The Long Nineteenth Century

The invention of poetry in this tradition preceded that of the short story (1835), the play (1848-9) and the novel (1864), and poetry became the paradigmatic genre and testing-ground for indigenous creativity in English for several decades. The ascendancy of poetry and imaginative writing was the result of one altered circumstance: whereas the first prose writers had learnt English informally, most of the poets received a formal education in the language, which became available to Indians widely after the Charter Act of 1813 and familiarized them with the English and European classics as well as contemporary belles lettres in England. Under this stimulus, in the course of the long literary nineteenth century on the subcontinent - which lasted until about 1925 - indigenous poetry in English passed through several critical and aesthetic variations on the positions developed by the first poets.

The first variation surfaced in the two generations after Derozio, in the form of a gradual shift from racial hybridization to the kind of cultural hybridization involved in religious conversion. The most famous instance of his time was Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a student of Derozio's, who converted to the Church of England at age nineteen, broke off from his devastated Hindu family, and married twice across racial lines: his first wife was an English girl who had grown up in the Anglican orphanage in Madras, whereas his second wife was a middle-class French woman who had migrated to Calcutta in the 1850s. Madhusudan's The Captive Ladie (1849) and uncollected poems in English were technically more varied and inventive than Derozio's, and he also became the first Indian dramatist in English, when he published Rizia, Empress of Ind (1848—9), a full-length play in verse. Where Derozio echoed Shelley and Keats, and Ramaswami and Kashi Prosad Ghose imitated Samuel Johnson and minor Elizabethan poets, respectively, Madhusudan alluded more ambitiously to Homer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Byron and Wordsworth, and audaciously dedicated individual poems to his living contemporaries, Wordsworth and Hugo.

Madhusudan remains central to nineteenth-century subcontinental poetry for at least two aesthetic and critical innovations. On the one hand, he was the first to go beyond a mere fusion of English prosody and Indian content, attempting to bend the language itself so that it could convey the verbal and syntactic 'flavour' of Sanskrit, Persian and Bengali poetic sensibilities as precisely as possible. In this, he was the direct precursor of the twentieth-century Indian—English novelists, from Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan and G. V. Desani to Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie and 'the children of Midnight's Children , who have modulated standard English to capture Indian cadences, verbal habits, feelings and thought-patterns. On the other hand, Madhusudan remains the paradigm of the colonial subject riven by linguistic and cultural schizophrenia. After his early success in English, he switched abruptly at age thirty-four to writing literary works exclusively in Bengali, becoming the first great modern playwright and poet — and an immediate precursor of Rabindranath Tagore — in that language. As a young poet recently converted to Christianity, Madhusudan Indianized English verse; in middle age, as a lapsed Christian married to a Bengali-speaking Frenchwoman, he simultaneously Europeanized Bengali prosody, poetics, lyric, and drama and Indianized Europe by absorbing it into Bengali literature.

In its time, the second major example of the transformative connection between conversion to Christianity and poetry in English was the extended family of Govin Chunder Dutt, which included his brothers Hur and Giris and his cousins Oomesh, Ishan and Soshee, as well as his daughters Aru and Toru and Ishan's son Romesh. Unrelated to Madhusudan but sharing the same famous Bengali caste-name, several members of this Dutt family converted to Christianity in 1862, and collectively produced a large body of English poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century, from Soshee Chunder Dutt's Miscellaneous Verses (1848) to Romesh Chunder Dutt's condensed retellings in verse of the Mahabharata (1898) and the Ramayana (1899). One remarkable text by the clan was The Dutt Family Album (1870), printed for private circulation during an extended family visit to England, France and Italy, which contained 198 poems by Oomesh (73), Govin (67), Giris (47), and Hur (11). The most notable individual books were Toru Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1875, 1878) and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (posthumous, 1882). The former contained her metrical English translations of nearly 200 classic French poems, whereas the latter (assembled by Govin after Toru's death at age twenty-one) brought together her versions in the ballad form of myths and legends from Sanskrit sources, as well as her own poems in English. Edmund Gosse, an influential literary figure in Victorian and Edwardian England, read Toru's Sheaf with 'surprise and almost rapture', finding it 'a wonderful mixture ... of genius overriding great obstacles and of talent succumbing to ignorance and inexperience. That it should have been performed at all is so extra-ordinary that we forget to be surprised by its inequality' (cited in Alphonso-Karkala, 1970, pp. 113, 114). In the posthumous Ancient Ballads Toru succeeded better than either Derozio or Madhusudan in combining prosodic mastery and English mellifluousness with Indian subject matter and an Indian sensibility, Indianizing European form and Europeanizing Indian voice in equal measure — an accomplishment she replicated in prose in her unfinished English novel Bianca (1879), as well as her original novel in French, LeJournal de Madmoiselle d'Arvers (1879).

Michael Madhusudan Dutt and the other Dutt clan enacted a far-reaching cultural hybridization of India and Europe, of Hinduism and Christianity, without themselves being racial hybrids. The next two generations of indigenous poets in English — in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in the first quarter of the twentieth — then developed some of the varieties of Anglicization and nationalism first imagined by Ramaswami, Derozio and Kashi Prosad Ghose. Two brothers, Manmohan and Aurobindo Ghose (unrelated to Kashi Prosad), played complementary and contradictory roles as they moved in diametrically opposite directions. Manmohan, educated in England at Manchester Grammar School and St Paul's School, London, won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, where his companions included the poet Lionel Johnson, writer and actor Stephen Phillips, and poet, translator and art critic Laurence Binyon. When Manmohan returned to Calcutta after eighteen years in 1892, to begin teaching English literature at Presidency College (formerly Hindu College), he found that he had become a stranger in his homeland and among fellow Bengalis, 'denationalized' by his love of England and European (especially Greek) literature and art. His suffering was exacerbated by his wife's long paralysis and painful death, by the harsh treatment he received from the British colonial government because of his brother's political activities, by the hostility of his nationalistic colleagues at the college, and by poor health and increasing blindness in his final years. Under these circumstances, in works such as 'Perseus — The Gorgon Slayer' (written 1898—1916), 'Nollo and Damayanti', (a mystery play in verse, 1916—18), 'Orphic Mysteries' (1918—23) and 'Adam Alarmed in Paradise' (1918—23) — in the last of which Adam appeared as a patriotic early twentieth-century Englishman — he produced a deeply Anglicized and Hellenized poetry that disconnected him emotionally, intellectually and politically from the actual India around him. As the philosopher George Santayana noted of Manmohan's poems, an Anglo-American reader 'would readily take them as the work of an English poet trained in the classical tradition' (cited in Srinivasa Iyengar, 1973, p. 89).

Aurobindo, the younger brother, was also schooled in Manchester and London but went up to King's College, Cambridge. On his return to India he worked in the progressive native state of Baroda for thirteen years, before plunging into radical nationalist politics in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1907 and 1908 he was arrested and prosecuted for anti-British activities, first for seditious journalism and then for conspiring in an insurrectionary bombing in Muzaffarpur, in the Bengal Presidency. In 1910 he migrated permanently to Pondicherry, a French protectorate south of Madras, where over the next four decades he became a spiritual practitioner, mystic and guru known honorifically as Sri Aurobindo. Between 1895 and 1950, the year of his death, he produced a massive body of prose and verse in English which now fills thirty large volumes in the standard edition. His poetry was philosophical, theological, mythological and epic, drawing on an eclectic mix of ancient Hindu tradition, modern European universalism, several varieties of mysticism, and even contemporary science. Intended to 'divinise humanity', it remains controversial: his spiritual followers admire and defend it strenuously, whereas his critics find it vapid and unreadable. Despite its failure as an aesthetic-imaginative artefact, however, it seeks to capture the essence of India on a scale that no other indigenous poet in English has attempted so far. If Manmohan died a broken man in British India mourning his loss of the 'sweet' England of his idealistic youth, then Aurobindo lived long on French-Indian soil constructing a timeless and transcendent version of the India from which he had been banished for life for the violent idealism of his early adulthood. In effect, the older brother aestheticized modern England and Anglicized ancient India (in a style that was already latent in Derozio), while the younger one absorbed the aesthetic into the moral and the mystical, spiritualizing both Europe and the East.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, a weaker variation on these positions appeared in the poetic oeuvre of Sarojini Naidu. Raised in a Bengali family of cosmopolitan professionals living in the native state of Hyderabad, Naidu had a precocious gift for lyrical expression in English that resembled Toru Dutt's. Between 1896 and 1898, supported by a scholarship from the Nizam of Hyderabad, she studied at King's College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge, and established literary connections with Arthur Symons, Edmund Gosse and the Rhymers' Club (which led Jack B. Yeats to paint a famous portrait of her). In the 1910s she travelled to England again, socialized with the Bloomsbury group, and was noticed for a while by the modernists: it was at Naidu's London residence that Ezra Pound first met the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, and learnt of the existence of the notebooks that were to draw him into the intricacies of Chinese poetry for the next several decades. Naidu published four volumes of poetry between 1905 and 1917, but recognized the limitations of her talent and devoted her later years to nationalist politics. However, she could not escape her early fame: promoted by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the Indian National Congress (of which she served as the party president), she became the unofficial poet laureate of the freedom movement, prized for her lyrical evocations of a picturesque, orientalized India.

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