A Bengali poet in colonial Madras

Print edition : September 05, 2014

Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt taught at Orphan Asylum, now St. George's School on Poonamallee High Road. Photo: S. Thanthoni

On December 29, 1847, a small coastal vessel, The Lady Sale, set sail for Madras from Calcutta. On board was a young Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a man of many contradictions and a heart all too often cast adrift by impossible hopes, who would in a few years be recognized as the first great modern Bengali poet. He landed in Madras on a Tuesday, January 18, 1848. He was not yet 24.

Yet his is not the name that first comes to mind when one speaks of the Bengali connection of colonial Madras. The name that does is of Swami Vivekananda. The predominant image is that of the young wandering monk arriving in Madras after extensive travels through much of upper, west and central India, moving on to Kanyakumari, meditating on what has come to be known as the Vivekananda Rock, and then coming back to the mainland to announce his decision to carry the message of ancient Hinduism to the West.

The legacy of Vivekananda is complex, nuanced and valuable. Yet this legacy, aided by aspects of his rhetoric, lends itself to appropriation by the Hindu Right and, perhaps less harmfully, sits comfortably with urban middle-class religious and social sensibilities. A poet’s legacy is necessarily more complicated, especially when poetry is subversive. Madhusudan’s poetry, for all its grand rhetoric, questions rather than soothes, and can be quite startling in the way it stands established conventions on their heads. It is small wonder that his colourful, adventurous life has been largely pushed out of popular memory. Quite in contrast to the memory of Tagore, whose songs one is forced to listen to while stuck at traffic signals in Kolkata or inside elevators at government offices!

Dutt’s decision to move to Madras was the second momentous decision of his life, and like the first, it changed its course forever. The first was his conversion to Christianity, on February 9, 1843. He was only nineteen and trying to avoid marriage with a child bride chosen by his parents. The idealistic and Anglicised young poet – yes, he was already a poet, though in this phase he wrote in English – saw this as a threat to his hopes of travelling to the land of his dreams, England. Conversion would save him from the undesirable union, but it would also cast him out of his comfortable life as a wealthy lawyer’s only son and heir, terminate his promising career as a student of Hindu College (at that time open only to upper-caste Hindu boys) and make his future uncertain. Yet, conversion was what he chose. But true to the contradictions that always marked the poet’s thoughts and actions, this was not totally a leap of faith. He converted to remain true to his individualistic character, and also perhaps because he did probably believe in the relative superiority of Christianity. Yet, he was also motivated, as Ghulam Murshid has shown in his path-breaking biography ( Ashar Chhalone Bhuli, translated into English as Lured by Hope), by possible assurances of worldly success as a missionary preacher and hopes of securing a passage to England.

In a letter that Dutt wrote to his friend Gourdas Basak in Calcutta on February 14, 1849 (reproduced in Ghulam Murshid’s reconstruction of the poet’s life through his letters, The Heart of a Rebel Poet), he recalled that he was “half-mad with vexation and anxiety” when he left Calcutta a year earlier. Much had happened in that one year.

After being obliged to leave Hindu College on account of his conversion, Dutt had continued his education at Bishop’s College. There he met Charles Eggbert Kennet, a student whose family was based in Madras. When, towards the end of 1847, Dutt’s estranged father stopped paying for his education at Bishop’s College, Dutt was in need of a job. After looking at several options, he seems to have decided to move to Madras in the belief that Kennet’s family would help. Kennet’s father, did, finally, help him to get a job at Madras Male and Female Orphan Asylum and Boys’ Free Day School, on a monthly salary of Rs. 46. Kennet Sr. was in a position to do this because he was the secretary of Orphan Asylum. Was this the Kennet after whom Kennet Lane in Egmore is named, wonders S. Muthiah in his Madras Miscellany. Dutt was in effect the only teacher in this school and taught all subjects. Annual reports of the school, which have survived, show that Dutt made his mark as a teacher there. The school also survives. It is now known as St. George’s School, in Poonamallee High Road.

In that letter to his friend, Dutt also mentioned the struggles that he had to make before finding a toehold in Madras.

Since my arrival here, I have had much to do in the way of procuring a standing place for myself – no easy matter, I assure you, especially, for a friendless stranger. However, thank God, my trials are, in certain measure, at the end, and I now begin to look about me very much like a commander of a barque, just having dropped his anchors in a comparatively safe place, after a fearful gale!

The poet’s anchor was his new wife, Rebecca Thompson, at least as much as his teaching job was. She had been his student at the school, and they married on July 31, 1848, not very long after they met. She was three-fourths European, though Dutt called her his “fine English wife”. Ghulam Murshid’s researches have revealed some discrepancies in the records of her parentage. What is certain is that she grew up as an orphan and that she was not born in Europe. Yet she belonged to the city’s European circles, which made her union with the poor, dark-skinned, Indian poet rather unusual. Murshid surmises that “he possibly impressed her with his intellect and poetry – he had plenty of poetic exuberance”.

Dutt has left poetic testimonies, in the poetry that he wrote in the months following his marriage, to the couple’s married happiness. They had four children together, two daughters Birtha Blench and Phoebe, followed by two sons George and Michael. Yet, as Ghulam Murshid has shown in his biography, he must have started his relationship with Henrietta White, the woman who would eventually be his lifelong partner, at least in 1855. It is not known exactly what went wrong in the marriage, but Rebecca did not accompany the poet when he sailed for Calcutta in January 1956 to claim the property left behind by his father. Henrietta joined him in Calcutta some two years later and though the couple could never marry, they stayed together until they died in 1873, within days of each other. William Radice (see his introduction to The Poem of the Killing of Meghnad, his translation of Meghnadbadh Kabya) and Ghulam Murshid have explored how the poetry that Dutt wrote in the late 1850s and early 1860s betrayed the anguish that the poet’s involvement with the two women caused him and the deep remorse that he felt for having abandoned Rebecca and her children.

Henrietta was the daughter of one of Dutt’s colleagues at Madras High School, which the poet joined in 1852. The High School, which became Presidency College in 1855, functioned out of D’Monte House in Egmore, says S. Muthiah in Madras Miscellany. The building now houses the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court. It was a job that Dutt had long coveted. When finally he was offered the job by George Norton, the Advocate General of Madras, he was given a salary of only Rs. 150, whereas white teachers were paid Rs.250. But this was not his only, or even his first, encounter with European racial discrimination, which slowly eroded his once fervent admiration of European values. Yet, for all his mining of Hindu myths for poetic themes, Dutt never took refuge in the comfort offered by nostalgia for a glorious Indian past. As Ghulam Murshid points out, his essay “The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu” was produced during his Madras years. In it he deplores what he sees as the fatal flaws of Hinduism: “the predominance of a superstition, dismal and blasting; a fatal adherence to institutions whose cruel tendency ever it is to curb and to restrain the onward march of man as a social, as an intellectual pilgrim, tracing round him a wizard ring, solemnly believed to be impassable…”

Though Dutt wrote poems during his student days in Calcutta, it was in Madras that he started a serious pursuit of his calling. The union with Rebecca produced a creative outburst. He wrote his long poem The Captive Lady, which tells the story of an abducted princess’s love for her captor, within a very short time in November 1848. The poem, dedicated to Norton, was well received in Madras, but not in Calcutta. Of the various mortifying comments that cut the poet to the quick, the advice of J.E.D. Bethune, the President of the Education Council of Calcutta and an indefatigable educationist, seemed to have made a lasting impression. (Bethune said he should write in his mother tongue instead of dabbling with English.) Bishop’s College had given him a solid grounding in Greek and Latin and European classical literature. In an effort to prepare himself for “embellishing the tongue of his fathers”, he now turned his attention to mastering the Indian classical languages and polishing up his Greek and Latin. In a letter of August 18, 1849, to his “dearest friend” Gourdas Basak, he wrote:

“Perhaps you do not know that I devote several hours daily to Tamil. My life is more busy than that of a school boy. Here my routine is: 6-8 Hebrew, 8-12 School, 12-2 Greek, 2-5 Telegu and Sanskrit, 5-7 Latin, 7-10 English. Am I not preparing for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers?”



Madras was also where Dutt tried his hand at journalism. While teaching at Orphan Asylum, he edited a well-received journal called Eurasian, and sometime later also a weekly called Madras Hindu Chronicle. He later worked as an assistant editor at Madras Spectator, which became the first daily newspaper in Madras. In eight short years, before he left Madras for good in early 1856, Dutt reaped a rich and varied harvest in his personal and professional lives. His best years lay ahead of him when he left, the years that would earn him immortality as a poet, until he once again threw it all away in his eagerness to chase his dreams of material wealth.

Sarbari Sinha

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