The unpublished manuscript of an English drama written by Bengali poet-dramatist Michael Madhusudan Dutt has finally been printed after professor Ananda Lal chanced upon it a few years ago. The timing of the publication is significant because the reason why it was never staged is as relevant now as it was 150 years ago. Dutt’s attempts to stage it in Bengali were foiled by his patrons’ opinion that Muslim names would not suit a Bengali drama.
The play, titled ‘Rizia, Empress of Inde’, is a fictional account of Razia Sultana, the only woman ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Lal told TOI, “Rizia personifies a quadruply marginalized tragic heroine from a minority community — the nobles opposed her for reigning and for daring to love her Abyssinian Siddi slave. Dutt made her a four-fold ‘captive ladie’: as a woman, a Muslim for 19th-century Indian audiences, one who assumed power above her gender role and loved below her socio-racial station.”
Lal feels Rizia deserves greater attention today than ever before for the very factor of religion that Dutt pointed out in his correspondence with Bengali actor and confidant Keshub Chunder Gangooly. “Here was India’s first dramatist to write about Muslim society, however amateurish or superficial that representation may appear now, for which his play was unjustly rejected,” he said.
Dutt started ‘Rizia’ in 1849 in Madras where he had relocated, and published extracts in ‘The Eurasian’ there. The manuscript in his elegant cursive reveals that he continued to compose it during his stay. “A page bears the dateline ‘Madras University 1855’, suggesting that Dutt had worked on it till the last year of his stay in Madras. Act III Scene I is even dated precisely — 28/5/55. In this manuscript, Dutt crossed out certain lines that appear in ‘The Eurasian’, indicating that he had revised his 1849-50 script and fleshed out the play while compressing existing scenes, making it much more theatrical,” explained Lal.
In 1858, after he returned to Calcutta following his father’s demise, Dutt began writing drama for the Rajas (two brothers) of Paikpara in north Calcutta who had just set up the Belgachhia Theatre. He gave them his first original Bengali play, ‘Sharmishtha’, based on the Hindu legend. The Rajas performed it on September 3, 1859 to considerable acclaim. He later submitted an English synopsis of ‘Rizia’ with 48 lines of Rizia’s speech in Bengali to the Rajas through K C Gangooly, hoping to stage it too. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Gangooly wrote back: “They say that Mahomedan names will not perhaps hear well in a Bengali drama.”
In 1860, Dutt again expressed his desire to Gangooly for the Rajas to stage ‘Rizia’: “We ought to take up Indo-Mussulman subjects. We must look to ‘Rizia’. The prejudice against Moslem names must be given up.” But he never got the green light. His forgotten manuscript came into the possession of Jotindro Mohun Tagore, the Rajas’ friend.
Lal believes Dutt was so keen to have ‘Rizia’ performed that he gave it to Tagore, hoping he would either convince the Rajas or stage it himself at the Tagores’ own Pathuriaghata Theatre.
A few years ago, Lal was discussing his research on 19th-century Indian drama in class at Jadavpur University.
“A few days later, Pramantha Mohun Tagore — a student and descendant of the Jotindro Mohun–Sourindro Mohun Tagore family — brought two leather-bound volumes for me to see: Dutt’s Bengali manuscript of ‘Tilottama’, which Jotindro Mohun had aided in publishing, and the damaged English manuscript of ‘Rizia’,” Lal said. He decided then and there that ‘Rizia’ had to see the light of day, and reconstructed it. His book is titled ‘Indian Drama in English: The Beginnings’.
Source: Times of India