|Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873)|
Christians Who Changed their World
At Hindu College, Dutt studied Bengali, Sanskrit, and Persian, among other subjects. He also began writing poetry. In 1834, he attracted a great deal of attention by reciting a poem he had composed at a public event at the college. By 1842, he was publishing poems in English and Bengali in a number of literary journals in India.
Hindu College had been the site of a number of conversions to Christianity under the influence of one of its teachers, Henry Vincent Vivian Derozio, who ironically was an atheist himself. Derozio had died of cholera in 1831, two years prior to Dutt’s arrival at the school, but his spirit of free inquiry continued to be part of the school’s ethos. Among other things, this meant that Dutt was exposed to Christianity, in particular through the work of Krishna Mohan Bannerjee.
In 1843, Dutt converted to Christianity at Fort William in Kolkata and took the name Michael. His conversion was part of an attempt to avoid an arranged marriage with a Hindu girl, but within months it was obvious that he was serious about it; he even contemplated becoming a missionary. It is also clear Bannerjee was a major influence on his decision. At this point in his career, Bannerjee was following the lead of missionaries like Alexander Duff and attacking Hinduism as superstitious nonsense. Dutt wrote a hymn to be recited at his baptism that echoes these ideas:
Long sunk in superstition’s night,
His work begins
Dutt’s conversion caused him a great deal of trouble. His family disowned him, and he had to leave Hindu College since at that time it did not teach Christian students. His education resumed in November, 1844, when he was accepted into Bishop’s College, Kolkata, where he remained until 1847. While there, he mastered Latin as well as classical and koine Greek.
When Dutt graduated from Bishop’s College, he moved to Madras, where he took a variety of jobs: he was a teacher at the Madras Orphan Asylum, a “second tutor” at Madras University, and a writer and editor for a variety of literary journals. Dutt’s social life focused on the English and Anglo-Indian communities. He was an Anglophile and was thoroughly convinced of the superiority of the European tradition of rationalistic free inquiry over the tradition-bound culture of India.
Dutt’s poetry was heavily influenced by English poetry, which he considered far superior to Indian verse. One of his first major poems was called The Captive Ladie (1849). It was an Indian story, but the style owed far more to Lord Byron (one of Dutt’s favorite poets) than to Indian poetry. It was quite well received when it came out. That same year, he published Visions of the Past, a long poem recounting the Christian story of the temptation, fall, and redemption of humanity. This was written in blank verse and was heavily influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He would later write a sonnet entitled, “Satan,” which drew from Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost and was an all but perfect imitation of Milton’s style.
Dutt married twice, both times to women of English descent. In Madras, he married an English orphan named Rebecca Mactavys. They had four children. His second wife was Henrietta Sophia White; they had two children.
Dutt’s father died, which opened the door for his return to Kolkata in 1856. He continued to publish poetry in English and Bengali. Although it seems that he was more interested in English poetry, his work in Bengali was far more important, far more influential, and far better received. He began writing sonnets in Bengali, and in the 1859 play Sharmistha (English Sermista) he produced the first blank verse in Bengali.
The work which catapulted him to fame was Meghnadh Badh Kabya (The Saga of Meghnadh’s Killing), published in 1861, an epic poem inspired by Homer and Dante but based on the ancient Sanskrit poem Ramayana. In the original, Ravana was a powerful demon king and the villain of the piece. Meghnadh was his son, and was heavily involved in a war between Ravana and Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. Meghnadh was invincible in battle as long as he completed a ritual beforehand; Rama’s brother Lakshmana disrupted the ritual, however, and after battling for three days managed to kill Meghnadh.
Dutt turned this story on its head by portraying Ravana as a good and noble king, and Meghnadh similarly as a patriot, a loving family man, and an honorable and just warrior, much like Hector in the Iliad. In fact, in the Iliad Hector comes across as far more honorable than Achilles, who kills him in a vendetta. This is very similar to the way Dutt portrays Meghnadh and Lakshmana, though the details of the set up and story line are different.
Meghnadh Badh Kabya initiated a renaissance in Bengali poetry; in fact this poem and Dutt’s other work in Bengali helped solidify the Bengali language and contributed greatly to the Bengali Renaissance that was so important for the emergence of India as a modern state. In fact, Dutt’s work was considered so foundational for the Bengali language that Nirad C. Chaudhuri claimed that when he was a child, people’s skill in the Bengali language determined by whether they could Dutt’s poetry without an accent.
Despite his success in Bengali literature, Dutt remained an Anglophile and dreamed of travelling to Europe where he was sure he would receive the recognition he deserved. At the urging of his Indian friends, he left for London in 1862. He intended to follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. He was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which was a necessary step to becoming a barrister. His wife Henrietta joined him in 1863.
Unfortunately, however, once he left India all his former patrons deserted him; his disrespect for India and its culture may have played a part in this. A combination of financial difficulties and ethnic prejudice caused the family to withdraw to Versailles in France.
Dutt continued to visit London, however, and was called to the Bar in 1866. He was constantly in danger of being imprisoned for debt, however. By this point, his infatuation with England and Europe ended, and he began to long for home. In 1867, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a polymath and leader in the Bengal Renaissance, paid for his return to India, earning Dutt’s undying gratitude. He tried to pursue a legal career, but with limited success.
In 1873, just three days after his wife Henrietta’s death, Dutt died in Calcutta General Hospital, a discouraged man largely forgotten by his countrymen.
Fifteen years after his death, Dutt’s work began to get the recognition it deserved. The next generation of Bengali writers and scholars praised his work and argued that it was among the best poetry produced in the language. Dutt’s work thus helped shape Bengali language and literature.
Dutt is a complex figure. Like many others in his era, particularly in Asia, he recognized the connection between Christianity and Western learning that we today have largely forgotten. Like Bannerjee early in his career, Dutt rejected Hinduism and with it, much of Indian culture. Unlike Bannerjee, however, he never managed to find the bridge within Hinduism that could bring people to Christianity and thus help move India toward modernity. And Dutt had to deal with European arrogance, pride, and racism once he fulfilled his dream of moving to England. It was a sad and harsh lesson for him.
It is all the more remarkable that despite all of this, he still managed to produce some of the finest literature of the Bengali language and to contribute to the development of the culture that he only came to appreciate at the end of his life.
How could a poet move so many people and have such a wide influence? Have you ever read a poem that has touched you deeply? Why do you think God put so much of His Word in the form of poetry? Discuss these questions with some Christian friends.
To learn more about how the Gospel affects worldviews, order Glenn’s book, Why You Think the Way You Do, from our online store. You might also like to read the article, “The Poetry of Defiance,” by T. M. Moore.
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