Michael Madhusudan Dutt Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Michael Madhusudan Dutt 1824-1873

(Michael Madhusudan Datta, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Madhusudan, Michael, Timothy Penpoem) Bengali poet, playwright, and translator.

Dutt is considered a leading figure of the Bengali Renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century. He is credited with poetic and dramatic innovations best illustrated by his merging of Bengali stories and language with Western styles and forms such as those found in the works of Homer and John Milton. Dutt's most significant contributions are to poetry and they include the development of Bengali blank verse and the sonnet. His most famous poem, the Meghnādbadh Kābya (1861; The Slaying of Meghanada), is a blank-verse epic. Even Dutt's critics, many of whom were wary of his adoption of Western forms, acknowledge his work as influential. Today, Dutt is regarded with respect and his works are praised for content and language as well as for marking the beginning of Bengali modern literature.

Biographical Information

Dutt was born on January 25, 1824, to an aristocratic Bengali family in the village of Sagardari in Jessore; the family moved to Calcutta when Dutt was seven years old. He was educated at the Hindu College from 1833 to 1842, and it was during this period that he became interested both in writing poetry and in traveling to England. In 1843, Dutt converted to Christianity and adopted the name Michael. His conversion was a source of controversy among the members of his caste and appears to have been motivated less by faith than by his desire to avoid an arranged marriage. Dutt moved to England and attended Bishop's College from 1844 to 1847, where he studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. When his father stopped providing for his education, Dutt moved to Madras and became a journalist and teacher. In 1848, he married an Englishwoman, Rebecca McTavish, with whom he had four children. However, by 1856 Dutt had left his wife and children and apparently had no further contact with them. He returned to Calcutta in February of that year, accompanied by Amelia Henrietta Sophia, a Frenchwoman. Although it is unclear whether they were married, they lived together as husband and wife for the rest of their lives. Their first child was born in 1859 and was named Sermista after the heroine of one of his plays. Over the next three years Dutt wrote prolifically, producing, among other things, two farces, a five-act tragedy, the first Bengali epic poem, and a collection of eleven heroic epistles. It was during this period of creative activity that Dutt wrote his greatest work, The Slaying of Meghanada, in 1861, marking the peak of his career. In 1862 Dutt moved to England, where he was later joined by Henrietta and their children. He continued to study language and literature, and to write and publish more Bengali poetry. But his lifestyle and habits were expensive and extreme, and Dutt became as well known for his drinking and his financial difficulties as for his writing. Shortly after returning to Calcutta in 1867, he became a member of the Calcutta Bar, but his earnings were modest and did not improve his financial situation. Dutt's health began to fail and he died on June 29, 1873, three days after the death of Henrietta. Despite some questions about his faith, Dutt was given a Christian burial.

Major Works

Although Dutt worked as both a journalist and a translator, the bulk of his creative output consists of drama and poetry. His early works helped establish his reputation as a talented writer. In 1849 Dutt's first poems of note, Captive Lady and Visions of the Past, were written and published in English under the pseudonym Timothy Penpoem. He is much better known, though, for his work in Bengali. His first play, Sarmishthā (1859; Sermista), was followed by two farces: Buro Sāliker Ghāre Ro (1860; The Bristles of the Neck of the Aged Sparrow) and Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyatā (1860; Is This What You Call Civilizationq), and another drama, Padmā vati (1860). However, it is Dutt's poetry for which he is best known and remembered. Inspired by the writings of Homer, Tasso, and Milton, Dutt began writing poetry treating the stories and themes of Bengal utilizing a distinctly Western tone and style. He was particularly interested in blank verse, the sonnet, and the epic forms. Dutt published the first Bengali epic poem in blank verse, Tilottama Sambhav Kāvya (1860), which was met with both criticism and praise for its form. His The Slaying of Meghanada is not only considered his greatest work but also the finest blank verse epic ever written in Bengali. Dutt's other volumes demonstrate his continuing interest in lyrical and heroic poetry and include the Birangana Kāvya (1862; Poems Telling of Heroic Ladies), a collection of epistles in the voices of different women. After this period of intense creativity, primarily from 1859 to 1862, his output decreased. Dutt published one more major collection of Bengali sonnets entitled Chaturdaspadi Kavitāvali (1866) before his death in 1873. By the time of his death, Dutt's work was readily identifiable because of its trademark commingling of Western forms and Bengali content.

Critical Reception

Dutt is considered one of the most significant creative influences of the Bengal Renaissance. His ability to blend Westernized forms with Bengali subject matter brought about popular acceptance of both the sonnet and blank verse. Dutt is also credited with the first blank verse epic written in Bengali. Because of these contributions, many critics label Dutt the greatest poet of the modern Bengali period; regardless of the accuracy of that designation, all critics acknowledge the range and depth of his influence. Some scholars focus on his plays and their contributions to modern Bengali drama, primarily examining Dutt's work within its cultural and historical context. Most, though, concentrate on his poetry and in particular The Slaying of Meghanada. Here, many critics examine Dutt's emulation of Milton, his blank-verse compositions, or his use of the Indian epic Ramayana as his source. Other scholars focus on Dutt's influence on other writers, on the Bengal Renaissance, or on the modern period as a whole. Whatever approach or text scholars use to discuss Dutt, most confirm his status as a major Bengali literary figure, and many contemporary critics consider him a genius.