Inaugurating a nation

Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt.  

THIS elegantly produced book — smooth to the touch, pleasing to the eye and gently stimulating to the mind — focuses on a group of Calcutta-based English poets of the 19th Century, more heard of than read, whose place in any history of Indian literature has at best been precarious. Rosinka Chaudhuri — unlike most writers of Ph. D. theses who tend to get carried away by the enthusiasm for their subject — does not claim great literary value for this minor body of writing, but insists that these gentlemen poets of Bengal should be seen as "a small but important part" of a complex cultural exchange in colonial history. She argues that poets like Henry Derozio, Kashiprasad Ghose and the various literary aspirants from the celebrated Dutt family of Rambagan, who were on the one hand heavily influenced by the textual world of British Romantic poetry and on the other by Orientalist knowledge about India generated by scholars like William Jones and Henry Colebrooke, heralded in their work an incipient pan-Indian nationalism. They also represented the educated middle class Indian voice, generally ignored by the postcolonial critics who tend to project the colonial subject as subaltern and silent.

The nuanced argument is systematically developed and supported by textual evidence. Chaudhuri claims neither great originality nor anti-colonial resistance for these poets but patiently traces the different strands that make up this body of writing, derived from sources as diverse as Walter Scott and Colonel James Tod. The book is strewn with interesting nuggets of information not widely known. For example, while Edmund Gosse's exhortation to Sarojini Naidu about making her poetry more "native" and Naidu's abject submission to his demand is part of the familiar lore about Indian poetry in English, very few would have known that Henry Meredith Parker, a poet based in Calcutta, had much earlier made fun of a British reviewer's similar demand "...that we compose in bowers of gul growing green and thick under the tamarind and pepul; that we abstain from all food but kubaubs and pillaus ... while we tinge the web of our story with all the hennah and soorma of the East." Another example is her resurrection of Kashiprasad Ghose's little-known essay criticising James Mill's History Of British India (1817), which might well have been the first Indian response to this infamous book. Elsewhere we learn that Shoshee Chunder Dutt published some of his work under the pseudonym J.A.G. Barton.

Rosinka Chaudhuri regrets that the contribution these English poets made towards the formation of a national identity has been ignored by critics. The question she does not address is that of readership. These poets' insistence on annotations "for the information of the European reader" or the comparisons of Indian gods with Greek divinities ( Indra as the Indian Jupiter, Vayu as Aeolus ) only point to an imagined audience of foreigners. If these poets neither desired nor acquired a sizeable Indian readership, on whom would their "emergent nationalism" have an impact? In the absence of any evidence that these poets were actually read, discussed or emulated by other Indians, their "contribution ... to the formation of a national identity" is bound to remain doubtful.

The point Chaudhuri makes about the contribution of the Asiatick Researches in constructing the bhadralok's pride in the Indian past is on the whole valid, but when she stretches it to detect Orientalist influences in Tagore's poem "Urvashi" or in his references to "Meghdoot" and "Kumarsambhava", this reader begins to get a bit wary. Rabindranath did not have to depend on Wilson or Jones for his acquaintance with Sanskrit kavya. The unbroken and indigenous tradition of Sanskrit studies among educated Indians — independent of British intervention — need not be discounted completely.

Rosinka Chaudhuri uses the word "Orientalist" in the pre-Saidian sense and is generally critical of the refusal of people like Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and Gauri Viswanathan to take into account the responses of the articulate indigenous people to the experience of colonialism. She agrees with Aijaz Ahmad 's criticism that Said does not consider how the western textualities "might have been received accepted, modified, challenged, overthrown..." by the colonised intelligentsia. Much of these responses and resistances in India happened in languages other than English.

It is therefore surprising that Rosinka Chaudhuri herself should make so little use of Bangla archives in her work, specially because in the literary discourse of 19th-century Calcutta, English and Bangla were tangled inextricably. There is only one quotation in the entire book which is translated directly from Bangla (p.63) — all others are recycled from existing English books on Bangla literature. In her vast and otherwise impressive bibliography not a single Bangla periodical is listed — thus ruling out the possibility of accessing a great deal of 19th Century debates on the topics she covers in this study.

Michael Madhusudan and Romeshchandra Dutt were major writers in Bangla, apart from being minor poets in English. Focussing on their English works in isolation might have been adequate for a doctoral dissertation, but in the book some observations on the differences between their English apprenticeship and later work in Bangla would have provided new insights into the complex process of cultural negotiation. Madhusudan's Rachanabali in Bangla is at least cited in the bibliography, but Romeshchandra's novels in Bangla find no mention except in a footnote (p.192) which unfortunately contains the only bibliographical gaffe in this otherwise meticulously documented book.

I point this out not in the spirit of faultfinding, but in sadness, because it seems like an opportunity lost. The full deployment of the author's bilingual resources (I presume she knows both languages at scholarly level) could have added further richness and depth to this substantial piece of research.

Gentlemen Poets in Colonial Bengal: Emergent Nationalism and the Orientalist Project, Rosinka Chaudhuri, Seagull, 2002, p.201, Rs. 550.

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