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Manmatha Nath Dutt: The Lost Hero

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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Searching for Manmatha Nath Dutt, the forgotten but stellar translator, editor and more

What does the expression ‘Elysium Bower’ remind you of?  I wonder how many people will think of John Keats and Endymion, a poem published by Keats in 1818. One of India’s greatest translators was Manmatha Nath Dutt (Shastri), 1855-1912, who translated from Sanskrit to English and did much more. Chronologically, he translated the Valmiki Ramayana (sequentially from 1892 to 1894), Markandeya Purana (1896), Bhagavata Purana (1896), Vishnu Purana (1896), Hari Vamsha (1897), Mahanirvana Tantra (1900), Agni Purana (1903-04), Mahabharata (1895-1905), Kamandakiya Nitisara (1896), several samhitas anddharmashastra texts (1906, 1908-09), Garuda Purana (1908) and Rig Veda Samhita (1906-1912).  Compared to Kishori Mohan Ganguli (the translator of the Mahabharata), Manmatha Nath Dutt was much more prolific.  (Ganguli did not translate any of the other texts—not Puranas, not Hari Vamsha, not Valmiki Ramayana).  But compared to Manmatha Nath Dutt, Ganguli is much more known, probably because the Ganguli Mahabharata translation is available online, while the Dutt one isn’t. (The language used in the two Mahabharata translations present an interesting contrast, but that’s a different story.)  Apart from this remarkable body of translation work, Dutt wrote a biography of the Buddha (1901), retold stories from the Puranas (1893-94, the four volumes titled Gleanings from the Indian Classics), retold stories about famous women in Hinduism (1897), wrote a book on Hindu metaphysics (1904) and wrote another book on the dharma of householders (1905).  These were also in English.  I have not been able to track down anything by Manmatha Nath Dutt written in Bengali, or in any other language.  (In compiling a list of his works, I came across a stray reference to a monograph in Bengali known as Banglar Meye (Women of Bengal), but I am not sure what this was.)

The Ganguli translation was funded and published by Pratap Chandra Roy. Thanks to Pratap Chandra Roy and Pratap Chandra Roy’s wife, we know something about Ganguli.  (P. Lal compiled an annotated Mahabharata bibliography in 1967).  The negative reference to the Dutt translation in this annotation may also have something to do with Dutt receiving less attention than he deserves.)   We know almost nothing about Manmatha Nath Dutt and about this amazingly productive period from 1892 to 1912, a period of 20 years. There is a piece written by Shashi Shekhar in The Pioneer in 2011 and there is a German website with some information.  That’s about it.  We do know he was born in 1855 and that he died in 1912, because the Rig Veda Samhita translation was left incomplete.  Some of what we supposedly know does not seem to be true.  For example, you may read he was the Rector of Serampore College.  I have found nothing to suggest this is true.  The antecedents of Serampore College, as a theological or non-theological college, were completely different and I haven’t found Manmatha Nath Dutt’s name in the list of Rectors.  You may read he was the Rector of Keshub Academy and this is indeed true.  Today, Kolkata has several schools known as Keshub Academy.  The one in Beadon Street (Ward No. 26) is the oldest and was established by Prasanna Kumar Sen in 1886, in honour of Keshub Chandra Sen.  Today, a Keshub Academy stands at the same place, as a government-run school.  This indeed is the Keshub Academy where Dutt was a Rector, since he describes himself as Rector, Keshub Academy.  Technically, Keshub Academy’s current address is Ramdulal Sarkar Street and it is just off Beadon Street.  Note that Prasanna Kumar Sen was a member of the Brahmo Samaj.  Hence, Dutt must have had some kind of a Brahmo connection, though that doesn’t make him a Brahmo.

 Manmatha Nath Dutt described himself as M.A. in his initial books.  M.R.A.S. got added later.  Still later, it became Manmatha Nath Dutt (Shastri).  In the Buddha book, it simply said Manmatha Nath Shastri.  M.A. obviously means Master of Arts and M.R.A.S. stands for Member of Royal Asiatic Society.  (The Asiatic Society was established by William Jones in 1784.)  It would have been natural for the Dutt translations to be published under the Asiatic Society’sBibliotheca Indica series. Perhaps there were entry barriers to his becoming accepted as a translator in that series. Where did he study and where did he pick up the Shastri title?  Note that he did not translate from Pali.  But he obviously knew Pali.  He tells us that in the Preface to the Buddha book.  ‘In presenting this sketch of the life and teachings of this Great Teacher I have consulted almost all the works extant either in Sanskrit or Pali.’  At that time in Calcutta, I can think of only one place where he could have studied English, Sanskrit and Pali, all together.  At the level of the school, this can only be Sanskrit Collegiate School (established in 1824).  At that time, this school was combined with Sanskrit College. With Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar at the helm, from 1851, Sanskrit Collegiate School and College started to admit non-brahmana students, and Dutt was not a brahmana.  Separate departments of Pali and Sanskrit were set by in the University of Calcutta later, in 1907, not that one required full-fledged departments to study either subject.  However, my deduction is that his M.A. was in Sanskrit and that it was through Sanskrit College.  (The M.A. would still be conferred by the University of Calcutta.)  The ‘Shastri’ title then was not quite what it is now.  Now, it has often become like a B.Ed. degree in Sanskrit. Roughly when Manmatha Nath Dutt studied in Sanskrit College, the Principal was Mahesh Chandra Nyayratna Bhattacharya.  As a Principal, he introduced upadhis (titles).  The ‘Shastri’ title was obtained after doing a M.A. in Sanskrit and after studying a bit more of Sanskrit.  Having obtained the ‘Shastri’ title, one had the option of dropping the original surname, as Sivanath Sastri (eight years Manmatha Nath Dutt’s senior) did.  By the way, Sivanath Sasrti also followed the Sanskrit Collegiate School and Sanskrit College route.  Other than the Buddha book, Manmatha Nath Dutt never dropped his original surname.

 What’s often not realised is that Dutt set up a monthly magazine known as Wealth of India.  This was “a monthly magazine solely devoted to the English translation of the best Sanskrit works” and was published between 1892 and 1908. Manmatha Nath Dutt was the editor and publisher and G. C. Chackravarti was the printer.  The Dutt translations were originally, before being brought out as books, serialised in Wealth of India.  Before 1914, there was virtually no copyright legislation.  Therefore, once published in the magazine, anyone was free to republish.  In addition to the magazine, Dutt set up a Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature.  This published several authors, such as Horace Hayman Wilson on the Puranas, Sita Nath Dutta (also known as Sitanath Tattvabhushan) on Adi Shankaracharya, translations of Kalidasa (sometimes by unnamed translators).  Both magazine and society did not survive after Dutt.  The initial books were printed by Girish Chandra Chackravarti, who was also the publisher, under the name of Deva Press, with an address of 65/2 Beadon Street.  The subsequent ones were printed by H.C. Dass, but the publisher sometimes became Elysium Press.  (Sometimes, it continued to be the Society.)  However, the address of Elysium Press continued to be the same as Deva Press, 65/2 Beadon Street.  Was Deva Press bought over by Elysium Press?  Was it renamed?  At some point, Elysium Press moved to 3 Furriapukur Street and later, to 40 Nayan Chand Dutt Street.  The Society’s address and Manmath Nath Dutt’s address also moved around, to those specific addresses.  Therefore, I have a hunch that thought the printer may have been H. C. Dass, Elysium Press was owned by Manmantha Nath Dutt. (That would explain the word Elysium too.)  In the Calcutta of that day and age, printing/publishing had become a bit of a cottage industry and had exploded.  In that environment, Dutt was a bit of an entrepreneur too, establishing societies, magazines, publishing houses.

In the Buddha book, a new address crops up.  Dutt now gives his address as Elysium Bower, Barnagore.  Elysium was a common place word then, among the English-educated.  There used to be Elysium Road, now Lord Sinha Road.  But Elysium Bower takes us straight to John Keats.  Baranagar is part of Kolkata now.  It used to be the outskirts then.  At that time, Baranagar would remind you of Ramakrishna Math and Swami Vivekananda.  Both the Brahmo Samaj and Swami Vivekananda must have impacted Manmatha Nath Dutt, even though you can detect neither influence.  In one of his Prefaces, he states, ‘It is, therefore, necessary that if we wish to guard ourselves against the contaminating influence of a foreign civilization we must know what the true nature of our own civilization is…I shall consider my labours amply rewarded, if, by the perusal of these pages, even one of my countrymen becomes an ideal Hindu.’  That is all he intended to do.  We know little about him, but I have filled you in on some things I found out.