During the formative phase of modern Bengali literature we got exceptionally talented contribution from Michael Madhusudan, whose 194th birth anniversary is today (1824-1873). With requisite renaissance spirit he gave a knee-jerk to the conventional theme and form to make it truly modern.
Being well versed in both Sanskrit and Western literature he introduced heroic and human theme against conventional devotional content, and added a focus on heroines, quite unprecedented at that time. To suit his content he revolutionised the style also, on the one hand with Western blank verse and on the other with Sanskrit sonorous vocabulary. He introduced sonnets, good drama and satirical plays in Bengali literature. These innovations made a solid foundation and paved the way for the posterity in Bengali literature.
In the courtyard of Bengali literature unique literary tour de force of Michael Madhusudan Dutta was unprecedented and wonderful. The poet did not live long and his creative life span was less than ten years. Yet he has left indelible mark in the history of Bengali literature as a pioneer in many ways and is regarded as one of the major writers in our literature. Let us remember his talent and literary contribution more than his unconventional, fabulous life story with myth-ridden extravagance, alcoholism, conversion to Christianity, marriage with two European brides at that time and going abroad in England and France for education— which all have been enacted on stage and filmed with tremendous success for public fascination.
Born on 25th January 1824 in Sagordari village of Jessore, Madhusudan Dutta had his initial education there itself. Later on he entered Hindu College (Now Presidency University) of Kolkata and had legendary Richardson as his professor under whose influence he developed intense love for poetry and literature. His ideal became to be a great poet like John Milton or Lord Byron. To avoid arranged marriage with a child bride and also to go to England to fulfil his poetic ambition he adopted Christianity and became Michael M S Dutt.
His initial poetic attempts were all in English, The Captive Ladie and Visions of the Past. Appreciating his poetic talent Drinkwater Bethune advised him to use his inherent linguistic excellence and poetic talent in his mother language, Bengali for real worthwhile contribution instead of wasting time and energy over uncertain success in English. His intimate friends also wanted him to use his vast knowledge in European literature in Bengali.
It is known that he translated Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nildarpan overnight into English as Indigo Planting Mirror highlighting British atrocities which raised huge hue and cry in England. Although his name as a translator was nowhere there, he lost his job in police court due to British wrath.
Being invited to attend a dramatic performance arranged by Maharaja of Belgachhia he was pained to see lavish arrangement over enactment of a useless play for want of a good drama. On his way back he decided to write drama in Bengali. Within short time he wrote Sharmistha, a drama on Hindu mythological theme. He also wrote Padmavati, a comedy and Krishnakumari, a tragedy with profuse European influence on Indian theme. In Bengali, he introduced division of drama into scenes and acts as per dialectical movement: exposition, complication, climax, denouement and catastrophe in tragedy or union in comedy.
But his greater excellence lies in writing two satirical plays absolutely original and in colloquial language. Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (Is this called civilisation?) is a satire on the overreaction of young Bengal degenerating into various vices in the name of reformism while Buro Shalikher Ghare Rown (Old bird’s adherence) is a satire on the hypocrisy and vices of older generation. With his renaissance humanism he showed the follies and foibles of the society with corrective intention.
His greatest contribution lies in introducing blank verse in Bengali. He found mellow Bengali language with pitch accentuation and traditional poetic form with end rhyming not suitable for heroic theme, whereas sonorous blank verse was compatible with stress accentuated European languages. His knowledge in Sanskrit offered rescue. He profusely borrowed high sounding Sanskrit root words (tatsama shabda) to give adequate gravity and seriousness. For economy of expression he profusely coined nam dhatu or nouns as verbs never used before in Bengali. He first attempted blank verse or amitrakkhsar chhanda in Tilottamasambh or Birth of Tilottama.
His magnum opus Meghnad Badh Kabya (Slaying of Meghnad) written in blank verse started like Milton’s Paradise Lost with invocation of Muse. The poem influenced by Homar, Milton and Dante, divided in nine cantos was intended to be heroic but became full of pathos with tragic overtones. Although he took the theme from epic poem Ramayana, he transformed Ravana, villain of the original into a hero and his son Meghnad a grand centre of attraction as he was unconquerable after performance of a divine ritual which was obstructed with the help of Bibheeshan. He discarded traditional devotional sentiment to Rama and said, “The idea of Ravana elevates and kindles my imagination. He was a grand fellow. He would have kicked Rama and his monkey army into the sea but for that scoundrel Bibheeshan.“ The unique style and content of the poem will always be remembered by the readers of Bengali literature as something entirely new.
In Birangana he expressed the sentiments of his favourite heroines from their own point of view. Giving so much space and importance to the unknown sentiments of the heroines was quite unprecedented at that time in male dominated society.
In Brjangana he presented melodious devotional theme of divine love between Radha and Krishna with intense lyricism just like a devotee. After reading the same a devoted Vaishnavite from Nabadwip, birthplace of Sri Chaitanya, came to Kolkata to meet him as the crest jewel of devotees. But seeing him clad in European dress he was deeply disappointed and said, “You must have been fallen by a divine curse.“
He introduced sonnets calling chaturdashpadi kabita in Bengali in Petrarchan style with tremendous success and held that sonnets in Bengali can rival its Italian model in content, form and rhyme. He wrote some sonnets in Shakespearean model as well.
About his poetry Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee observed, “As long as the Bengali race and Bengali literature would exist, the sweet lyre of Madhusudan would never cease playing..... the intoxicating vigour of Madhusudan’s poems makes even a sick man sit up on his bed.”
Neither his dramatic biographical annals, nor the spirit of rebellion typical of the then young Bengal, what attracts us more is his pioneering contribution to Bengali literature. Not even towering contribution of Tagore overshadowed that as he was diametrically different in mood and temperament catering to an altogether different taste. Time changes, taste changes but history continues for ever giving permanent place to deserving few who make history, throwing others in the garbage bin of oblivion.
His contribution to Bengali language and literature made history indeed in that he was pioneer in writing the first successful drama, satirical plays, blank verse, heroic poem and sonnets. And for all these he shaped language and showed judicious assimilation from the Eastern and the Western literature. All these have made him ever memorable in the history of Bengali literature.
The writer is a columnist