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The inner world of a rebel poet

Jonaki Ray | Updated on February 15, 2021 Published on February 15, 2021

Art of the matter: The letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt map the lure of literature which often came at the cost of his family responsibilities   -  WIKIPEDIA

A new play recreates the extraordinary life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt

* He introduced a new style, the blank verse, into Bengali literature, and produced an astonishing volume of poetry and plays

* It took us nine years to write this book because the research led us to several of his contemporaries

* It involved identifying the key letters that marked the phases and transitions in his life

***

Throughout his life, poet, author and playwright Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) experienced devastating loss, disillusionment and penury. He was disinherited by his father after his conversion to Christianity and cheated by the person who was supposed to have taken care of his business affairs. After years of struggle, he obtained a law degree from England, but his career did not take off. His personal life remained turbulent, too.

But through this all, Dutt kept writing, first in English, then, on the advice of educationist JE.D Bethune, in Bengali, his mother tongue. He introduced a new style, the blank verse, into Bengali literature, and produced an astonishing volume of poetry and plays. Reverence and redemption came to him posthumously: Today, his name is taken in the same breath as Rabindranath Tagore, and everyone who appreciates Bengali literature is expected to have read his work. Nirad CChaudhuri, for example, mentioned in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian how in his childhood, a true test of competence in Bengali was the ability to recite Dutt’s poetry.

Betrayed by Hope: A Play on the Life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt / Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal / Non-fiction / HarperCollins India / ₹399

 

Betrayed by Hope by authors Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal traces Dutt’s extraordinary life through a dramatic interpretation based on his letters, and presents it in the interesting format of a play. The play was performed virtually in December last year, and a recording of it is available on the website of India International Centre, New Delhi. Excerpts from a conversation with the authors:

Tell us about how and why you were drawn to write about Dutt?

Namita Gokhale (NG): It was perhaps around 2004 that I first did a review of two brilliant books on Michael Madhusudan Dutt by Ghulam Murshid. These were The Heart of the Rebel Poet, which documented his letters, and Lured by Hope, a biography in Bengali that documented his intense life. I knew I had to write about him when I read those books. I related deeply to the trajectory of his life and felt a connect with it. Thus, this book was inspired by the texture of his life. Also, when I read through the letters written by him to friends, well-wishers and patrons, I realised that there was a dramatic synergy between the letters and the phases of his tragic life, which fell quite naturally into five acts.

Malashri Lal (ML): Growing up in a Bengali household, I was familiar with the name of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and especially his epic, Meghnadbadh Kabya. Much later, in 2011, while writing a review of William Radice’s translation of this great epic, I became curious about the poet’s mercurial personality and his vast range of work. Namita told me about the letters edited by Ghulam Murshid. In reading them, the complex inner life of Michael and his stamina for innovating with literary forms fascinated me. Then, as often happens in my collaborative writing projects with Namita, ideas sparked and we embarked upon a full-length book on Michael, using his letters as the base.

How did you choose the title of the book?

NG: We thought of several titles but none of them resonated with the prolific genius and ultimate tragedy of Michael’s life. Then, the phrase ‘Betrayed by Hope’ came to mind and we knew that was the essence of what we were trying to convey.

ML: We chose this title after trying out several options. The phrase ‘Betrayed by Hope’ comes from Michael’s poem, Atma Bilap, a powerful song of lament about his wasted life. In the original Bengali, the line is Ashaar chhalane bhooli. The phrase, though specific to a poem, encapsulates the mood of the entire play. We commissioned fresh translations of Michael’s poems for our play and were fortunate that Nandan Dasgupta, writer and journalist, undertook the work.

What was your experience of writing the play?

NG: Writing the play-script was a layered process. It involved identifying the key letters that marked the phases and transitions in his life. The last and the most important phase was when Malashri Lal and I created a character of the sutradhar who held the story together — Rubina Rahman, a Bangladeshi PhD student, who functions as the moderator.

ML: It took us nine years to write this book because the research led us to several of his contemporaries, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Gourdas Basak, and Raj Narayan Basu. We also read up on Bengali theatre in Michael’s time. Although a lot of material emerged, we were unsure, for a long time, as to the selection of letters that would best illustrate the drama of Michael’s troubled life. The breakthrough came with the fictional character of the sutradhar, a contemporary character, who is grappling with her split identity, a hangover from the colonial past.

One of the key messages from this play (and the writer’s life) is that despite the challenges he faced, ultimately his art and creativity brought him joy. Could you tell us how this journey of creating is often intertwined with grief, and, yet, paradoxically helps in being more creative?

NG: The redemption of art against a failed life-script, against errors of judgement, and a lazy, selfish optimism: These things are what the play tries to convey through Michael’s voice as well as the acute and often acerbic comments of the sutradhar.

ML: Personal morality versus artistic integrity poses a difficult choice. Actually there is no choice; Michael was driven by the compulsions of his personality. The letters map the lure of literature at the cost of his family responsibilities. Our play asks the question about how history will judge a supreme writer whose personal life was a mess.

Identity, belonging, and loss are the threads woven throughout the script. As mentioned in the introduction, “Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s journey, of alienation and a return to selfhood, is one many writers and poets have travelled before and after him...To quote T.S. Eliot, ‘To return where we began and see the place for the first time.’”

There is also the fascinating characterisation of the conflicts in identity in the modern times through the sutradhar’s narrative. Could you expand on this idea, and why you feel that these words are relevant in today’s world?

NG: One could say that identity, belonging and loss are the key markers of our existence today. Michael’s life — his cosmopolitanism and his intellectual curiosity about other languages and literatures — was ahead of its time. Simultaneously, the desire to return to his roots and to his mother tongue is reflected in other writers of his times and ours.

ML: Identity, belonging and loss are perennial subjects. With Michael, as with the current generation of truth-seekers in the realm of literature, the luminous goal is an ideal that is hard to achieve. The artiste’s self-confidence and effort makes that goal seems achievable, but the path is likely to be full of obstacles and, sometimes, personal tragedy. The sutradhar bridges the gap between Michael’s time and ours, contextualising current dilemmas of identity.

The world as we knew it changed due to the Covid-19 crisis. What was the impact on you as a writer and a playwright with the performances now centred in the virtual world?

NG: Every disruption is also a challenge to creativity. I think Oroon Das and Inji Zayba Zaheer’s online rendition of the play effectively used the present constraints of technology to great advantage. I hope the play is performed in different formats and experimented with, keeping in mind the digital learnings of our time.

ML: The script is malleable in the hands of a director and the digital rendering showed some of the possibilities. Oroon, a Bengali in Delhi, and Inji, a Bangladeshi in Canada, entered the play in their own person so to speak. Consequently the subject of split identity, caused by the legacy of colonialism, was successfully highlighted. Michael’s story dovetailed with a modern narrative of multiple shifts. I look forward to other interpretations of the play depending on the director’s emphasis.

Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer and editor based in New Delhi

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Published on February 15, 2021
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