On the 17th of December 2017, Nandan Dasgupta captivated the Ohetuk Adda with his presentation of Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s epic poem Meghnadbodh Kabya. While presenting the finer aspects of the work, Nandan wove together Madhusudan Dutta’s biography to show that the life and times of the poet had influenced both his personality as well as his poetry. Often known to have brought Western influences into Bengali poetry the presenter alerted us to the vast reading of the poet of Hindu mythologies as well as his thorough reading Greek and Roman myths. He brings together the Sanskrit metaphors of Kalidas, the grandiose of Milton, the resonance of Chaucer as well as the lyrical romanticism of Yeats. No wonder then Michael Madhusudan Dutta has been Bengal’s greatest poet before the age of Tagore.
Meghnadbodh Kabya is a retelling of the Ramayana where the anti hero Ravana has been glorified. Many episodes in the poem which are the poet’s creation now stand as being integral part of the Epic. For instance, the assassination of Meghnad by the conspiracy of his own uncle, Vibhishana while the former was sitting alone and unarmed in his Yagna room has become a permanent feature of the Ramayana. Despite Meghnad being the hero, he gets killed and exits the poem in the 6th canto and for the rest three it is Ravana who gets the centre stage. The work is mainly about Ravana.
The tone of the poem is not righteous, it is fatalistic. This brings Madhusudan Dutta so close to Homer.The abduction and the war happened because of Fate unforeseen and uncontrolled by human agency. The Gods play their part in the story as they take sides of their favourites and they bring in further doom into the events. There are interesting interventions of Madan like Hypnos in Homer’s epic, the Illiad. And much like Homer Meghnadbodh Kabya despite is valiant effort and heroic characters remains a tragedy, something that Michael Madhusudan introduced into Bengali literature perhaps for the first time ever.
It is not only the epic form of the Greeks that Michael introduced into his poetry but he introduced the blank verse, the sonnet, the use of flash backs and dream sequences and of course the tragedy and foreboding.
Madhusudan Dutta’s own life has been tragic despite him being a larger than life character. Known for his profligacy, he swung between luxury and penury for most of the times to die a lonely and a desolate man. He converted to Christianity perhaps to access the high European culture associated with Christianity. His family and especially his ever supportive father, Rajnarayan Dutta severed ties with him and the conversion cost him his seat in the Hindu College. He was a polyphon and a polymath for he studied Latin, Greek and Persian and he read classics across cultures.
For all his newness, Michael had a predecessor in Henry Vivian Derozio, a poet and a leader who died young. His Young Bengal movement which was a spearhead movement for social reform towards building a more rational society influenced Michael into the world of powerful individual personalities. But perhaps the despondency of his life, having never really been able to balance his creativity with his work for a living made him see in individualism shades of tragic heroism. And that was the flavour of many of his works, among which Meghnadbodh Kabya is the brightest Jewel.
The popularity of Michael Madhusudan Dutta can be gauged from the regularity with which his plays were performed on stage and he also wrote on commission from producers of plays both on stage as well as in private theatres of the zamindars. Many of the dialogues especially from Meghnadbodh Kabya have found their place in Bengali idioms.