Henry Derozio: The First Indian Poet in English

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My country! In thy days of glory past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow
and worshipped as a deity thou wast—
Where is thy glory, where the reverence now?...
Thy minstrel hath no wreath to weave for thee
Save the sad story of thy misery!

These lines, from the poem To India – My Native Land, were written not by an Indian poet but by an Anglo-Indian named Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, widely considered the first Indian poet in English.

He wrote To India… 30 years before the Revolt of 1857. He considered himself Indian, a worldview reflected in his body of work and in the unusual passion it holds for an India that was not romanticised but was respected and in some senses mourned.

Derozio was born into an Anglo-Indian family on 18th April 1809. He schooled at Dharmatala in Kolkata, where he was influenced by the liberal thinking of David Drummond and the social activism of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who at that time were leading movements against sati and other social ills.

Derozio's uncle, Johnson's kothi in Bhagalpur, Bihar | Author

He wrote his first known poetry in Bhagalpur, Bihar, while visiting an uncle who was an indigo planter. Some of this early work was published in the newspaper, India Gazette, and it was through these verses that Derozio first began to make a name for himself.

After a brief stint as a clerk, a stint he found stifling, he returned to Bhagalpur and the rural environs that he had developed a great affection for. He frequently spent time in the hills of Jungheera and was inspired by their natural beauty as well as by the stories of saints and fakirs told to him there. One work, in particular, Fakeer of Jungheera, reflects this.

Bust of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio on the Esplanade, Kolkata | PK Niyogi via Wikimedia Commons

Derozio would go on to become Assistant Headmaster at Calcutta’s Hindu College (now Presidency University), where his revolutionary thought made him popular among students, some of whom began to call themselves ‘Derozians’.

His poetry, with its Indian nationalist themes, opened up a new front in the intellectual revolution in Bengal. Derozio was the poet of the ‘renaissance’ era in India, when Western education and modern ways of thinking were making their way into the orthodox Indian society. This was a time of national awakening, a new consciousness that was arising against British tyranny and colonial policies. During this time, many intellectuals, writers and poets shot to prominence, and Derozio was a leading name among them.

Just as in To India… he referred to India a “goddess mother” and called for a freeing of her from the chains of slavery, so in Harp of India, he compared the country to a veena now lying tuneless. In Freedom To The Slave, he motivated the youth to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of freedom for their motherland.

Commemorative stamp of Derozio issued in 2009 | Wikimedia Commons

Derozio’s work, both popular and acclaimed, saw him become Assistant Editor of the India Gazette. He continued writing until his death on 26th December 1831 aged just 22.

Derozio would live to see English poetry in India begin to take shape, and his own writing become part of its canon. He was indeed a rare son of the soil.

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