Meghnadbadh Kabya (Slaying of Meghnad) was the most significant literary work by the greatest flawed genius of Bangla literature, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824–1873). It was published in 1861, the year Rabindranath Tagore was born.
To briefly explain the qualifier “flawed genius”, right since his days in Hindu College (Presidency College later), there was plenty of evidence of Madhusudan’s literary talent. But he was also snooty, quite shamelessly opportunistic (he converted to Christianity not out of faith, but to cadge a ticket to England from the colonial masters), and famously undisciplined. Thanks to his luxurious lifestyle and lack of self-restraint, Madhusudan went through long spells of penury and ultimately, drank himself to death. Had it not been for the consistent financial and moral support from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – who I believe was among the three greatest Bengalis in modern history – Michael possibly would have died much earlier, and Bangla literature would have been poorer.
Meghnadbadh Kabya, a tragic long verse in nine cantos, is exceptionally brilliant both in terms of its content and literary style.
In this poem, Michael looks at an episode from the Ramayana from a contrarian perspective. Indrajit, also known as Meghnad, was Ravana’s son and a great warrior. He had almost killed Rama and Lakshmana twice.
But in the morning just before he was to join the battle, while he was worshiping Shiva in the royal temple of Lanka, Laxman entered the palace “like a thief” with the help Bivisana, one of Ravana’s brothers. Meghnad welcomed Laxman as a guest, but rebuked him for being such a coward and asked him not to fight an unarmed man. But Lakshman killed his defenceless enemy anyway, making a mockery of the so-called “kshatriya dharma”.
A proof of literary genius is that catch phrases used by great writers become idioms in their language. Meghnadbadh Kabya in particular and Madhusudan’s poetry in general abounds with such gems. Here’s one that my mother often quoted when she had to refer to a troublesome adversary:
Raban swoshur momo, Meghnad swami, amiki dorai sakhi bhikari Raghabe?
Ravana is my father-in-law, Meghnad my husband, could I be scared of that beggar Raghava?
Michael once wrote:
Kato je aishwarya tabo e bhabo mandole
Sei jane, banee pado dhare je mastake
What treasures abound
In your boundless universe,
Know only those,
Who’ve embraced the feet
Of the Goddess of Letters.
Watching fine plays (and films) too is embracing the feet of the Goddess of Learning. And last night, I discovered a new treasure trove: The theatre group Naye Natua and Gautam Halder’s rendition of Madhusudan’s epic verse at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.
It was two hours and twenty minutes of solo-acting by Gautam, supported by two drummers and four other musicians, every one of them joining in chorus too. Gautam recited and sang, acted and danced while effortlessly transiting from one character to another, playing every character of the story including both the combatants Meghnad and Laxman, with effortless ease but with tremendous passion and physical exertion.
If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have known that such performance was humanly possible on stage. And the beauty of the performance was that he hadn’t left out even one word of the original. Michael Madhusudan’s language contains lots of Sanskrit words and even educated Bengalis may not follow it entirely. But despite that, Gautam and his team kept the audience spell-bound, no one – well almost no one – moved or checked their stupid cell phones during the performance.
It was a captivating show, and almost flawless. After many years I was watching a play at the Academy of Fine Arts with every seat occupied. For average performances, there are 20 to 200 viewers and it was indeed heart-warming to notice that fine performance is still appreciated in a city where ignorance is bliss officially, filthy language is heard everywhere, and uncouth behaviour is considered normal.
I’ve been watching plays since when titans like Sambhu Mitra, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyaya, and Utpal Dutta straddled the theatre stages in Bengal. After their departure, there was an inevitable period of lull, and personally, I lost touch with the Bangla theatre as I moved away.
Yesterday, I realised that the tradition of Bangla theatre is very much alive. The flame burns with equal brightness and the pursuit of the pinnacle of excellence continues unabated.
19 November 2017
Photo of Michael Madhusudan Dutta courtesy: Wikipedia: By Unknown - Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51736483
Picture of the stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBWXwJgUns