I had not heard before of the brutal slaying of Meghnad in Lanka, nor of Michael Madhusudan Dutta. A political killing of an unarmed man, scheming, treachery, all the ingredients that we are familiar with unfolded – albeit with a difference. No, not on TV but on a stage – the powerful emotional rendering in English , the sound of drums, and soft Bengali music — a picture kept painting itself on the canvas of my imagination. Gods fought battles, killed each other, not under international conventions and my sadness was not for the epic heroes but at my own ignorance. Where was I? At the bilingual, dramatized reading of Book VI of Meghnadbadh kabya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta translated by William Radice at the British Council in Dhaka. The expressive rendering in English by Radice was interspersed with extracts from the Bengali original, read with musical accompaniment by Sydur Rahman Lipon, Shormymala and Delwar Hossain Dilu.
The epic Kabya (Kavya for us in Lanka) was what is termed Madhusudan’s subversive interpretation of the Ramayana story, with Meghnad, son of Ravana portrayed as a tragic hero. Here Meghnad (a.k.a as Indrajit) is shown to be a patriot, a loving husband, a caring son and a friend to his countrymen. Unlike the original verse by Valmiki. Here Ravana is also portrayed as a respectable man and a responsible king full of all royal qualities. According to some theories, Ravana was a historical emperor who reigned over Lanka from 2554 BC to 2517 BC. The negative depiction of Ravana in Ramayana has been open to other interpretaions like Dutta’s. Ravana as myths and legends go was a scholar and possessed the nectar of immortality stored under his navel thanks to a celestial boon by Brahma.
Ravana’s son by his wife Mandodari was named “Meghnad (Meghanada)” because his birth cry sounded like thunder. In the battles that Gods often indulged in Meghnad had defeated Indra, the king of the Devas, after which he came to be known as ‘Indrajit’ (“the conqueror of Indra”)
I had long been an admirer of William Radice, the translator of many of my favourite Tagore poems like “Unending love.” Radice is a linguist, writer, and a poet, who by his expert translations have given many of us who cannot read Bangla, the pleasure of enjoying great literary works.
Tagore and his works are/ were familiar in Lanka. My father referred to Bangladesh as Tagore country and wanted a complete works of Tagore when I first visited Dhaka in 2001.
The bilingual performance was a new version of a presentation for me. Devised and directed by Mukul Ahmed, a London based theatre director, even me with my “ektu, ektu Bangla” I was moved by the emotional renderings. Listening later to Radice conversing in Bangla I made a mental note to speed up my Bangla learning.
In a brief conversation with Radice after the performance, his eyes lit up when I said I was from Lanka and my second name was Lakshmi. Dutta, he said was very fond of Lanka. If I understood properly, in the recitation, Lakshmi comes up as a guardian god of Lanka. Maybe the early Lakshmi coins of Lanka is a reference to this?
Ignorance is not bliss. I was saddened that our education in Sri Lanka had not even briefly touched or introduced us to the great classics of our South Asian neigbhour.