ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Michael Madhusudan Datta and the Marxist Understanding of the Real Renaissance in Bengal

Michael Madhusudan Datta who began writing in Bengali, when he realised the "impossibility of being European", was not, in fact, ahead of his time, but very much of it. Madhusudan had, till 1940, been feted by middle class Bengalis across the spectrum as a legendary poet. However, the brilliant aura around him began to be muddied by critics whose modernist provenance was an even more powerful impulse than the Marxist. This paper recontextualises strategies of reading and representation, which change historically in response to evolving and shifting cultural paradigms. It shows how readings of a particular writer or a period are orchestrated through a multiplicity of exchanges in politically charged situations. It neither redeems Madhusudan nor resurrects the idea of the Bengal Renaissance.


Michael Madhusudan Datta and the Marxist Understanding of the Real Renaissance in Bengal

Rosinka Chaudhuri

Michael Madhusudan Datta who began writing in Bengali, when he realised the “impossibility of being European”, was not, in fact, ahead of his time, but very much of it. Madhusudan had, till 1940, been feted by middle class Bengalis across the spectrum as a legendary poet. However, the brilliant aura around him began to be muddied by critics whose modernist provenance was an even more powerful impulse than the Marxist. This paper recontextualises strategies of reading and representation, which change historically in response to evolving and shifting cultural paradigms. It shows how readings of a particular writer or a period are orchestrated through a multiplicity of exchanges in politically charged situations. It neither redeems Madhusudan nor resurrects the idea of the Bengal Renaissance.

Rosinka Chaudhuri ( is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

he nationalist understanding that a country’s literature needs to be formulated in the authenticity of the mother tongue was first formulated mid-way through the 19th in Bengal, curiously enough, in a symbolic moment in the life of Madhusudan Datta. Following the publication of Madhusudan’s English narrative poem Captive Ladie in Madras in 1849, John Drinkwater Bethune, a leading educationalist and an advocate for women’s education in Calcutta, wrote to Madhusudan’s closest friend, Gaurdas Basak, that Madhusudan “could render far greater service to his country and have a better chance of achieving a lasting reputation for himself, if he will employ the taste and talents, which he has cultivated by the study of English, in improving the standard and adding to the stock of the poems in his own language, if poetry, at all events he must write”.1 This advice was endorsed by Gaurdas, who memorably added, “We do not want another Byron or another Shelley in English; what we lack is a Byron or a Shelley in Bengali literature”,2 the upshot of which was, according to standard texts of Bengali literary criticism, that Michael Madhusudan then turned away from the foreign to return to the welcoming arms of his native literature.

Such an understanding persists, curiously enough, in presentday postcolonial texts such as Provincialising Europe, itself a book that launches an acute and effective critique of European historicism. In it, an English poem by Madhusudan, written in 1842 for the Literary Gleaner, is quoted by Dipesh Chakrabarty in full, followed by the observation: “Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the young Bengali author of this poem, eventually realised the impossibility of being European and returned to Bengali literature to become one of our finest poets.”3 It is doubtful, though, whether Michael ever really stopped “being European”, or, realised the invalidity of using European forms to create his own. Also, paradoxically, this moment of “return” inaugurated not the triumph of a pure Bengali, but of a composite literature written as a participant in the world literary culture, for it would not be unreasonable to point out that the literary arena, even while it wrestled with the nationalist burden of expectation as well as gloried in it, was, throughout its existence, also involved with the notion of modernity as it was located in a world culture of literary practice.

In these years, even as civil society hummed with speculation about whether Bankimchandra had read Ivanhoe or not before he wrote Durgeshnandini (1865), Michael had left no one in doubt about his grasp of what he deemed the best of world literature, as in letter after letter, he expounded theories that spoke of the wisdom of taking eclectically from the best of world literature, and of how he was preparing to embellish “the tongue of my fathers”

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

by studying Tamil, Hebrew, Greek, Telugu, Sanskrit, Latin and English.4 Famously placing his first Bengali play, Sharmista, (1859) emphatically within a world tradition of modernity in literary practice, he wrote to his friend Rajnarain Basu:

…but if the language be not ungrammatical, if the thoughts be just and glowing, the plot interesting, the characters well maintained, what care you if there be a foreign air about the thing? Do you dislike Moore’s poetry because it is full of Orientalism? Byron’s poetry for its Asiatic air, Carlyle’s prose for its Germanism? Besides, remember that I am writing for that portion of my countrymen who think as I think, whose minds have been more or less imbued with western ideas and modes of thinking....5

This creative exchange, which is fundamentally at odds with Chakrabarty’s idea that once Madhusudan began writing in Bengali, he realised the “impossibility of being European”, was to remain one of the hallmarks of the late 19th century literary project, which was written as a narrative of the victory of a modern literature that survived the baneful influence of either the colonial (and foreign) or the popular (but vulgar) inheritance. Consequently, despite Madhusudan’s various allegiances to Homer, Virgil and Milton, which have been prominently marked, as has his equally eclectic borrowing from Kalidasa and all that he knew of the “grand mythology” of his ancestors, his achievement in welding all these together to create an accomplished Bengali literature has been duly celebrated.

Michael himself was responsible, however, in no small part, for the propagation of this imagery of return, reconciliation and fulfilment when, in some of his most famous sonnets (Kabimatribhasha, Atmabilaap, Bangabhumir Prati, Bangabhasha), he held forth passionately on his own neglect of, and return to his mother tongue, his mother land, his native shores, as here in the last mentioned poem that began: He Banga, bhandare taba bibidha ratan-

O Banga, your store has many gems;- All of which (ignorant as I am), I held in contempt; Intoxicated by the riches of others, I journeyed To other countries, at an importunate moment, as a beggar. Many days did I spend forsaking happiness! Sleepless, I dedicated my body to starvation, gave My mind to fruitless meditation, receiving the unacceptable;- Played with moss; having forgotten the lotus groves! In a dream, your Kulalakshmi then said to me: “O child, your mother’s store is ranged with jewels Why are you then in this beggar’s state today? Go back, you un-awakened, go back to your home! Happily did I obey the command; finding, in time A mine in the form of my mother tongue, fully a web of gems.6

Each of these sonnets, all of which are famous in Bengali literature, reiterate similar sentiments; more often than not, most Bengalis will quote verbatim from the lines above, or similar lines in the others, among the most well known of which, perhaps, are the first lines of Atmabilap (Heart’s Lament): Ashar chhalane bhuli ki phal lobhinu hai, tai bhabi mone (Deceived by the tricks of hope, alas, what fruits have I gained/I wonder?), or those of the poignant Bangabhumir Prati (To Bengal), prefaced with Byron’s line, “My native land, good night!”, written five days before embarking on a ship to England: Rekho ma dashere mone, e minoti kori taba pade… (Keep this slave in mind, mother, this I plead at your feet…). This emotional bond with the motherland or mother tongue, exceedingly effective as a poetic image, was, however, hardly a literal statement – declaring an intent to abandon all that was foreign for all that was native – on the part of Madhusudan, as critics have been liable to read him.

1 Our Real Renaissance

In a Bengali essay called “Michael O Amader Renaissance” (Michael and Our Renaissance) written in 1962, Bishnu Dey, the leading Marxist poet of his time, displayed to perfection the nationalist/chauvinist temper of the critics who had sought to separate the native inheritance from the foreign in the flowering of Madhusudan’s genius. Quoting from a line that Lord Canning had written, “I apprehend nothing to be so little useful as reasoning by analogy from Europe to India”, Dey wrote (in a characteristically tensile, muscular, innovative Bengali prose that is hostile to translation) that Michael had entered the world of native poetry

…in his childhood, through his mother, and it was this childhood ingress that later gave this Europe-mad powerhouse the right to inquire into the very heart of Bengali poetry. Because, like many newlyeducated babus of the past, Michael too had chased the mirage of Canning’s analogy and had attempted to achieve that impossible aim from a very young age. But the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and K abikankan Chandi remained unconquerable in the blood of this boy from Jashore-Khidirpur.7

Acknowledging that Michael had studied deeply in English, Latin, French, German, Italian, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian poetry, while discovering Europe, he reiterated that “still, the influence of the undercurrent of Bengali kept flowing under all this, and made this Madras-returned strange anglicised youth write his first noteworthy play in Bengali, and he had to write his first readable poem, too, in none other than his mother tongue.”8

Bishnu Dey’s essay repeats this denial of the impact of other languages or cultural practices in the constitution of Michael’s self in many different contexts of Madhusudan’s life. In Dey’s reading, just as all of Madhusudan’s “gulping down of European influences to the dregs” (p 11) could not prevent the innate instinct of his own language from finding expression, similarly, his conversion to Christianity too was merely a materialistic move to manufacture a route to England. This disavowal of Madhusudan’s conversion is common to almost every commentator from Jogindranath Basu to the present day, and has been questioned only sporadically, by critics such as Pramathanath Bisi in 1941, or more recently by his most exhaustive biographer, Ghulam Murshid.9 This was the time, Dey continues, when the call to “return to the mother tongue” was echoing in the air, when Vidyasagar, Debendranath, Akshay Datta, Kaliprasanna Singha and others were strengthening the path trod by Iswar Gupta to build Bengali. In a triumphant tone, reminiscent of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s statement (that Michael “eventually realised the impossibility of being E uropean and returned to Bengali literature”), Dey came to the conclusion that “the English-minded Michael, in the interest of his own indomitable poetic talent, left his basically unsuccessful efforts at Englishness and returned home, and the prodigal son then wrote a Bengali play for the Belgachhia playhouse”. Taking his analogy one step further, Dey then asserts, “Although his fluent knowledge of English and European literature remains amazing even today, still, he had understood that, while in

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

English – my dear fellow – it might be possible to write the most astonishing letters, to create literature you need the known language of blood (rokter chena bhasha).”10

This sort of imagery, packed with metaphors of “home”, “blood”, “sinew”, or “undercurrent”, where poetry is shown to be welling up from the springs of the unconscious in Michael Madhusudan, is used by Dey throughout the essay. In sentences such as “But in his every nerve and sinew, there was the language’s spoken rhythm, the memory of its native usage” (p 13), Bengali poetry is to be found residing in the sinews and nerves, in the blood of a poet outwardly immersed in a different cultural landscape, coming to him unasked for, spontaneously. “The words come unsought”, Michael had written, and Dey quotes this as well as another of his statements: “The thoughts and images bring out words with themselves, – words that I never knew. Here is a mystery for you”, to show how, in Madhusudan, the subterranean impulse of his race found an outlet despite the outer barrier of foreign influences in a manner that remained a puzzle to the poet’s conscious self. Michael’s immersion in western European classicism is admirable, Dey says, but nevertheless “That is why Michael, even within his tragically short maturity, realised his country’s divided state, where the English awakening was unavoidable, yet nothing more than an empty and bitter space” (pp 22-23). Michael’s life and work both, therefore, are read as a “noble tragedy, another name for which is England’s work in India”, with Dey concluding, “His tragedy lies in the drama of running after a false metaphor in the darkness of British-Indian history… In the century that has passed since then, we have been unable to instil the glowing lesson manifest in him. Yet it is only if we can do so that our historical sight will be restored to us, and we will be able to compose our own inevitable and certain history, our real renaissance (amader prakrita renaissance).”11

Bishnu Dey’s own exhausted pursuit, in this essay, of the mirage of a history of modern Bengali creativity uncontaminated by colonial influence casts a powerful searchlight on a very dominant critical stance in nationalist thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries in India. In thinking in the manner he did, he was not alone or isolated; rather, his views are the culmination of a long and hoary tradition of authors and critics in Bengal, starting from Iswar Gupta, who first used the counter of “authenticity” to question the provenance of a creative work. Nineteenth century Bengali literary writing abounds in instances of indignant feeling for a native inheritance that is being neglected and passed over, and the complaint of foreign influences was registered against the best-known Bengali practitioners of the craft. Thus Nabinchandra Sen had famously complained to Bankimchandra that his novels were too much in the western mould and did not appear to him to be genuinely Bengali in nature, as he himself reported:

I said to him – “I have always told you, I don’t like your lumps of English love offerings (bilati piriter pinda pindanta) anymore. Always the same monotonous English novelistic husband-wife and mistress’ love! I have told you repeatedly to paint the ideal love of our national life and national literature that is contained in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – a father’s love, a brother’s love, a child-like love, love of one’s subjects, and last of all, love of God. But you didn’t listen to me.12

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

Much like the infamous Tebbit test in England in the mid1980s, when the conservative leader Norman Tebbit asked that a test of citizenship should include an appraisal of which team an immigrant cheered for in a match between England and the immigrant’s home country, the test of whether a literary work was authentic and representative included an evaluation of how inherently indigenous or native the work ultimately was.

One of the first to articulate this feeling in relation to Madhusudan was his own friend, Rajnarain Basu, who had said, “Compared to other Bengali poets, the indigenous manner (jatiya bhaab) was, perhaps, the least to be found in Michael Madhusudan. He might have clothed his poetry in Hindu garb, but underneath those Hindu clothes, the coat-pantaloon can be seen.”13 Subsequently, Rabindranath, in conversation with Edward Thompson, had complained of Madhusudan: “He was nothing of a Bengali scholar …he just got a dictionary and looked out all the sounding words. He had great power over words. But his style has not been repeated. It isn’t Bengali.”14 Ironically, the table was turned on Tagore by the literary historian Dineshchandra Sen, who privately let Thompson know that: “His [Tagore’s] mode of thinking is so essentially English that I appreciate his English translation of the Gitanjali far better than the original Bengali…Among us those only who have lost all touch with the life of the people, reading only European books, are his admirers… Bengal has not given Rabindranath to Europe – rather Europe has given him to the Bengalis…”15 Later, in the 1960s, Buddhadeva Bose and Sudhindranath Datta went further, making the following statements: “Rabindranath’s works are European literature written in the Bengali language and they are the first of their kind”, and “In the hands of [Rabindranath] Bengali literature turned occidental in all but speech.”16 Both these stalwarts, interestingly, led the charge on Madhusudan as well, which we shall discuss in more detail a little later.

Cultural Authenticity

The attempt to separate or to weed out the colonial and the western strands from the matrix of our modernity has been, for many years, lent legitimacy and authority by the support structure of nationalism and its search for authenticity. A type of indigenist discourse was developed from the 1870s onward in which definitions of culture and religion acted as counters of authenticity, which was as much an affirmative as a pejorative discourse, deciding what would constitute cultural authenticity in a transformative period for a new intelligentsia. But any attempt to separate the vernacular from the cosmopolitan in a writer’s cultural constitution, as we have seen, fails spectacularly, every time, with the very writer who complains about inauthenticity then facing a similar charge in his turn.

Clinton Seely, while writing about Madhusudan’s Meghnadbadh, quotes from Pramatha Chaudhuri writing in 1919, who harks back to the same familiar note when he says, using a recurrent metaphor of the seed of foreign influence: “Since the seeds of thought borne by winds from the Occident cannot take root firmly in our local soil, they either wither away or turn parasitic. It follows, then, that Meghnādavadha Kāvya is the bloom of a parasite…utterly devoid of any fragrance.”17 Seely is perceptive in following this up with a comment made in 1987 by the bilingual Kannada poet, A K Ramanujan, that serves to illustrate how writers themselves have defended their multicultural provenance: “After the nineteenth century, no significant Indian writer lacks any of the three traditions: the regional mother tongue, the pan-Indian (Sanskritic….Perso-Arabic…), and the Western (mostly English). Poetic, not necessarily scholarly, assimilation of all these three resources in various individual ways seems indispensable.” “Perhaps”, Seely concludes, “Dutt was just a bit ahead of his time”.18 It remains, however, that Ramanujan’s position was a defence in the face of critics in the same nativist/nationalist lineage; only the partly understandable worry of literary critics in an era of national struggle against colonialism has now been displaced into an attack more particularly on the global provenance of Indian writing in English.

The problematic notions of territoriality that mark any examination in India of a writer’s sources had, by the time of Ramanujan, been displaced from the arena of vernacular literature to that of Indian writing in English; the defence, however, sounds remarkably similar right up to the present day. Thus Vikram Chandra, a ccused by Meenakshi Mukherjee of selling Indianness to the west, a commonplace charge in India since the 1990s, retorts that “this anxiety about the anxiety of Indianness”, was one that he constantly heard, “in conversations, in critical texts, in reviews. And Indians who wrote in English were one of the prime locations for this rhetoric to test itself, to make its declarations of power and belonging, to announce its possession of certain territories and its right to delineate lines of control.”19 In his justification, Chandra then goes to a seminal essay by Borges, called “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” (1951) that Mukherjee, he maintains, had misleadingly quoted from a seminar, in which she had reiterated her convictions about how writers such as Chandra were writing “to exoticise the Indian landscape to signal their Indianness to the West, in the context of the Western market”. Looking up the Borges essay, however, Chandra concludes that “the exhaustively cosmopolitan and erudite Borges is arguing in this essay for the freedom of artists to choose their tropes from wherever they see fit. Borges wrote, “What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be answered. I believe that our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which the inhabitants of one Western nation or another may have.”

Madhusudan Datta, for whom such an insight and conviction would have been fundamental, was not, in fact, ahead of his time, but very much of it. In his life and works, he was emblematic of the career of the modern in India, which incorporated, from the very start, a mix of heterogeneous influences that was unapologetic about its graft of a variety of cultural inheritances. Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, his contemporary, and only a few years ahead of him in his own accomplishments, was similarly unapologetic about his borrowings from English conventions – it was only a little later that nationalist writers from the 1870s onward began to succumb to a cultural cringe caused by the potentially embarrassing reality of taking part in the creation of a modernity that was inalienably linked to the coloniser’s cultural practices. Locating a similar impulse persisting even in the work of recent historians, another writer, Amit Chaudhuri, has recently pointed out:

Probably one of the principal reasons that the word ‘modern’ is problematic for Indians, that modernity remains, in south Asia, an unofficial and potentially embarrassing reality in spite of being a hegemonic and foundational one, is its filial involvement with the ‘colonial’. For many South Asian historians today…the very terms, ‘early modern’ and ‘colonial modern’, are inflected with a nostalgia for what never did happen, or what might have – an indigenous, home-grown modernity, in whose narrative the problematic moment of colonialism never occurred…. The secret, utopian longing, in India, for another, ‘purer’ modernity possibly explains why we fail to engage completely with the implications and radical achievements of this one.20

This “secret utopian longing” for another “purer” modernity, “an indigenous, home-grown modernity, in whose narrative the problematic moment of colonialism never occurred” also animates Bishnu Dey’s polemic on Michael Madhusudan, with its muscular wistfulness, its aggressive longing that Bengalis should learn the lesson of Michael’s false life in order to achieve, at last, in some impossible future, finally, “our real renaissance”.21

2 The Left’s Revaluation of the Renaissance: An Empty and Bitter Space

It was in 1967 that Susobhan Sarkar published an English essay that sought to revise some of the notions in his original tract, Notes on the Bengal Renaissance, first published in 1946, a book – almost a pamphlet really – that had quickly taken on the status of a cult manifesto.22 While the formulation of an idea of an “awakening”, “rebirth” or “renaissance” in Bengal in the 19th century had been around since the late 19th and early 20th century (in the writings of Keshab Sen, Sibnath Sastri and Bipin Chandra Pal, among others), the formal academic structure was provided, indisputably, in 1946 and 1948 by Susobhan Sarkar in English and Benoy Ghose in Bengali; although invariably clubbed together in later readings of their contribution to our understanding of the Bengal Renaissance, these were Marxists who belonged to opposite ends of the social spectrum.23 The ideas of these two men, Rajarshi Dasgupta has noted, were part of a “wider Marxist engagement with culture – marked by fervent participation of communists in literature, art, theatre, music, and various scholarly activities – famously known as the ‘progressive movement’. Susobhan Sarkar and Benoy Ghose were not isolated figures.”24 The defining historiographical frame that they provided, whose listing of a canon of great men was nationalist and patriarchal in tone and tenor, then began to be dismantled from 1967 onward with the development and tragic denouement of the Naxalite struggle in the political sphere in Bengal.25

In his original 1946 manifesto, Susobhan Sarkar had located within the province of Bengal a cultural exceptionalism that made it the vanguard of the country’s development, comparable to the story of Italy in the European Renaissance. By 1961, he had revised his original idea in Bengali essays written for the Tagore centenary and the left periodical Parichay, but it was in 1967 that he first made a formal presentation of the changes in his thinking in English, using the Diamond Jubilee number of

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

Bengal Past and Present to announce that this renaissance was deeply riven through the middle by a conflict between what he termed “Westernism (modernism, liberalism) and Orientalism (traditionalism, conservativism)”; at the end, Sarkar came down on the side of the former. Refusing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, however, he warned that the historian should “steer between uncritical adulation and scornful rejection”; revealingly, the word renaissance was first put into quotation marks and d ivested of its capital R in the sentence: “The ‘renaissance’ in Bengal lacked the tremendous sweep and vital energy of … its European prototype”, which was then followed, a few lines later, by the proclamation (with capital letters back in place): “Yet the Bengal Renaissance has certainly its own specific relative value.”26 The main objections were presented succinctly in a sentence right at the start:

A historical appreciation of the ‘new life’ in Bengal is possible, even after recognising its obvious weaknesses: it did move on the axis of the upper stratum alone of society, the ‘bhadraloks’; it could not draw in the Muslim community and the backward Hindus; it failed to strike a consistent anti-imperialist note, in sharp contrast to the role of the intellectuals in the Russia of the same period.27

The elitist nature of the “great awakening” in 19th century Bengal also came in for criticism from the other great Marxist theoriser of the Bengal Renaissance, Benoy Ghose, who wrote his own original Bengali book on the phenomenon, Banglar Nabajagriti (Bengal’s Reawakening) in 1948. Subsequently, his revaluations of the “comprador” character of the Bengali bourgeoisie in 1970 and 1978 in essays appended to the original text of the book, however, reversed his own original thesis, following the ideology of the Naxalite student movement of the late 1960s in Bengal, which rejected the iconography perpetuated by the idea of the Renaissance, declaring that the Bengal Renaissance was a wishfulfilling fiction, constructed by a class that needed a basis for its hegemonic position in society. The move, which was essentially a displacement of the elite “comprador” class of reformers and leaders from history in favour of the unknown, unnamed peasant and working class hero, is beautifully illustrated in an introduction Ghose wrote to the first volume of Selections from English Periodicals of 19th Century Bengal, when he characterised the state of affairs in the 19th century in inappropriately Shakespearean language as “dramatic sound and fury… signifying what? Was it ‘Renaissance’ on the western model? That has yet to be assessed, perhaps wiping off much of the froth from the writings of our historians.”28 By the end of the short introduction, which had begun with Rammohun Roy’s taking up residence in Calcutta from 1815 (a frequent point of departure in the iconography of the Renaissance, also used by Susobhan Sarkar), the question mark had disappeared, and the focus was directed instead at the peasant rebellion of 1832-33 in Bengal. While Rammohun died in Bristol in 1833, he wrote,

…the peasant rebels of Bengal, fighting against the British soldiers from behind their improvised mud-and-bamboo ‘fort’ in a village, about thirty miles north-east of Calcutta, under the leadership of Titoo Meer, were gunned to death, and the survivors brutally tortured, burnt and hanged. The Rammohanites and the young radical Derozians of Calcutta did not even notice it in their papers. The Enquirer went into raptures over the Reform Bill which was finally

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

passed in England in 1832, and ‘Hail, freedom, hail! rang through’ its

‘impassioned sentences.’29

These lines were written in 1978, after an entire decade had passed since the first Naxal sympathisers took up guns to protest against system and state and had then been crushed by vicious police oppression; viewed against that backdrop, the description of the followers of Titu Meer being “gunned to death, and the survivors brutally tortured, burnt and hanged” takes on a differently eerie significance. (The glorification of Titu Meer, interestingly, was also the deliberate mission at this time of Mahasweta Devi’s novel on the subject, published in Bengali in the 1970s.)

Samar Sen

In 1985, a group of intellectuals in Calcutta published a volume in honour of Samar Sen, one of the leading Marxist poets of the 1940s in Bengal. Samar Sen’s radical poetry was written over a decade, from 1934 to 1944; perhaps disenchanted with its capacity to redeem society, he stopped writing verse, which he had begun doing when he was only 18, at 28, subsequently devoting a greater part of his latter life to the editorship of the Frontier. His charisma and significant appeal seemed to lie, it was apparent from the introduction to this volume, in his anti-capitalist social commitment, the integrity of his principles, and his radically contrary stance in relation to the mainstream. In these, he was representative of the central moral core of an ethic of radicalism that emerged in Bengal from the late 1930s. One of Samar Sen’s best known poems, Pancham Bahin (Fifth Column), had captured the dilemma of the Bengal Renaissance to the thinking Left as far ahead as 1942, four years before Susobhan Sarkar’s Notes on the Bengal Renaissance:

We are Bengali; we have a Mir Jafari past, we are the fruit Of Macaulay’s poison-tree. Many a day have I thought, Sometimes in the sun’s last tented evening in the open field of the sky, Sometimes when the city sleeps in silence I have thought many times; Let the seeds not be borne into the future, let this poison tree end, In the daily attack of the torturous insect Or in pain, inch by inch, Let this fruit be completely finished in our lifetime, But let tomorrow come in the homeward worker’s song In the first pain of the young girl’s sacrifice In the simple cry of the newly-born child; After a century of pain Let the new day come in civilisation’s ultimate purification of mind.30

This is the third and final section of the poem, which begins with an evocation of a pitch dark night of blackout during the second world war on the streets of Calcutta and suddenly veers into this manifesto of guilt and shame, an acknowledgement of the failure of the compromised past, and an expression of a more hopeful future, a redemptive “real renaissance”, significantly to be realised in the voices and experiences of the disempowered and disenfranchised, the subaltern worker, the girl-child, the infant. The optimism lasts only for these five lines, however, as the last part of the poem turns again towards dejection, with the realisation that the “bad blood” of Mir Jafar (the man who betrayed the last independent ruler of Bengal, Sirajuddaula,

to Robert Clive at the Battle of Palashi [Plassey] in 1757) cannot be transcended:

But winter over, the snake comes out,

Mir Jafari bad blood lies hidden again

In the common clerk’s room, in the nooks and corners of many households,

In the merchant’s mattress, in the heart of ahimsa’s den.

In our garden the shrub of the phanimansha31 grows

Secretly, preparations are made for the worship of Manasa.32

Dejected I turn, the drone of the blind house-fly in my ear.

Occasionally, in the stormy wind, I hear another song:

Nahi denge hamaara Hindustan.33

The poison-tree or bish-brikhkha, would inescapably remind readers of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s famous novel of the same name, published in 1873; the phrase was common parlance to denote a poisonous inheritance.34 In Samar Sen’s poem, the poison tree is Macaulay’s legacy, and its fruit are no doubt “the class of intermediaries” he had envisaged as English in opinion and in intellect, who would interpret India to the colonial rulers; the image of the seed recurs in the plea: “Let the seeds not be borne into the future”. Treachery, as in Mir Jafar, and false consciousness, as bequeathed by Macaulay, are what constitute the middle class Bengali for Samar Sen in 1942; it is no coincidence, then, that Bishnu Dey in 1962 follows an almost identical paradigm in his essay on Madhusudan and the false analogy of translating from British contexts into Indian ones.

The 1985 volume, in tribute to Samar Sen, contained an essay by Partha Chatterjee called “The Fruits of Macaulay’s Poison Tree”; at no place in the essay but in the title itself is Samar Sen’s poem alluded to, but this is done without any reference mark, to be recognised only by the already-informed. Coming at the end of the whole movement of the disowning of the Bengal Renaissance that had begun with the poem, it attempted to sum up the Left’s trajectory of disillusionment with the nationalist construction of the Renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries; its argument was also summarised in the fifth section of the first chapter of Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse?, which too was published in 1985. Here, in the Samar Sen festschrift, however, its very first lines are: “The time has come once again to talk about the ‘Bengal Renaissance’. And also to talk about ourselves’, which ironically, and perhaps, unintentionally, paraphrase Lewis Carroll’s ‘The time has come, the Walrus said,/To talk of many things…’”35

First setting out Susobhan Sarkar’s 1946 thesis, Chatterjee then followed the attempt by left wing historians in the 1970s to question that formulation or to invert the equation between cabbages and kings; the trajectory traced, however, concentrates entirely on English language academic publications, leaving out the hugely influential Bengali literature on the subject, without mention of which the story remains inevitably incomplete. In English language historiography, the charge against Susobhan Sarkar’s original thesis was led, in an oedipal turn, by his son, Sumit Sarkar, in the articles on the Derozians and Rammohun Roy in 1973 and 1975, respectively. The slaying of the father, however, could also be turned around and read as its opposite, as an affirmation of the later position of Susobhan Sarkar, for Sumit Sarkar seemed also to be developing upon the argument already repeatedly presented by his father, also in the articles on Rammohun Roy and Derozio and Young Bengal, showing how the “progressive” elements that had been read into these 19th century figures were “deeply contradictory”, and in many instances, flawed by an innate identification with the colonial masters and “alienation from the masses”.36 A similar argument was further developed in Asok Sen’s Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and His Elusive Milestones (1977), which carried a couple of verses from Bishnu Dey’s poem Parabasi (Migrant) as the dedication:

Where are those woods, those settlements not yet established, Only the open horizon, the lament of dry wind. …….. …….. How long shall I roam this country, carrying my tent? When will the migrant build his own home? (my translation)

This lament of dry wind in the symbolically bare landscape, and the enforced alienation of the outsider poet in his own homeland is evocative of Samar Sen’s depiction of the wasteland of Calcutta and its intellectual life in Pancham Bahini, and is captured in a language that gestures, immediately, towards Eliot. Asok Sen is no exception to the mood of despair; the “impotence and falsity” of “middle class Bengal” were juxtaposed, in his book, with the figure of Vidyasagar, always an “outsider” in Calcutta, whose creative force was nonetheless unable to transcend the “social situation arising from the whole complex of England’s work in India”.37 (Notice the echo of Bishnu Dey in the last phrase, when Dey had said that Michael’s life was “noble tragedy, another name for which is England’s work in India”.) Sen’s argument, therefore, as Chatterjee put it, was that, while the “nineteenth century intelligentsia may have genuinely welcomed the new ideas of reason and rationality, and some may even have shown considerable courage and enterprise in seeking to ‘modernise’ social customs and attitudes”, unfortunately, it was all undermined by the fact that “the fundamental forces of transformation were absent in a colonial society”.38

Poetry in a Colonial Society

The argument, strangely enough, seems to replicate the charge made by Harachandra Dutt at the Bethune Society meeting in 1852 that Bengalis could have no genuine poetry because they were a colonial society – a charge Rangalal Bandyopadhyay sought to dispute with the publication of his first book of verse. The achievements of those born before independence, presumably then, are hollow, as they could not have achieved their true shape or destiny in a colonial frame; consequently, the roll call of the greats as they are lined up in the narrative of the Bengal Renaissance, from Derozio to Michael to Rabindranath, from Rammohun to Vidyasagar to Vivekananda, are all permeated by a false consciousness in relation to the colonial economy. But independence itself, for the Left, was infamously termed a “false independence” (ye azaadi jhoota hai was B T Ranadive’s formulation in 1948), and the Naxalites in Bengal in the late 1960s and early 1970s were harking back to precisely that vision of an armed uprising ushering in the revolution that the Telangana peasant rebellion of 1946-51 represented. The iconoclasm of these Left historians’ review of the Bengal Renaissance in the 1970s was in some way fundamentally connected to, Chatterjee failed to

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

mention, the political chaos of the Naxalite movement (1967-71) in Bengal, particularly in the party youths’ rejection of colonial educational systems and the destruction of statues of nationalist leaders and 19th century social reformers – murti bhangar andolan; the statues or busts that were targeted were of Gandhi, Rammohun Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Vivekananda, among others. In an article published in 1970 in a journal called Deshabrati, the CPI(ML) theoretician Saroj Datta, who had revived the 1948 Ranadive line, wrote a vindication of these youths’ activities, “In Defence of Iconoclasm”, asserting, “This is not a negative action. They are destroying statues to build new statues. They are demolishing Gandhi’s statue to put up the statue of the Rani of Jhansi; they are destroying Gandhighat to build Mangalghat” (after the woman who fought the British army in 1857 and Mangal Pandey, the subaltern sepoy who fired the first shot in the 1857 rebellion).39 Charu Majumdar, the political leader at the eye of the storm, also championed the youths’ desecration of statues: “…without destroying this colonial education system and the statues set up by the comprador capitalists, the new revolutionary education and culture cannot be created”.40 When some criticism was made in the autumn of 1970 by a party colleague, Sushital Ray Chowdhury, to make a distinction between Gandhi on the one hand, and Rammohun, Vidyasagar or Rabindranath on the other, once again, it was Saroj Datta, whose eloquence summed up the violent mood of the radicalised youth, when he said, at a meeting of party workers in a village in Hooghly, “The masses never make mistakes… Revolution is bound to signify excess”. “Forget the past”; he said, “forget the old poets”. It is only the new poets of the revolution “who have emerged from the peasant’s struggle, who are the fighting poets”.41

The Left’s response to the Renaissance, like its response to political activity was, therefore splintered, by the 1970s, into factions, and Asok Sen and Sumit Sarkar were in fact attempting to redeem in some measure – and only in some measure – the vigorous destruction of the icons of the Renaissance that hardliners like Saroj Datta in the political sphere, and Benoy Ghose, Badruddin Umar or Benoykrishna Datta in the intellectual sphere had advocated, the last named famously categorising the Bengal Renaissance by the untranslatable term kakjyotsna, which means the illusory hour of approaching dawn when the crows are deceived into thinking it is already day. By introducing the clauses of “complexity” or “elusive[ness]” in their readings of the Renaissance icons, Sen and Sarkar were trying, in fact, to salvage a few fragments from the wreck.42 Although acknowledging that civil society had not yet emerged in the European sense in colonial Bengal, still, the achievements of Vidyasagar were atypical of his class, Asok Sen argued, concluding that “the weakness of Vidyasagar’s class situation led to his failure; but his individual struggle implied an endeavour to redeem his society from its narrowness”.43 Partha Chatterjee, meanwhile, at the end of his essay on Macaulay’s poison tree in 1985, was prescient enough to trace the end of the “renaissance” to the formation of the Left Front government in West Bengal in 1977, where, according to him, it met “its final impasse”; at the same time, many other B engali intellectuals, from Narahari Kabiraj and Dilip Biswas to Amiya Sen, Rajat Ray, and even Sumit Sarkar himself in later

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

e ssays began a reclamation of sorts of lost ground, asserting that it would not be wise to entirely negate the achievements of the phenomenon labelled the Bengal Renaissance.

3 Devaluation through Nomenclature – From Sri Madhusudan to Michael

Bishnu Dey’s essay on Michael and the Renaissance, significantly, then, was written at a time when the first revaluations of the Bengal Renaissance were already well underway in Calcutta, at least in Bengali literary writings. Already from the 1940s onward, various Left-leaning literary Bengali intellectuals had begun to question the elitist formulation of the narrative of the Renaissance in Bengali journals and magazines of the time, and Bishnu Dey, who belonged, in fact, to the group around the Leftist journal Parichay where Susobhan Sarkar’s first revaluation was published in 1961, would have been well aware of the current of this thought in 1962, when he wrote his essay on Madhusudan.

It is my contention, in this context, that at the same time that the iconography of the Bengal Renaissance had begun to be put into place in the academic formulations of Susobhan Sarkar and Benoy Ghose, in a parallel development, literary critics and poets were engaged in the dismantling of at least one of the seminal figures of that “renaissance”, Michael Madhusudan Datta. Considering that the “nineteenth-century cultural harvest” of Bengal “was mainly literary”, as Amales Tripathi conceded, it is worth pointing out, perhaps, a development in literary culture which took upon itself the mission – primarily through its own investment in the “modern” or the modernist – of destroying the halo around a seminal figure of the renaissance such as Madhusudan, at the same time that the idea of the renaissance itself, intact with its European analogy, was being disseminated among Marxists and the general populace. We have already noted Samar Sen’s denunciation of the Bengali middle class as “Mir Jafari” and as the “fruit of Macaulay’s poison tree” in Pancham Bahini in a 1942 formulation that was to resonate across the living rooms of educated Bengal, lodging in the interstitial spaces of the intellectual re-evaluations that were to follow in the 1970s. But what has escaped attention so far, especially in relation to its import upon the subsequent deconstruction of the idea of the Bengal Renaissance among Left historians, is the steady destruction of the iconic stature of Madhusudan beginning in the 1940s, of which Bishnu Dey’s 1962 essay was a culmination of sorts. My intention, in thus holding up the example of Madhusudan’s devaluation, is not to construct a teleological and simplistic narrative of how the bringing down of an icon of the renaissance in the literary sphere impacted upon the bringing down of the entire edifice of the renaissance itself, but to point towards the similarity of resonances in both cases in an attempt to understand the manner in which the literary was intermeshed with the political.

Madhusudan had, till 1940, been feted by middle class Bengalis across the spectrum as a legendary poet of great endowment and tragic ambition, his towering personality definitively constructed no less by his talented biographers, Jogindranath Basu in 1893 and Nagendranath Som in 1921, as by a dedicated army of commentators, beginning famously from his contemporary, Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay, in 1862 to a series of textual interpretations from stalwarts such as Gyanendramohan Das and Dinanath Sanyal among many others in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. From the first year of the 1940s, however, the brilliant aura around the figure of Madhusudan began to be muddied by critics whose modernist provenance was an even more powerful impulse than the Marxist. Together, the impulse to modernism and Marxism that led irrevocably, in the final instance, to the cultural politics of Naxalbari in 1967 (whose proximity to the world political student unrest of 1968 itself is something that should not go unremarked upon), saw to the eventual dethroning of the legend of Michael Madhusudan and a decline in his reputation that has been irremediable to this day.

One of the most interesting shifts that marked this decline and fall was the change in the use of the name by which Madhusudan was generally referred to; this changed, along with the change in estimation, from Madhusudan in Jogindranath Basu to the affectionate Madhu in Nagendranath Som’s title, Madhu-Smriti (which punned on the word madhu to not only mean “recollections of Madhu”, but also “sweet recollections”), to the reverential Kabi Sri Madusudan (1947) in Mohitlal Majumdar’s title, where the appellation, Sri Madhusudan had an immediate reference to the name by which the god Krishna was also known to the ordinary Bengali. Abalakanta Majumdar wrote Mahakabi Madhusudan (The Great Poet Madhusudan) in 1943, while Sasankamohan Sen and Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay used simply Madhusudan (1921) and Madhusudan Datta (1955), respectively.

Madhusudan himself had dwelt upon the double character of his names, separating the Bengali Madhu from the English Michael in a letter written just before he travelled to England in 1862, saying, “No more Modhu the kabi old fellow, but Michael M S Dutt Esquire of the Inner Temple Barrister-at-law!! Ha!! Ha!! Isn’t that grand?”44 Significantly, however, when he finally did qualify as barrister, he performed another of those turns that have, by now, become such a characteristic part of his life story, changing the spelling of his name from the colonially anglicised Dutt to Datta, which was phonetically more assimilated to the Bengali or the Sanskrit. That this was a self-consciously nationalist and sentimental move is evident from a letter he wrote to Vidyasagar from London: “I went to the court of common Bench in Westminster to put my name down in the list of English Barristers…I have changed the spelling of my name and given it the true Sanskrit form. I am ‘published’ Barrister as Michael Madhusudan Datta, Esquire. You might drop the vulgar form ‘Dutt’.”45 He signed the letter “Ever your obliged, Michael M Datta”, and retained that signature even in his last desperate letters to Vidyasagar towards the end of his life.

In the literary world of Bengali letters, however, it remains a matter of peculiar significance that, from the 1940s onward, Michael Madhusudan Datta, as he had called himself, began increasingly to be called, simply, “Michael” – a change that only one critic took the trouble to explicate.46 Writing five years later in 1946, it was Buddhadeva Bose (1908-74), a contemporary of Bishnu Dey and the leading critic and poet of his generation, who was determined to reveal the speciousness of everything Madhusudan had achieved – especially in contrast to Rabindranath – in a searing essay called, simply and startlingly, Michael.47

4 Cosmopolitanism and the Nature of the Modern Aesthetic

The generation of the 1930s to the 1960s that attempted, as I have shown, to dismantle Madhusudan’s iconic status in Bengali literary modernity was yet linked to the figure of Madhusudan in one last and all-encompassing category – that of cosmopolitanism. The intellectuals of 1930s Calcutta imbibed the most diverse of cosmopolitan influences in order to forge their own idiom in poetry; yet the most overwhelming impulse of the time was to escape the overarching influence of Rabindranath, in the flight from whom these modern poets of the 20th century perhaps failed to see the correspondences between their own world view and that of not only Rabindranath himself, which has been well-documented, but also Madhusudan. In the same breath, as he ridiculed Madhusudan’s emulation of Milton, Buddhadeva Bose, who called Madhusudan’s work Popish rather than Miltonic, found in the 19th century Baudelaire, a poet worthy of emulation. Modernists such as Eliot and Pound helped these poets speak of the city; at the same time, Jibanananda Das invoked the Surrealists in a tradition of cosmopolitanism that continued right through to the Krittibas writer Sarat Mukhopadhyay’s wonderfully named Rimbaud, Verlaine Ebong Nijaswa (Rimbaud, Verlaine and My Own) (1963). This manner of confronting the rush of history with a symbolic appropriation of the cosmopolitan, which serves as a site of attraction, is a modern response that was common to both Madhusudan and Bose, although the latter would never have recognised that commonality. Modernity’s inescapable momentum caught both men within its vortex of change, and both men enter the modern world through a cosmopolitanism that is all encompassing, despite its different locations for them individually and artistically. Cosmopolitanism, in this sense is, therefore, an attitude of survival, and always an ongoing process, politically contested and historically unfinished, a form of personal and collective self-fashioning.

Nor was the impulse to cosmopolitanism a trend among the poets alone in this period. This was a time, like Levi Strauss’ New York in the 1940s, where Surrealist art and structural anthropology were both commonly concerned with “the human spirit’s ‘deep’ shared springs of creativity”, when the social sciences and poetry in Calcutta were both still animated with a drive to describe critically “the local orders of culture and history”.48 If it was Surrealist art that informed structural anthropology in New York, in Calcutta, in the 1930s and 1940s, poetry, socialism and the social sciences came together in a fortuitous union, one unusual instance of which can be seen in the felt emotion approaching poetry in Benoy Ghosh’s preface to his book Banglar Nabajagriti, which employed, nonetheless, a rigorously sociological methodology in the main text. Writing in the revised edition published in April 1979, he said, generally failing to demarcate between poetry and politics:

Thirty years ago, when I wrote Banglar Nabajagriti, my heart and mind were constantly reverberating to the resonance of what is called thirtees leftism (sic). It was the last part of the English decade of the forties. Those years – although the Second World War was over then – seem like an amazing era. Revolution, socialism, communism, it was then

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

all in our grasp, and the hands that grasped were naturally young men’s fists. Caudwell-ism, Auden-ism, Isherwood-ism, Strachey-ism, Palme Duttaism, and all other isms led us to the wonderful variety of Marx-ism, along with Victor Gollancz, the Left Book Club etc, and their combined effect, on the mind of youths like us in far off Bangladesh’s Calcutta city, was like that of a rainbow-coloured dream that sounds like a fairy tale today. Only thirty years have passed, but what should have been the difference of one generation seems, in 1978-79, like the difference of many generations. That is why, within the passing of a single generation, Banglar Nabajagriti, which had once seemed to be the historical truth, seems today to be merely ‘a myth’ [ekti atikatha] (see appendix).

This specific path through modernity is one among many others, a result of similar historical visions, and of responses to a truly global space of cultural connections and dissolutions that had only recently become available for Bengalis from the 19th century onward.

A modern approach to literature in Bengal can be traced, conventionally, from Rammohun Roy, continuing right through the 19th century with every practitioner making sometimes a significant and sometimes an infinitesimal change to the traditional received notions of literary endeavour and publication. These changes can be traced in the new attitudes towards print and publication, between text and reader, and between author and text. But for the point to be estimated more completely, it needs to be traced most convincingly also in the literary domain, by looking at the shifting aesthetic and artistic parameters of literary practice itself. Commas, prepositions, blank spaces, paragraph breaks – the punctuation and syntax of every line, it must be recognised, are symptomatic of Madhusudan’s struggle to express himself. This method of “close reading”, is not, however, to be understood as a return to the uncontaminated sphere of the 1960s; rather, it might be useful to look at the manner in which the insights of postmodernism and the cultural readings of capitalism in a critic such as Jameson have made room for an analysis that takes the sentence as “the de facto unit of analysis” in the recent The Modernist Papers (2008), which itself can be read as an extension of A Singular Modernity, published five years ago in 2003. In the context of reading Mallarme, Jameson explains, “so strong is the power of the sentence that we fail to notice the heterogeneity of its contents or the arbitrariness with which they are placed in relationship”. This materialist approach helps him to pay attention to textual detail without losing track of the effect of capitalism on literary form, which is his own unique project; how this might help us in reading Madhusudan, however, will depend on our ability to expose the “power” that language and syntax have to construct social experience.

Division between Literary Critics and Social Scientists

In studies of Bengali modernity, there is a self division between the works of literary critics and that of social scientists – the p arameters of “art” and “science” do not intermesh in any significant way. However, the insights of social scientists on text, society, and the changing aspects of literary production need to be complemented with literary critical readings that deal with the internal matters of line breaks, of punctuation, of Bankim’s “variety of pause”. Once that is done, and in a manner far more exhaustive and detailed than has been possible here, it will, perhaps, be possible to see the correspondences that link many modern writers to Madhusudan in a variety of ways. Then it might still be possible to contradict

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

Buddhadeva Bose’s view that Madhusudan’s works were repositories of a “sterile treasure” (nirbeej aisharya) that did not herald the future of literary endeavour in Bengal, that he may have charmed everybody in his time, from princes to shoemakers, but still could not save the day.49 While dismissing him as an “apprentice poet” still searching for his true voice, Buddhadeva conceded that perhaps some of the things Rabindranath had achieved could also have been done by the elder poet, pointing us towards a verse from the Brajangana, where he quotes the lines ending Aar ki jatane kusum ratane brajer bala? commending them for their metre, blind to the glaring resonance between the phrase Michael uses and Rabindranath’s famous song Tomay shajabo jatane kusum ratane.50 Perhaps, the denial of Madhusudan, which preceded the denial of the Bengal renaissance, should be read instead as a denial of the inescapable father, made obvious in strange turns and a puzzling blindness; thus Bishnu Dey felt compelled to name his collection of essays Michael Rabindranath O Anyanya in 1967 (a title that seems to echo Sarat Mukhopadhyay’s Rimbaud Verlaine Ebong Nijaswa of 1963) although, searching through it for further essays on Michael, I found only one essay on Madhusudan in the entire collection and it is the same as the one previously discussed on the failure of both the man and the movement. Perhaps, then in the end, it might be possible to say instead, in the words of a contemporary poet, Alokeranjan Dasgupta, “By now, the definition of modernity has changed so many times, but Madhusudan still remains. For us, who live in today’s world, he is indispensable.” Explaining further, he adds, “Modernity’s first and last refuge is the individual, or the freedom of the individual. Before Madhusudan, perhaps there was a hint of that in Gyandas, and a partial glimmer of it in Bharatchandra-Ramprasad or Ramnidhi Gupta, but it was in Madhusudan that it found a complete enjoyment.”51 Dwelling in detail on particular lines and stanzas, Alokeranjan is stunned by how Madhusudan had achieved a particular “interiorised” rhyme long before Rabindranath, concluding, “Brajangana is talkative, Chaturdashpadi reticent. Brajangana is the overwhelmingly egotistical speaker of the unique first moments of modernity in Bengali poetry, Chaturdashpadi is that modernity’s first certain, self-aware writer.”52

In this essay, I have tried to recontextualise strategies of reading and representation, which change historically in response to evolving and shifting cultural paradigms, showing how readings of a particular writer or a period are orchestrated through a multiplicity of exchanges in politically charged situations. All authoritative readings, whether made in the name of literature or the social sciences, are historically contingent and need to be submitted to periodical reorganisation. This is one such attempt, and like all others, must necessarily remain incomplete, as it is an exploration rather than a seamless idea in the service of a unified vision of history. I am not attempting to redeem Madhusudan, nor am I interested in resurrecting the idea of the Bengal Renaissance; the effort, rather, is to bring out the local, political contingencies of the readings in the past, and to propose thereby that any reading is subject to a temporal vision which decides, only temporarily, on the dynamism or the tragedy of historical agents or moments whose meaning we must each learn to decipher according to our diverse conjunctures and specific occasions of interpretation.


Notes 24 Rajarshi Dasgupta, “Inventing Modernity in the subject to the limitations of the class character of

1 Jogindranath Basu, p 116. 2 Ibid, p 118. 3 Dipesh Chakravarty, Provincializing Europe: Post

colonial Thought and Colonial Difference (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2001, pp 34-35. 4 J Basu, p 133. 5 Letters (49), nd, p 541.

6 My translation, Michael Madhusudan Datta, “Bangabhasha” in Kshetra Gupat (ed.), Madhusudan Rachanabali (Calcutta: Sahitya Sansad), 1993, p 159. All subsequent translations from the Bengali are my own unless otherwise indicated.

7 Bishnu Dey, “Michael O Amader Renaissance” in Birendra Chattopadhyay (ed.), Madhusudan O Uttarkal (Calcutta: Indiana), 1962, pp 9-10.

8 Ibid, p 10. 9 Pramathanath criticised Jogindranath Basu for not being able to forget Michael’s “original sin” of converting to Christianity in Michael Madhusudan Jiban-Bhasya (Calcutta: Ranjan Publishing House), 1941, p i. Ghulam Murshid, Aashar Chhalane Bhuli: Michael Jibani (Calcutta: Ananda Publishers), 1995. English translation by Gopa Majumdar:

Lured By Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Datta (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2003, pp 41-55.

10 Italicised phrase is originally in English, ibid, p 12. 11 Dey, ibid, p 26. 12 Nabin Chandra Sen, Amaar Jiban, Nabin Chandra

Rachanabali, Vol 3 (Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, BE 1366), p 68. 13 Ranjarain Basu, Bangala Bhasha O Sahitya Bishayak Kabita.

14 Quoted in Buddhadeva Bose, “Michael” in Sahityacharcha (Literary Practice) (Calcutta: Signet Press), 1954, p 35.

15 Cited in Dipesh Chakravarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2001, p 158.

16 Ibid. 17 Cited in Clinton Seely, “The Raja’s New Clothes: Redressing Rāvana in Meghnādavadha Kāvya” in Ujjalkumar Majumdar (ed.), Meghnadbadh Kavya Charcha (Meghnadbadh: Poetry and Practice) (Calcutta: Sonar Tori), 2004, p 539.

18 Seely, ibid.

19 Vikram Chandra, “The Cult of Authenticity”, The Boston Review, February/March 2000. 20 Amit Chaudhuri, Review of The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, in The Times Literary Supplement, 2005. 21 Amit Chaudhuri, Review of The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, in The Times Literary Supplement, 2005. 22 Susobhan Sarkar, “The Conflict within the Bengal Renaissance” in Bengal Past and Present, Diamond Jubilee number, 1967, pp 106-11. Notes on the Bengal Renaissance, originally published in 1946 by the People’s Publishing House, Bombay; second edition published in 1957 by the National Book Agency, Calcutta; reprinted by Papyrus, Calcutta, 1979. 23 Ghose himself commented on Sarkar’s elitist background in his appendix, saying, “It should be mentioned that those who took the model of the European renaissance from English historians and applied it indiscriminately to our country with great enthusiasm had perhaps been educated in upper class colleges (such as the Presidency College), trampling over all the others to obtain the highest position in the competitive examinations, as a result of which ‘history’ was equated with ‘him’ and ‘he’ and ‘history’ became one, and its Marxist interpretation too was infallible. This is the confusing tragedy. That is, that this Marxist historical explanation itself should be the reason for the belief in the renaissance” (p 163).

Colony: The Marxist Discourse on the Bengal Renaissance”, Contemporary India, Vol 3, No 1 (January-March 2004), p 25.

25 For an excellent summation of the journey of the idea of the renaissance in the literature of Bengal till 1967, see the first footnote to Amales Tripathi, “Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century” in N K Sinha (ed.), The History of Bengal (Calcutta: Calcutta University Press), 1967, pp 510-11. I am indebted to Gautam Bhadra for leading me to this reference.

26 Susobhan Chandra Sarkar, “The Conflict within the Bengal Renaissance”, Bengal Past and Present, Diamond Jubilee number 1967, pp 106-11.

27 Susobhan Sarkar, ibid, p 106. 28 Benoy Ghose, Selections from English Periodicals of 19th Century Bengal, Vol 1, 1815-33 (Calcutta:

Papyrus), 1978, xv.

29 Benoy Ghose, ibid.

30 My translation, Samar Sen, “Pancham Bahini”

(‘Fifth Column’) in Samar Sener Kabita (Samar Sen’s Poems) (Calcutta: Signet Press), 2001, 95. 31 Phanimansha: prickly pear, a small wild herb akin to cactus. 32 Manasa: Hindu snake-goddess. 33 “I will not give up my Hindustan”: lines spoken previously in the poem by Muslim labourers.

34 For instance, the same phrase can be seen in the text of the 16th-century Bengali woman poet Molla’s version of the Ramayana, where, in the third book, referring to Rama’s insane jealousy of Ravana and suspicion about his innocent wife, she wrote: “Poison-fruit of the poison creeper, seeds of the poison tree” [Bish-latar bish-phal go, bishbrikhkher beej]. See Nabanita Dev Sen “Flowering of the Poison Tree” in Chinmoy Guha (ed.), Time, Space, Text: Mapping Cultural Paradigms (Calcutta: Academic Staff College and Department of English, University of Calcutta) 2008, p 131.

35 Partha Chatterjee, “The Fruits of Macaulay’s Poison Tree” in Ashok Mitra (ed.), The Truth Unites: Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen (Calcutta: Subarnarekha), 1985, 70.

36 Sushobhan Sarkar, “Economic Thought of Rammohun Roy” (1965), “Religious Thought of Rammohun Roy” (1967), “Derozio and Young Bengal” (1958) (in On The Bengal Renaissance (Calcutta: Papyrus), 2002; Sumit Sarkar, “Rammohun Roy and the Break with the Past” in V C Joshi (ed.), Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India (Delhi) 1975) and “The Complexities of Young Bengal” in Nineteenth-Century Studies (October 1973). The parallel drawn with Russian intellectuals, and the perception that our intelligentsia failed to make the great leap made by the Russians occurs in both father and son.

37 Asok Sen, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and His Elusive Milestones (Calcutta: Riddi-India), 1977, p 4.

38 Another critique of the 19th century “renaissance” that revaluated a literary work held to be a champion of peasant rights was, Chatterjee pointed out, Ranajit Guha’s analysis of Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nildarpan (1974), where Guha showed that Dinabandhu’s critique of the planters was based on liberal-humanist assumptions that were based on “an abiding faith…in English law and in the good intentions of the colonial administration taken as a whole.” Chatterjee, ibid, p 75.

39 Saroj Datta, “In Defence of Iconoclasm” in Deshabrati, 1970.

40 Charu Majumdar, cited in Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in Inda (Calcutta: Subarnarekha), 1980, p 238.

41 Saroj Datta, from a version of the speech carried in Poob Akash Lal [The Eastern Sky is Red], a CPI(ML) publication.

42 Benoykrishna Datta, Unabingsha Satabdir Swarup (Calcutta: Saraswat Library, nd), 36. Badruddin Umar had denounced Vidyasagar as entirely the Bengali middle class in Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar O Unish Shataker Bangali Samaj (Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nineteenth Century Bengali Society) in 1974. Pradyumna Bhattacharya had defended Vidyasagar in a review of Umar’s book in the journal Parichay. I am grateful to Anjan Ghosh for pointing this out to me.

43 Asok Sen, ibid, p 149.

44 Kshetra Gupta, (ed.) Madhusudan Rachanabali (Calcutta: Sahitya Sansad), 1993, p 566. 45 Ibid, p 699. 46 In 1941, Pramathanath Bisi launched an attempt

at the demystification of the legend of Madhusudan in a biography called Michael Madhusudan Jiban-Bhasya (A Commentary on Michael Madhusudan’s Life). In its introduction, in a meditation on his own impulses in writing the biography, he declared:

All of them (Madhusudan’s biographers), from Bankimchandra to the respected Mohit-babu (Mohitlal Majumdar) and my friend Banaphool, have written Sri Madhusudan; in these circumstances, I have written Michael Madhusudan – some may consider this a barbarism. But they have written of the poetic existence of Madhusudan, that is why they can write Sri Madhusudan. I sat down to give an idea of Madhusudan’s complete existence – and this completeness incorporates both good and bad, big and small, all mixed up – in the midst of which the word Michael is also one element. I have not turned Michael into a god; I have shown his faults and failings, in fact, I have even laughed and made fun of him; I don’t think this means I have belittled him – instead, I think this has allowed me to think of him as a man and respect him for it; one can laugh at a man, and love him; gods cannot be laughed at, and therefore cannot be loved in the same way.

The use of “Michael” here, then, is strategic, and meant to bring down the subject from its pedestal; the intent is both humanist and modern, but not iconoclastic, for there is no attempt to question the legacy of the poet or the poetry itself; in fact, the biographer is struggling to dislodge the giant shadow thrown by the reputation of the poet to be able to approach, through intimacy and satire, the living pulse of the man.

47 Buddhadeva Bose, “Michael” in Sahityacharcha (Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing), 2007, 23. First ed. April 1954.

48 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), p 243.

49 Buddhadeva Bose, “Michael”, Sahitya Charcha, p 34.

50 Ibid, p 35. 51 Alokeranjan Dasgupta, “Madhusudan and the Modern Mind” in Birendra Chattoadhyay (ed.), Madhusudan O Uttarkal (Calcutta: Indiana), 1962, pp 78, 81.

52 Ibid, p 85.

Permission for Reproduction of Articles Published in EPW No article published in EPW or part thereof should be reproduced in any form without prior permission of the author(s). A soft/hard copy of the author(s)’s approval should be sent to EPW. In cases where the email address of the author has not been published along with the articles, EPW can be contacted for help.

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top