem?there are already many indications that his ambition is being fulfilled. In the Bengali-speaking world, Meghnadbadh kabya has long been established as an indispensible work, with which every Bengali who calls himself or herself educated must be acquainted. Further afield, books such as Ghulam Murshids biography of Madhusudan, originally in Bengali but published in an abridged translation by Gopa Majumdar from Oxford University Press in Delhi in 2003, and his edition of Madhusudans English letters, also from OUP; Clinton B. Seelys translation of the epic, The Slaying of Meghanada: A Ramayana from Colonial Bengal, published by OUP in New York in 2004; my own new translation The Poem of the Killing of Meghnd; and Alexander Riddifords forthcoming book, based on an excellent Oxford University D.Phil thesis, on Madhusudans use of Greek and Latin sources, are gradually ensuring a firm place for Madhusudan on the worldwide literary map.

Why is Madhusudan important? I have to admit that through all my years of working on him, first for my Oxford D.Phil thesis (1987) and then for the translation and commentary that has recently come out, I did not think about this directly. I was simply fascinated by Madhusudan, captivated by his poetry, his letters and his personality. It was love at first sight when I first encountered his English letters in Kshetra Guptas edition. I can picture myself now, standing between the shelves in the SOAS Library in the early 1970s, leafing through the book with delight and astonishment. When I started to read the first book of Meghnadbadh kabya, with my Bengali teacher Dr Tarapada Mukherjee, my fascination with Madhusudans life and personality was confirmed by a deeply emotional response to his poetry. Difficult though I initially found it to understand, I loved its sheer sound. Its rhythm and sonority entered my blood, and pretty early on I devised a way of translating it, using a line of varying length based on three phases, which seemed to me to capture its essential power and movement. Of course, in my response to Tagores poetry, and in my efforts to capture its unique rhythmic and musical qualities, there has been a lot that is equally instinctive. But my response to Madhusudans verse has been perhaps an even deeper gut reaction, and maybe in time, and especially if I get more opportunities to read my translation in public or record it on CD, the depth of my poetic identification with him will be fully recognised.

Now that my translation is out, and with the Tagore celebrations beginning to die down so that I have time to think about Madhusudan again, it is time to take stock, think more directly about what makes Madhusudan so great and important.

Maybe because Madhusudan himself in his masterpiece ranges through the three worlds of heaven, earth, and the underworld, so also do I find myself thinking about the three worlds that his legacy occupies: those of the past, the present, and the future. Let me consider these in turn.

Meghnadbadh kabya presents the past not as the historical past, as in Tolstoys War and Peace, or Edward Gibbons The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but as the imaginative past, the past of poetry and mythology. He famously wrote to his friend Rajnarayan Basu on May 15, 1860, when he was just starting the epic: I am going on with Meghanad by fits and starts. Perhaps the poem will be finished by the end of the year. I am glad you like the opening lines. I must tell you, my dear fellow, that though as a jolly Christian youth, I dont care a pins 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.

When you read Meghnadbadh kabya, you feel yourself transported back to an extremely ancient world, a world before recorded history, a world of the human imagination from which the historical world of religions and kingdoms and societies was later derived. Precisely because Madhusudan strips the Ramayana tradition of its pieties and gives us a Ram who is not a super hero or a model husband but is a struggling human being, and a Ravan and a Meghnad who are not demonic hate-figures but the embodiment of a very Indian kind of grandeur and glory, we seem to come close in spirit to the original Ramayana of Valmikian epic in which human life was explored in all its ambiguity and complexity and not simplified to a simple conflict between good and evil that was suitable for the teaching of moral lessons.

Moreover, the past that Meghnadbadh kabya evokes is not just an Indian past. Because Madhusudan drew from so many sources both Western and Eastern, the imaginative world that he takes us into is not just that of Valmiki but also that of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso and Miltonas well as the medieval Bengali versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata with which Madhusudan grew up. To understand the epic, and to write the Source Notes that I have supplied at the end of my book, I had to range through all those poets, explore all those imaginative worlds. That was what Madhusudan himself did in order to write Meghnadbadh kabya, and far more competently than I have been able to do, because he was a master of so many languages. It is an extraordinary measure of his achievement that, to anyone wishing to explore the world of epic poetry both Western and Indian, and wondering where best to start, one can simply say: read Madhusudan! It is all there. Read Book II of Madhusudans nine-book epic, and it will take you to Book XIV of Homers Iliad, as indicated by the poet himself in a comment in another letter to Rajnarayan Basu: As a reader of the Homeric Epos, you will, no doubt, be reminded of the Fourteenth Iliad, and I am not ashamed to say that I have intentionally imitated itJunos visit to Jupiter on Mount Ida. I only hope I have given the Episode as thorough a Hindu air as possible.

Read Book VIII, Rams descent into the underworld to meet the shade of his father Dasarath, and you are into the world of Dantes Inferno and Book VI of Virgils Aeneid. Read Madhusudans Book VI, the climax of the epic in which Meghnad is slain, and the imagery describing the penetration of the Rakshas defences by Lakshman and Vibhishaninvisible because of the magic of Maya and as sly and as snake-like as Satan entering Eden in Miltons Paradise Lostand you are into the world of Milton, the epic poet whom Madhusudan admired more than any other.

Meghnadbadh kabya makes the imaginative worlds of the great epic poets, and the triple heritage of Hindu, Greco-Roman and Christian mythology, ever present, ever alive to each generation. But it also speaks to dilemmas, uncertainties and anxieties that can readily be described as modern, contemporary, relevant to the century in which we now live.

This contemporary relevancefar greater than I could have imagined when I started working on Madhusudan in the 1970shas been brought home to me recently by the experience of writing an opera libretto based on the climactic Book VI of Meghnadbadh kabya, in which the unarmed Meghnad, son of Ravan, is brutally slain by Lakshman in the temple in the Nikumbhila grove, before Meghnad has been able to complete the pooja to Agni that would make him invincible. (In the Uttarakanda of the Ramayana we read of how Meghnad captured Indra in battle, thereby acquiring the name Indrajit, and as a bargain for his release extracted from Brahma the boon that if he completed the pooja to Agni before going into battle he would be impossible to defeat.) In 2009, I collaborated with the Malaysian composer Johan Othman on Conference of the Birds, an opera based on the famous 12th-century Persian poem Manteq at-Tair by Farid ud-Din Attar. The opera was premiered in Penang in November 2009, and ever since then Johan and I have wanted to work on a companion piece to form a double bill. I told him about my translation of Meghnadbadh kabya, and he was immediately attracted to the idea of an unarmed hero being killed sacrilegiously in a temple. For him this had an immediate relevance to the nexus between war and religion in our present age.

I have worked on several operas with different composers in recent years and have learnt the crucial importance of finding a strong source. If you look at the development of Western opera, you find that very few enduring operas have been created entirely from scratch: they are nearly all derived from a pre-existing myth or story or play. For a long time, it has seemed to me that Indian myths and stories could become a major new resource for Western opera, thanks to the relentless growth in Indias economic and cultural profile in the world. Traditionally, Western composers have often turned to Greco-Roman mythology as a source, and this will undoubtedly go on: indeed the Indian-born composer Param Vir, with whom I have done a lot of work, has used the play Ion by Euripides as the source for an opera. Richard Wagner proved with his great music dramas that Teutonic and Nordic mythology could be an equally rich source for opera. It certainly seems appropriate now for Indian material to be used, and where better to start than Meghnadbadh kabya?

In my introduction to my translation of the epic, I analysed how a clash between two moralities was central to it: a head-on collision between the morality of karmaphal, the fruits of ones actions, by which Ravan and the whole Rakshas race are condemned because of Ravans wicked abduction of Rams wife Sita, and the Kshatriya warrior-code that Meghnad follows and which he expects his enemies to follow too. Madhusudans most radical departure from the Ramayana tradition is to have Meghnad killed not in a full-scale battle and supported by all his armies, as in Valmiki, but alone and unarmed in a sacred place. Meghnad, in his interpretation, is killed by a kaushal, a trick: by Lakshman and Vibhishans seemingly magical penetration of the Rakshas defences because they have been made invisible by Maya. This is allowed to happen because all the godsincluding Siva, who has always had a soft spot for his devotee Ravanhave accepted the morality of karmaphal and have sided with Ram against Ravan.

An attractively human Ram

Madhusudan famously said that he despised Ram and his rabble and that his sympathies were with Meghnad and the Rakshasas. But Madhusudans epic is by no means a straightforward inversion of the traditional moral values of the Ramayana. It would be far too crude to say that the Rakshasas are presented as the good guys and Ram and his supporters are the bad guys. In fact, though he revels in the power and glory of the Rakshasas and the beauties of Lanka, which together seemed to epitomise the grand mythology of our ancestors that he loved so much, his portrayal of Ram is attractively human. He gives us a character who is full of doubt and uncertainty about the war that he feels obliged to wage and is deeply fearful at the prospect of his brother Lakshman going into Lanka with Vibhishan in order to seek out and attack the formidable Rakshas hero Meghnad. Here he is early on in Book VI, full of anxiety and all prepared to call off the whole enterprise:

Sitas lord answered with tears in his eyes: When I think about former times, O finest of Rakshasas,

My soul weeps with anguish! How can I throw this jewel of a brother into bottomless water? Alas,

My friend, when Queen Kaikeyi, fated to be cruel by my own ill fortune,

Acted on Mantharas evil advice; and when I, upholding the honour of my father,

Abandoned the pleasures of the kingdom; my beloved brother, impelled by fraternal love,

Willingly left them too! His mother Sumitra wept! The piercing wails of his wife Urmila could be heard from the purdah-quarters.

And all the citizens how can I describe how they begged him not to go? He paid no heed;

He followed me joyfully to the forest, like a shadow, blithely sacrificing his tender youth.

His mother Sumitra said, You have stolen the jewel of my eye, Raghav!

Who knows with what sorcery you have enchanted my darling? I have sacrificed this treasure to you. I beg you to look after him well.

It is useless, O finest of counsellors, to try to rescue Sita:

Let us return to the forest! Meghnad, chief of charioteers,

Terror of gods and men and demons, is invincible in battle! Mighty-armed Sugriv;

The good Prince Angad, so skilled in fighting; son-of-the-wind Hanuman,

William Radice (extreme left) at a bilingual dramatised reading of Book VI of Meghnadbadh kabya devised and directed by Mukul Ahmed, a theatre director, now based mainly in London, at the British Council in Dhaka on February 23.-BRITISH COUNCIL, DHAKA

Fierce in attack as his father; Dhumraksha, fiery as a comet on the battlefield;

Nala and Nila; Kesari, who attacks his enemies like a lion;

And all the other warriors, godlike in looks, godlike in courage;

And you too, great warrior; if with all this support I cannot stop Meghnad,

Then how can Lakshman alone fight him? Thus I say, alas,

It is with illusory hope, O friend, that we have crossed the uncrossable sea.

In my libretto draft, I have found myself building on Madhusudans presentation of Ram, so that he becomes, by inclination, a near pacifist. Most of my dialogue in the libretto is derived from my translation of the epic, and is essentially in a kind of rhythmic prose because I have removed the line endings and also made cuts here and there. But at a central point in the opera, as Lakshman and Vibhishan move forward to enter Lanka and seek out Meghnad, I have Ram coming forward into a spotlight to sing a poetic prayer:

How to do what is right? The curse, the horror of war. Duty commands me to fight, But nothing I do seems sure. My wife was cruelly stolen: I fight to set her free. But too many heroes have fallen. O brother, dont frighten me! Dont enter the hole of a snake, And dont be a snake yourself. At both, my heart will break. Im torn, Im split in half. The portent we saw in the sky Snake and peacock fighting Says nothing of who will die, What values were protecting. O goddess, mother Durga, Show me a clear way. Teach me the true dharma: This is what I pray. One morality pushes, Another morality pulls. My stream of anguish rushes; My ocean of fear swells. Meghnad is now in danger, But Meghnad has not done wrong. His father was Sitas abductor. Meghnad is brave and strong. My brother is sure he will win: Maya is on his side. I fear that he will sin, By insulting Meghnads pride. Trickery, sleight of hand Lakshman embraces them now: He acts by divine command; I dont see why or how Why or how it is fair To enter a sacred place And kill a hero at prayer, Solely because of his race. Meghnad will lose his life, Because of his fathers wrong; And I will rescue my wife But where do I belong? With fighters for justice and good Or perpetrators of crime? O Lakshman, do what we should: Dont make this an evil time.

At the end of the opera, after Meghnad has been killed and Lakshman and Vibhishan have returned to Rams camp so that their victory can be hailed, I have found that the logic of the libretto requires Rams words of celebration to take on a hollow, unconvincing turn. The words he speaksI have regained Sita today through your strength of arms, O master of arms! Glorious are you among heroes! etc.are taken straight from the text, and a heavenly chorus sings Victory, victory to Sitas lord!, just as in the text. But in the wake of what has happenedthe cruel slaying of Meghnad when he is entirely unarmed and is reduced to hurling the pooja equipment at Lakshman in order to try and defend himselfit seems impossible to take these words at their face value. It also seems natural to end the opera with a reprise of the music of Rams prayer song, and for him to come forward with an epilogue that will end the opera in a mood of bleak uncertainty:

How to do what is right? The curse; the horror of war. Duty commands me to fight, But nothing I do seems sure. The noble Meghnad is dead, Felled by Lakshmans hand. It should have been Ravan instead Why this divine command, This magic permitting wrong? Death in a sacred place: Insulting the good and strong, Defiling the warrior-race. Defenceless was Meghnad because His pooja was incomplete. The breaking of moral laws Has made this victory less sweet. I thank all the gods above For saving Sita from shame; But ruining Pramilas life Has made this victory lame. And Meghnads mother too: What can I say to her? No one, whose faith is true, Has ever been happy with war. Im forced by divine decree To join in a victory song, But where does this tale leave me? Where does my heart belong? With fighters for justice and good, Or perpetrators of crime? Have we done what we should, Or made this an evil time?

If Madhusudan was accusedby Rabindranath Tagore among others in youthful critiques of the epic which he later disownedof distorting and betraying the values of the Ramayana, will I and Johan Othman be accused in our opera of taking that distortion a step further? I hope not. Rather, I hope that audiences will find that The Killing of Meghnd, in its operatic incarnation, will echo all the contemporary ambivalence that we feel about war, and about the attempt to achieve justice through violent means.

In these days of terrorist attacks and responses to terrorism that are no less violent and indeed push at the boundaries of morality to even more disastrous effect through the utterly impersonal and callous use of drones, it seems to me that an ambivalence about war, a reluctance to embrace its methods even in defence of justice, can only continue to grow, and can therefore give the ambivalence that is at the heart of Madhusudans epic an ever greater pertinence. But Meghnadbadh kabya will speak to the future not just because of the questions that it raises. It will speak because of its dramatic power, its hold on our attention that is potentially as powerful as that of the Iliad or of Hamlet and the other great tragedies of Shakespeare that were as profound an influence on Madhusudan as the epic poems that were his direct source.

I experienced evidence of this dramatic power in February 2012 in Dhaka, where I took part in a bilingual dramatised reading of the whole of Book VI of Meghnadbadh kabya. This took place at the British Council on February 23, and I rate it as one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. It was devised and directed by Mukul Ahmed, an enormously talented and experienced theatre director, now based mainly in London. With very little rehearsal time at his disposal, he managed to help me and three Bengali readersSydur Rahman Lipon, Shormymala and her brother Delwar Hossain Diluto bring out the electrifying power and gut-wrenching pathos of Madhusudans great work. Chanting, humming, harmonium and percussion were added by the three Bengali readers, demonstrating how contiguous are the worlds of poetic drama and verse epic. Mukul Ahmed has plans for a repeat performance in London, and I am confident that gradually Madhusudans epic will spread to audiences worldwide through dramatised renderings of this kind. Who knows, it may be that through digital transmission versions for television or filmit will eventually reach audiences far beyond anything he could have imagined when he first addressed his poetry to a fit audience though few.

For a poet who aimed to bring Bengali poetry up to the supremely high standards that he found both in the Sanskrit epic tradition and in the great classical epics of Europe, this would be a splendid recompense. We hear a lot about this being the Asian century. Will it also, as part of the global cultural shift that is currently taking place, be Madhusudans century?

William Radice is a British poet, writer and translator. His translation of Meghnadbadh kabya , The Poem of the Killing of Meghnd , is published by Penguin India .

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