Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Buttoo"


The poem "Buttoo" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). It tells the story of a figure named Buttoo, whose story is based closely on the story of Ekalavya from the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya is the son of a forest-dwelling hunter-king who goes to Dronacharjya to learn archery. When he is rejected by Dronacharjya, he goes into the woods and makes a statue of Dronacharjya, who he claims will be his guru or teacher. After practicing extensively and mastering archery, he silences a dog without killing it through the use of arrows. Later, when Dronacharjya and Arjuna happen to be passing through the woods, they find the dog and are amazed at the degree of mastery such archery would require (since Dronacharjya promised Arjuna he would be the best archer alive). When Dronacharjya and Arjuna meet Ekalavya in this setting then, Dronacharjya says that, if he were truly Ekalavya's teacher, he ought to extract a fee or donation from him. The story ends with Ekalavya gladly giving up his thumb as a fee to Dronacharjya.

Dutt's poem more or less exactly retells this story, substituting the figure of Ekalavya with the figure of Buttoo. One notable moment of the poem that Dutt adds, however, is the poem's conclusion, in which Dutt conveys an explicit moral to Buttoo's story:"'For this,'—said Dronacharjya,—'Fame / Shall sound thy praise from sea to sea, / And men shall ever link thy name / With Self-help, Truth, and Modesty.'" This addition—that Buttoo's sacrifice and humility will one day make him famous as an example—draws attention to Dutt's retelling of an ancient "legend" and lends her tale a moral ethos for an English-speaking audience that might not be familiar with the Ekalavya story.


In terms of its form, the poem is quite lengthy, spanning 272 lines—thirty-four stanzas of eight lines each. Each stanza loosely follows the ballad form, with lines of alternating rhyme written in iambic tetrameter (four units of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables). Like "Lakshman," however, this poem importantly deviates from the ballad form in that each stanza consists of two quatrains of alternating rhyme, rather than one. In this poem, like in "Lakshman," this could be meant to emphasize the dialogue between Dronacharjya and Buttoo, but it might also be taken to evoke the Kurus and Pandavas, or perhaps Buttoo and Arjuna—pairs of binaries that run through this story as well as the Mahabharata as a whole. It is also possible that the doubling of the ballad length stands in as a symbol of the double, give-and-take nature of the teacher-student relationship exemplified by Buttoo and Dronacharjya.

However, the addition of a moral to the end of the poem and Dutt's innovation on the ballad form are not the only novelties of the poem. At the poem's opening, for example, Dutt inserts an interlude when Buttoo first presents himself to Dronacharjya. When Buttoo asks Dronacharjya to take him under his wing as a student, saying that he knows no fear, Dronacharjya answers, "smiling smooth, / 'Then know him from this time, my dear.'" He then proceeds to humiliate Buttoo on account of his caste for an entire stanza, after which Buttoo leaves "red with shame." This is an element that is not present in the original, where Dronacharjya simply turns Ekalavya away because he knows that he may surpass Arjuna in skill. Dutt likely makes this addition, however, in order to show just how much humility and modesty Buttoo has to sacrifice his thumb to Dronacharjya at the poem's end.

Another innovation of Dutt's in this rendition of the Ekalavya story is her lush descriptions of the natural world in which Buttoo trains. Stanzas 7-14 describe at length the various plants in the wood where Buttoo ultimately trains, using the local names like "nagessur" over translated or English names. Also detailed are the animal inhabitants of the forest—birds and deer that "have no pride of caste" and "shrink not" from him when he approaches. These animals convince him ultimately that his home ought to be in the woods, where he is not judged for his social status. The invocation of "every pleasant nut and root / By Providence for man designed" suggests that Dutt views nature as designed by the divine in order to accommodate the needs of men like Buttoo. The fact that Buttoo learns archery from a statue of Dronacharjya made "of earth" is also significant here, since it is from the natural version of Dronacharjya that Buttoo gains wisdom and not the worldly, human version that instructs Arjuna. Later, Arjuna is not just surprised that there is a better archer than him; he is "indignant." For these reasons, it is all the more surprising that Buttoo, like Ekalavya, decides to honor Arjuna and Dronacharjya by cutting off his thumb and sacrificing his talents.

Ultimately, the moral of Dutt's poem, more so than the original, seems to be that nature is a true place of repose, reflection, and instruction that occurs with the assistance of the divinely gifted plant and animal life that dwell there. While it is ultimately about the humility and tact of Buttoo as well, it seems that Dutt's version is clearer in drawing out these themes than the Mahabhrarata, even going so far as to be explicit in stating the moral. Like Dutt's other poems in Ancient Ballads, then, "Buttoo" is written from and situated at the meeting place of the personal and the cultural, the man-made and the natural, and the European and the Indian.