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

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Retelling an Epic through a Modern Ballad

Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s Meghnadbadh Kavya

The paper seeks to examine the circumstances under which Michael Madhusudan Dutta, the 19th-century Renaissance poet of Bengal chose the slaying of Ravana’s son, Meghnad, as the subject for his magnum opus, with many of its facets being etched indelibly on the Bengali psyche in supersession of other prominent Ramayans. Was Michael trying to show the parallels between the Indian and European mythologies? Was it because of nationalistic fervour that Michael sought to show the Rakshas as defending their nation against invaders? Was he influenced by the glamourised Ravana and Lanka of the Tamil or the Telugu Ramayans?

Four years after his return to Calcutta in 1857 from a self-imposed exile in Madras, Michael Madhusudan Dutta burst on to the sky of Bengali literature with one of its best-known stars, the nine-canto Meghnādbadh Kāvya (Ballad of the Slaying of Meghnād). Composed in blank verse and 14-character amitrakshar (non-rhyming) lines of the payar ­cadence of Krittivās Ojha’s medieval Srirām Pānchāli, Datta celebrated, à la John Milton’s Lucifer, two other all-conquering usurpers of the heavens, Meghnād (the cloud thunderer) and his father Rāvan, the demon sovereign of divine pedigree. Though following the broad storyline of the Rāmāyan, with every twist and turn of the 6,087-line epic, he invented and innovated, drawing all the while from the various versions of the Indian Rāmāyans.

The crown prince and icon of the mighty Rākshas clan of Lankā, and the doting husband of the sensational Daityā (Titan) warrior-princess, Pramilā, the indomitable Meghnād was slain with divine enchantment and that too, when vulnerable. Quite like the invincible Greek warrior, lover and demigod Achilles. Michael’s retelling of the epic, especially of the “murder” of a defenceless Meghnād, otherwise indefeasible, departed radically from the full-blown battle in the conventional texts of Rāmāyan by Vālmiki, Krittivās or others. There were other
inventions too. His Aeneas-like Rām negotiated the nether-world with goddess Mahamāyā to get clues from the spirit of the deceased Dasarath for resuscitating a wounded Lakshman. He invented Princess Pramilā as the idol of Lankā’s women and as an Amazon-like cavalry chief in line with his penchant for strong female characters, sensitively describing her conjugal romance and her immolation on Meghnād’s pyre. And all through, his diabolical gods plotted against the Rākshas whom they feared to fight face-to-face. That was Michael Madhusudan Dutta, a genius who rose “like a tremendous comet” (Murshid 2004: 168) only to burn out like a shooting star.

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Updated On : 18th Jun, 2022
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