A new biography delves into the turbulent life and subversive legacy of Michael Madhusudan Dutt

The book is a tribute to the enduring impact of the 19th century literary giant. However, it is marred by the biographer’s biases.

Published : Feb 21, 2024 19:16 IST - 13 MINS READ

The tomb of Michael Madhusdan Dutt at Kolkata’s Lower Circular Road cemetery.

The tomb of Michael Madhusdan Dutt at Kolkata’s Lower Circular Road cemetery. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

It is a good time to review a biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who made Ravana and his son Indrajit the heroes of his epic poem Meghnadbadh Kabya (1860-1861). That inversion of the Ramayana, subversively directing the reader’s sympathies towards the bad guys of the traditional story, is a rather well-known aspect of Dutt’s legacy.

As Bengali publications celebrate his 200th birth anniversary, the other aspect that keeps coming up is how Dutt lifted Bengali poetry out of its medieval past and opened up nascent Bengali literature to the influences of other literary and cultural worlds. He knew several European languages ─ English, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and probably a little German ─ and during his eight years in Madras (1848-1855) he taught himself Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, and Hebrew. He also knew Persian.

It is a delicious irony that commemorations of this plural legacy should come, by the accident of Dutt’s birth on January 25, 1824, in a moment of hysteric celebrations of a Ram temple, and at a time when a text like the Gita is recited in unison by huge congregations, an assertion of cultural hegemony presupposing that such texts are amenable to a single reading acceptable to all.

Not many photographs of Michael Madhusudan Dutt have survived. His best image is the painting by Atul Bose at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, reproduced here.

Not many photographs of Michael Madhusudan Dutt have survived. His best image is the painting by Atul Bose at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, reproduced here. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

“He is the deep roar of a lion in the silent solitude of the forest,” wrote Dutt about John Milton in a letter to his friend Raj Narain Basu in 1861, emphasising how Milton stood apart from other classical poets such as Virgil, Tasso and India’s Kalidasa, who may be less perfect but are more loved. (All quotations from Dutt’s letters are from Ghulam Murshid’s The Heart of a Rebel Poet, OUP, 2004.) Writers, particularly poets, often say things that turn out to be prescient in a way they did not intend. What Dutt said about Milton can equally be said about him now. He seems to stand alone, acknowledged as a literary pioneer but half-hidden behind what poet and critic Sankha Ghosh called his “shabda barma” (armour of words, meaning his use of Sanskritised words in Meghnadbadh Kabya and the sonnets).

Maligned Maverick: Michael Madhusudan Datta: Life, Letters and Literature
By Nandan Dasgupta 
Primus Books
Pages: 400
Price: Rs. 1,750

Talking about Dutt is to get caught up in a mesh of ironies. His cultural hybridity was not out of place in 19th-century Calcutta, but he shocked and teased the literary/cultural sensibilities of his contemporaries. He started out in life scoffing at his own language but later came into his own as a poet and dramatist in Bengali, a “tremendous comet” (his words) that forced admiration from even sceptics like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar.

His letters show his awareness of his own “position as a tremendous literary rebel” and he knew that he was creating literary history almost as soon as he took to writing in Bengali. Yet he was happy to throw it all away in order to chase his dream of growing rich. Flush with the success of Meghnadbadh Kabya, we hear him announcing breezily in a letter to his schoolmaster friend Raj Narain Basu in February 1862: “… I suppose my poetical career is drawing to a close. I am making arrangements to go to England to study for the Bar and must bid adieu to the Muse!” This decision marked the end of an extraordinarily creative phase of his life, though he never quite “bid adieu” to his Muse.

An emblem printed in the early editions of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s works.

An emblem printed in the early editions of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s works. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

England was the land of his dreams since early youth, as he announced in an early sonnet (“I sigh for Albion’s distant shore”, 1841). When he did make it to England at the age of 38, the charm palled quickly. Versailles, not London, was where he now wanted to live.

In a 1864 letter to childhood friend Gour Das Basak, he explains his predilection for France: “… here I have greater facilities for mastering French and Italian than there [London]… I am going (in fact I have already begun) to add German… I have better dinners for a few Francs than the Rajah of Burdwan ever dreams of! I can for a few Francs enjoy pleasures that it would cost him half his enormous wealth to command… Such music, such dancing, such beauty!” There is speculation that he encountered some form of racism in England, hence the preference for France.

In any case, all this does not exactly sound like necessary training for being called to the Bar, though he claims that he does “not neglect the law altogether”. Poverty hampered the style of this flamboyant poet, but when he came into money, he did not have the knack of holding on to it.

Also read: A Bengali poet in colonial Madras

The tension at the heart of Madhusudan’s work

About the reception of Meghnadbadh, Dutt said in a June 1861 letter to Raj Narain Basu: “People here grumble that the sympathy of the Poet in Meghnad is with the Rakshasas. And that is the truth. I despise Ram and his rabble, but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination.” The comment is typical of the creative irreverence that marked his character (and is on abundant display in his letters, where the poet is a living presence ─ cracking jokes, trying to coax and cajole to get his way, usually rambunctious but sometimes unable to hide anxieties).

It might just have been Dutt’s instinctive sense of the dramatic that made him seize on Indrajit’s story as a plotline feeding on betrayal and deception, always good dramatic material. Dutt converted to Christianity 17 years before he started writing Meghnadbadh, but he was anyway never one to allow religious loyalties to get in the way of a good story.

Equally, as William Radice has suggested, Meghnadbadh Kabya may reflect the poet’s disquiet about colonial rule and colonisers claiming to be a civilising force and even a superior race. “Madhusudan, in his personality and in his writing, is on the cusp: xenophilia was there aplenty … but xenophobia, ‘fear of the stranger’, was there too” (Introduction, The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad, Penguin, 2010). Notwithstanding his lifelong subscription to the Anglicist faith in the transforming power of the English language and literature, Dutt was no stranger to racial prejudice.

Cover of Maligned Maverick

Cover of Maligned Maverick | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

This tension lies at the heart of the poet’s life and work. Even the way he chose to spell his name shows it. He wrote the anglicised “Dutt” for the Bengali surname Datta all his life. Yet, as Murshid points out in The Heart of a Rebel Poet, he spelt his surname as “Datta” when applying for admission to Gray’s Inn in England. Murshid remarks, “If this shows anything, it is that he was now trying to uphold his Bengali identity.” He was the same old Anglophile “Dutt” again in his letters to friends in Calcutta, especially Vidyasagar. The “Datta” resurfaces in his letter to Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel II in 1865 offering “a Bengali sonnet” for Dante’s sixth centenary celebrations, along with a French translation done by himself. The letter was signed “Michael Madhusudan Datta”.

The Bengali identity again, except that it is complicated by the Christian name “Michael”, as it was in the Gray’s Inn application. Even the Christian name has its own little puzzle: the poet seems to have taken it on not at the time of his baptism in 1843 but only when he left Calcutta for Madras in 1848. (Nandan Dasgupta disputes this, but his argument is not convincing.) The politics of his name would not have escaped Dutt’s 19th-century Bengali readers as they made their way through his epic on Ravana, his plays and epistolary poems based on Puranic characters, and his odes to “Mrs Radha”.

Pitfalls of biographical readings

Biographies of poets cannot resist exploring how life events shape the subject’s work. Dasgupta’s book is no exception, but it seems to occasionally miss the wood for the trees. For instance, he sees Atma Bilap (1861) as “expressing regret for making incorrect life choices”. The poet, he says, is remorseful for having wasted his early years trying to write poems in English instead of Bengali. A year earlier, in 1860, Dutt had indeed written a poem on such a theme, which he inserted in a letter to Raj Narain Basu as an example of the kind of sonnet he wished to write:

“There were countless jewels beyond price in my own

Storeroom; neglecting them all,

I wandered/ From country to country in greed for wealth,

Like a merchant ship from port to port…”

(Kobi-Matribhasha, “Poet’s Mother Tongue”, William Radice’s translation quoted by Murshid.)

While these lines clearly express the poet’s regret at not having discovered the gems in his own language earlier, it might be a mistake to take this “remorse” too seriously even in this poem. It is better read as the poet’s delighted surprise at how Bengali was able to lend itself to poetic expression in his hands. Surely the polyglot Dutt was the kind of poet that he was because of his wanderings “from country to country in greed for wealth”.

The schisms underlying his identity informed his work, and he knew it. His masterpiece, Meghnadbadh, for instance, is modelled on the Iliad and has significant borrowings from Virgil’s Aeneid. (For a detailed discussion of Dutt’s immersion in, and subversive use of, Graeco-Roman classical literature, see Alexander Riddiford’s Madly After the Muses, OUP, 2013). In a letter to Raj Narain Basu in June 1860, the poet said it was his “ambition to engraft the exquisite graces of Greek mythology on our own… I shall not borrow Greek stories but write … as a Greek would have done.”

Once Dutt started writing in Bengali, he was seized by the idea of creating a “national literary culture” and producing a literature of global standards that could stand up to the best in Western literary traditions. But he was not closing his windows on Western cultural influences.

Also Read | Why are we not reading the likes of Jussawalla and Mehrotra?

It is not very clear what made Dutt transition to Bengali in his writing. A perusal of his life story suggests he embarked on his Bengali oeuvre in a moment of light-heartedness, to win a wager with a friend. J.E.D. Bethune’s advice (given in 1849 after a copy of Dutt’s The Captive Ladie was presented to him) that he should make better use of his talents by writing in Bengali, is sometimes taken to be the trigger.

Surely, there were deeper and more complex reasons for the transition than either the wager or Bethune’s rather stuffy admonition. Whatever that may be, Dutt’s writing in English was a necessary phase in his poetic journey, and regret for having written in English earlier could at best be cosmetic. What, then, was Dutt “regretting” in Atma Bilap, written when he was at the height of his powers, in the year he finished Meghnadbadh?

Dutt, the disciplined autodidact who never lost his appetite for new knowledge, was in one respect remarkably similar to the tragic heroes of classical Greek literature that he so admired. His tragic flaw was that he could not resist what he calls the “allure of hope” in Atma Bilap. The poem reflects Dutt’s awareness of the pattern of his life, and his propensity to step off the well-trodden path to take his chances for greater things by jumping into unknown waters.

He did that when he converted at the age of 19; when he left Calcutta for Madras weeks before his 24th birthday; when he returned to Calcutta in 1856, leaving behind Rebecca and four young children; and again when he abandoned the “centre stage” of Bengali literature to squander his hard-won patrimony on legal education in England. Dutt was at the apogee of his poetic trajectory in 1861, and all his leaps into the dark so far had shaped that trajectory. The next one was going to prove disastrous ─ and Atma Bilap seems to show a subterranean awareness of what was yet to come, a poetic premonition of the storm that surely raged in his heart during the final years of his decline.

Dasgupta’s engagement with his subject is marred by subjectivity. He refuses to accept that the poet might have felt remorse at his separation from Rebecca. There is really no way of knowing what happened between the couple. All that we know for sure, thanks to Ghulam Murshid’s research, is that he married her soon after arriving in Madras in 1848, that they had four children together, and that they were not with him when he returned to Calcutta in 1856.

The woman who joined him in Calcutta in 1858 was Henrietta, whom he knew in Madras, leading biographers and critics (notably Murshid, but also Radice) to conclude that he must have led some kind of a double life during his final years in the southern city. Murshid and Radice have seen, not unreasonably, the poet’s anguish over the whole affair reflected in some of his works.

Ultimately, however, no poet can be understood fully through the events of their life. When Dutt explored the feminine experience of betrayal/neglect by a romantic partner in his first play Sermista and then again in the epistolary poems of Birangana Kabya (modelled on Ovid’s Heroides), he was doing what creative writers always do ─ he was getting inside the skin of the other as Shakespeare did with Shylock and Milton with Satan.

The difference is that Dutt’s heroines are the wronged parties. Whether or not Dutt’s treatment of these stories reflected his guilt, the important thing is that Dutt chose to look at them from the woman’s point of view. Dasgupta is rightly sensitive to this aspect. Dutt’s were the first women-centric narratives in modern Bengali.

Also Read | A.K. Ramanujan’s uncut gems

Dasgupta’s attempts to establish that Dutt was happier with Henrietta are irrelevant and depend too much on the sentimental, and probably biased, account left by Gour Das Basak. Dasgupta does not accept the “guilt” theory, and as an alternative explanation for the situation explored in Sermista (where the initially vengeful Devayani reconciles herself to the presence of the other woman in her husband’s life), he proposes that it springs from the polygamous scenario in Dutt’s parents’ household.

But Dutt’s women characters are romantic heroines. Their stories allowed him to explore how things can go wrong between men and women in romantic relationships, and his treatment of these stories is subversive and sometimes antinomian (for instance in the letter of Vrihaspati’s wife Tara to her lover in Birangana Kabya). Betrayed/illicit love is good story material; fidelity/legitimacy, not always.

Dutt’s father took three young wives, while his first wife was still alive, in his quest for a son to perform his last rites, which his apostate (and only) son had lost the right to do. The nature of the tensions in that household would have been anything but romantic.

Dasgupta’s biography could have been a welcome addition to the literature on Dutt because it is in English and makes the poet more accessible to Indian readers outside Bengal. Through much of his book, however, Dasgupta seems guided by his own need to see the poet in a certain way. That indeed has typically been Dutt’s fate in posterity. Biographers telling his story have been guided by their biases. And that is another story in itself.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment