Michael Madhusudan Dutt

25 Jan 1824
29 Jun 1873
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Michael Madhusudan Dutt, or Michael Madhusudan Dutta (25 January 1824 – 29 June 1873) was a popular 19th-century Bengali poet and dramatist. He was born in Sagordari, on the bank of Kopotaksho River, a village in Keshabpur Upazila, Jessore District, Bengal Presidency, East Bengal (now in Bangladesh). His father was Rajnarayan Dutt, an eminent lawyer, and his mother was Jahnabi Devi. He was a pioneer of Bengali drama. His famous work Meghnad Bodh Kavya , is a tragic epic. It consists of nine cantos and is exceptional in Bengali literature both in terms of style and content. He also wrote poems about the sorrows and afflictions of love as spoken by women.

As a young student, Dutt was influenced by the thoughts and actions of the Young Bengal-a movement by a group of illustrious former students of The Hindu College (now Presidency College) in Calcutta (now Kolkata) against the atrocities, blind beliefs and customs they held as illogical, prevalent in the Hindu society of 19th century Bengal. Dutt, a student of Hindu College himself, aspired to be an English poet and longed to travel to England to gain fame. When his father, concerned by these trends, arranged his marriage, he rebelled. One aspect of his rebellion involved conversion to Christianity.

Dutt is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets in Bengali literature and the father of the Bengali sonnet. He pioneered what came to be called amitrakshar chhanda (blank verse). Dutt died in Calcutta, Bengal Presidency on 29 June 1873. Although his first love remained poetry, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, or Madhu- as he was called affectionately,showed prodogious skill as a playwright. He was the first to write Bengali plays in the English style, segregating the play into acts and scenes.

He was also the pioneer of the first satirical plays in Bengali – “Buro Salik er Ghare Row” and “Ekei Ki Bole Sovyota?” (Is this what we call Civilisation?”. When Deenabandhu Mitra wrote a Bengali play portraying the plight of the workers in indigo plantatiobs at the hands of their British masters, Dutt was the person who translated the play into English. Rumour has it that he translated the entire play in a single night.

There is no proof that Dutt had translated the play, however,as- on account of fear of prosecution by the British Government of India- neither the writer’s nor the translator’s name was printed when the play was published in English. After this episode Dutt went back to writing mainly poetry-occasionally writing short pieces of prose. He had also translated the episode of Prince Hector’s death from Homer’s Illiad into Bengali.

Although Dutt was a literateur par excellence, he was an alchoholic from his youth and his addiction grew as he aged. It was the source and cause of many of his hardships and miseries-both financial and mental. He was supported in his times of financial crisis by his friends and Sri Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar; the latter sent him monthly allowances regularly on the condition that Dutt should concentrate all his efforts in creating great specimens of Bengali poetry. Dutt was, however, never able to master his addiction and it led to his untimely death.

He had married twice. Michael Madhusudan Dutt was an important figure of the Bengali Renaissance who helped place Bengali literature on the throne it holds at present. He was hailed as the greatest poet of the Bengali language until the advent of Rabindranath Tagore. Even now, he is one of the great poets of the Bengali language.

His childhood education started in a village named Shekpura, at an old mosque, where he went to learn Persian. He was an exceptionally talented student. Since his childhood, Dutt was recognised by his teachers and professors as being a precocious child with a gift of literary expression. He was very imaginative.

Early exposure to English education and European literature at home and in Kolkata inspired him to emulate the English in taste, manners and intellect. An early influence was his teacher, Capt. D.L.Richardson at Hindu College. Richardson was a poet and inspired in Dutt a love of English poetry, particularly Byron. During this time, he composed many English poems. Among them, ‘King Purus’ is a remarkable one. It was the first patriotic poem composed by any Indian poem for the freedom of India.

Dutt was particularly inspired by both the life and work of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Dutt was a spirited bohemian and Romantic. Dutt’s heroic epic was Meghnadh Badh Kabya, although his journey to publication and recognition was far from smooth.

However, with its publication, he distinguished himself as a serious composer of an entirely new genre of heroic poetry, that was Homeric and Dantesque in technique and style, and yet so fundamentally native in theme. To cite the poet himself: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Nevertheless, it took a few years for this epic to win recognition all over the country.

He dedicated his first sonnet to his friend Rajnarayan Basu, which he accompanied with a letter: “What say you to this, my good friend? In my humble opinion, if cultivated by men of genius, our sonnet in time would rival the Italian.”

When Dutt later stayed in Versailles, the sixth centenary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was being celebrated all over Europe. He composed a poem in honour of the poet, translated it into French and Italian, and sent it to the king of Italy. Victor Emmanuel II, then monarch, liked the poem and wrote to Dutt, saying, “It will be a ring which will connect the Orient with the Occident.

Dutt had refused to enter into an arranged marriage which his father had decided for him. He had no respect for that tradition and wanted to break free from the confines of caste-based endogamous marriage. His knowledge of the European tradition convinced him of the superiority of marriages made by mutual consent (or love marriages). While in Madras he married Rebecca McTavish, of English descent. They had four children together. He wrote to Gour in December 1855:

“ Yes, dearest Gour, I have a fine English Wife and four children.”
Dutt returned from Madras to Calcutta in February 1856, after his father’s death, abandoning his wife and children in Madras. He had two children by Henrietta Sophia White, who was also ethnic English. This relationship lasted until the end of his life, Henrietta pre-deceasing him by three days. They had a son Napoleon and daughter Sharmistha.

The tennis player Leander Paes is a direct descendant of his.

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