Another family of the Dutt name brought out The Dutt Family Album in 1870, featuring about two hundred pieces by Govin Chunder Dutt (1828-1884), his two brothers, and a nephew. Earlier, the whole family had converted to Christianity and, in 1869, had left India to live in England and other parts of Europe. The volume sheds light on the literary atmosphere prevailing in the aristocratic Dutt family, which was to produce another generation of poets in Govin’s daughters Aru and Toru Dutt. Another notable poet of this time was Ram Sharma, born Nobo Kissen Ghose (1837-1918), who published three volumes of verse between 1873 and 1903. Sharma, who practiced yoga for several years, tried to bring an Indian religious dimension to Indian English poetry.
In this period, Indian English poetry moved out of Bengal for the first time with the publication of the Bombay poet B. M. Malabari’s Indian Muse in English Garb (1876). Soon Cowasji Nowrosi Versuvala’s Counting the Muse (1879) and A. M. Kunte’s The Risi (1879) were published in Bombay and Poona, respectively. Though still an upper-class hobby, Indian English poetry was slowly spreading to metropolitan centers outside Bengal.
The poetry of the first fifty years of Indian English poetry (1825-1875) is generally considered imitative and derivative by critics. Certainly, the poems from this period which are usually anthologized do not show signs of very great talent. A judgment on the quality of these poets, however, must not be passed hastily, because most of their books are out of print and hence not easily available for critical scrutiny.
There is almost complete critical consensus that the talent of Toru Dutt (1856-1877) was an original one among Indian English poets. Like Derozio, she died young, and like Emily Brontë, her life has been the object of as much interest as her poetry. Toru Dutt left for Europe with her family when she was thirteen and attended a French school in Nice with her elder sister, Aru. The Dutts then moved to Cambridge, England, where Toru participated in the intellectual life of the university. Though converted to Christianity and very Anglicized, the Dutts felt alienated in England, and they returned to Calcutta four years after they had left, when Toru was seventeen. In 1874, soon after their return, Aru died. Earlier, when Toru was nine, her elder brother Abju had died. One year after her sister’s death, Toru published A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1875), which also featured eight pieces by Aru. These poems, “renderings” from the French, were enthusiastically received in India and England and soon went into three editions, the third published by Kegan Paul, London, with a foreword by Arthur Symons. In that same year, 1875, Toru took up the study of Sanskrit, and ten months later she was proficient enough in it to think of producing “A Sheaf” gleaned from Sanskrit fields. This volume was published in 1882, after her death, as Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, with a foreword by Edmund Gosse. Meanwhile, she had written one French novel and left incomplete an English novel, both of which were published after her death. Weakened by tuberculosis, she died in 1877 at the age of twenty-one.
The most significant aspect of Dutt’s literary career was her return to her Indian heritage after her sojourn in the West. In Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, she converted popular myths from the Rmyaṇa (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Ramayana, 1870-1874), the Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Mahabharata, 1834), and the Purṇas into English verse. In this, she pioneered a way for several later Indian English writers who had similar problems regarding their literary identity. Dutt’s English versions, except in a few instances, are without condescension to the original and without authorial intrusions. In addition to longer “ballads” and “legends” from Sanskrit mythology, Dutt wrote short lyrics, odes, and sonnets. The best of these, probably her best single poem, is “Our Casuarina Tree.” This poem, reminiscent in both form and content of Keats’s odes, is about the beautiful Casuarina tree in the poet’s garden at Baugmaree. The tree, by the end of the poem, becomes a symbol not only of the poet’s joyous childhood but also, through an extension in time and space, of the poet’s longing for permanence and eternity. The poem is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, a fine blending of thought, emotion, and form. Though her output as a poet was not particularly prolific, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan show sufficient accomplishment to entitle Dutt to her place in the pantheon of Indian English poets.
Sri Aurobindo Ghose
Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) probably has the best claim to be regarded as the greatest Indian English poet. In a poetic career of more than fifty-five years, his output and range were truly staggering. Sri Aurobindo wrote lyrics, sonnets, long narrative poems, poetic drama, and epics. He was fluent in a variety of conventional meters, such as iambic pentameter and hexameter, and he also experimented with quantitative meter and mantric poetry.
His reputation rests most securely on the posthumously published Savitri (1954), an epic of some twenty-four thousand lines. In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo used the story of Savitri’s conquest of death in The...