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Dutt, Michael Madhusudan (1824–1873), poet and playwright, was born Madhusudan Dutta, or Dutt, on 25 January 1824 in Sagardari, a village in the district of Jessore, east Bengal, the son of Rajnarayan Dutta, or Dutt, a successful upper caste Kayasth Bengali lawyer, and his wife, Jahnabi Devi. Two younger brothers died in infancy. His father practised at the Calcutta high court, though the family home and lands were in Jessore. Dutt was initially taught at home by his mother and then attended the local primary school. Being the landowner's only surviving son, he was given special tuition and attention. He initially learnt Bengali, Sanskrit, and Persian. He then proceeded via Kidderpore School, Calcutta, to Hindu College, Calcutta. Possessing an amazing facility for languages, he soon became fluent in English. He read Shakespeare and the Romantics avidly and soon took Byron as his hero. At Hindu College he impressed his professor, Captain D. L. Richardson, with his vast erudition. His earliest poems were composed in English. These included Rizia, the Sultana of Inde (published in instalments in 1848–9) and The Captive Ladie (1849), perhaps his best poem in English.

Dutt was initially influenced by the Hindu reformist ideas of Rammohun Roy. Then he was informed that his father had arranged his marriage to a young girl of his (his father's) choice. This enraged Dutt, who was against the idea of arranged marriages. Already a rebel against Hindu ritual, he decided to become a Christian. In 1843 he was baptized and took the name Michael (after the archangel who defeated the satanic Lucifer), and composed a rousing hymn to be sung on the occasion. His family cut him off in outrage. He left Hindu College and joined Bishop's College, Calcutta, where he immersed himself in Latin and Greek and the classical literatures of Europe. He left Bishop's College in 1847, and the following year moved to Madras, where he taught, first at Madras Male and Female Orphan Asylum School and then at Madras University High School, while also working as a journalist with English-language newspapers including the Madras Circulator and General Chronicle, the Hindu Chronicle, and the Madras Spectator. By this time he had become proficient in Tamil. Meanwhile in 1848 he married Rebecca Mactavys Thompson (the daughter of an English father and an Anglo-Indian mother) in Madras. They had four children.

Following the death of his father (when he inherited the family estates) Dutt returned to Calcutta in 1856. There he worked first as a clerk at the law courts and then as an interpreter. Meanwhile, in addition to journalism, he plunged into creative writing. In 1858 he wrote Sharmistha, the first original play in Bengali which was written in the Western style, though based on the Mahabharata story of Devayani and Yayati. His epic work Meghnad-Badh Kavya (1861), composed in nine blank verse cantos and inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, is regarded by many Bengali speakers as Bengal's greatest modern poem. He shocked Hindu sensibilities by portraying Ravana, the demon king of Lanka who abducted Sita, as a figure of heroic proportions. Virangana (1862), also in blank verse, took Ovid's heroic epistles as its model. Referring to Dutt's works in Bengali, the critic Ketaki Kushari Dyson described him as ‘a major innovator and experimenter’, ‘an important pioneer in dramatic writing’, and ‘the most important modern precursor to Rabindranath Tagore’ (Dyson). He was also fluent, and wrote, in French and Italian. His eulogy to Dante was praised by the king of Italy.

After 1856 Dutt, who had deserted his wife in Madras, cohabited with a European woman named Henrietta Sophia White, with whom he had a son and a daughter. There is no proof that he ever married her, or that he divorced Rebecca (who continued to live in Madras, under the Anglicized name Dutton). He dressed flamboyantly in European suits, lived extravagantly in the manner of a white sahib, loved the good life, drank expensive wines, drove about in grand carriages, and spent money well beyond his means. Though a Bengali intellectual he adopted the lifestyle of an upper-class Englishman.

In 1862 Dutt left India for London, ostensibly to read law, although he almost certainly believed that he would be lionized there: ‘You may take my word for it, dear Raj’, he had written to a friend in July 1861, ‘I shall come out like a tremendous comet and no mistake’ (Dyson). His hopes were soon dashed. A hero in Calcutta, he was ignored in London. He moved with Henrietta and their children to France and lived in Versailles because it was cheaper than London and money from his estate was now in short supply. Even so he was heavily in debt and in danger of being imprisoned. Eventually he got back to London and somehow managed, through the patient help of his good friend the scholar and reformer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, to be called to the bar, by Gray's Inn in 1866. In 1867 he returned to Calcutta to practise law. But a poet, playwright, and bon vivant is not cut out to be a successful lawyer, and in 1870 he gave up his legal career and once again became a translator at the high court. He also took to drinking heavily. On 29 June 1873 he died at Calcutta General Hospital, a debt-ridden derelict. Only three days earlier his partner, Henrietta, had also died. His last works were Hectarbadh (1871), a monumental masterpiece after Homer's Iliad, and Mayakanan (1873), a play. He was buried in Calcutta.

Dutt was largely ignored by his British contemporaries, and by British literary historians. However, in the context of the literary history of India and the British–Indian cultural connection he occupies a pivotal position simply because he was the first Bengali writer to combine the Oriental with the Occidental. Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian to win the Nobel prize for literature, acknowledged Dutt's unique contribution, as did the poet-philosopher Sri Aurobindo. Even a century and more after his death, his plays continued to be performed and his poetry learned by heart by Bengali schoolchildren.

Reginald Massey

Sources  

S. Sen, History of Bengali literature (1971) · R. C. Majumdar, History of modern Bengal (1978) · A. Bose, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, 2nd edn (1990) · G. Murshid, Lured by hope: a biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (2003) · K. K. Dyson, ‘A tremendous comet: Michael Madhusudan Dutt’, 22 Jan 2004, www.parabaas.com/translation/database/reviews/brLured1.html, accessed on 3 Feb 2011 · G. Murshid, ed., The heart of a rebel poet: letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (2004) · A. Chatterjee, ‘Michael Madhusudan Dutta: profile of an epic poet’, 10 Sept 2006, www.boloji.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=PoemArticle&PoemArticleID=43, accessed on 3 Feb 2011

Likenesses  

portrait, repro. in Murshid, ed., Heart of a rebel poet · portrait, bust, Lower Circular Road, Calcutta, West Bengal, India