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Dec 3, 2011

Jayanta Mahapatra

Jayanta is a fine craftsman with a superb control over his medium in a fair response to his poetry though one is not sure of a significant and meaningful departure has been made; and a reflection that is stuff of contemporary India, but “Jayanta’s sensibility is both Indian and modern; and his response to Indian scene is authentic and credible”, says Vishawanathan. Panikar agree with Vishawanathan and pointed out that Mahapatra’s concern of the vision of belief and loss; dejection and rejection are typically Indian.

In Sahitya Akademi Award winner volume The Relationship, we experience Jayanta’s desire to discover one’s root; and manifestation of this desire in a variety of ways in the strength of his poetry. There is evidence of a Hindu sensibility and all the poetic energy is spent in recognizing the Hindu world.

Jayanta’s poetry is not spatial being confined to an insect, a home, a street dog, a window or a river; but the most temporal, with consciousness of the past memory being the driving force of his poetry. His modernism is not a simple, undimensional; phenomenon; it is a rainbow of many hues and has a number of strains—personal, socio-cultural, archetypal and so on. His modernism can be seen in manner, form and in complex symbolic mode. As a regional poet, says V.A. Shahani, “Mahapatra constant pre-occupation with the favorite places such as Jagannathpuri, Cuttak and Bhuvneshewar… constitute the permanent layer of his works; this is the poetic expression of the soil to which he still belongs”.

His sensibility is essentially Indian which can be seen not only into his presentation of man-woman relationship but also in his poem about Orissa. Note the example from Kurunthohai, a Tamil classic:

“but our hearts are as red
earth and pouring rain,
mingled beyond parting” 

there is rich simplicity and native nutty texture that is the strength of his Indianess which sound so natural, powerful and evocative.

Like R. Parthasarathy, in Jayanta we notice a play of the sharp Tamil intellect which can enliven mood, situation or atmosphere. We should note that Jayanta’s area is limited, but like Jane Austen, he can crave on his six inches of ivory. As William Walsh says, in his essay “Small Observations in a Large Scale”,“His poems show an extreme precision so that the contour of each phrase, the sense of each image, the slightest rise or fall of rhythm, is defined with an unqualified accuracy.”And one agrees with Walsh in his observation that “his mind and his language work, not by any poetic murmuration or suggestiveness, but by pointing, by specifying, delimiting and detailing”.

Apart from Indianess, Jayanta is a poet of human relationship and raises his situations from the regional to universal. He has employed imagery and epithets, symbols etc to present the human conditions, which are not only the conditions of India but of the whole world. In Mahapatra’s poetry the human relationship centers round man-woman relationship. The portrait of woman reoccurs in his poetry and the stress has been laid in presenting woman as the sufferer. In Indian Summer, he presents the gloomy state of a woman: 

the good wife
lies in my bed
through the long afternoon
dreaming still, unexhausted
by the deep roar of funeral pyres.” 

Similarly, the poem “Lost” takes up the case of “a lonely man who welcomes his room in half-lights”. The room naturally becomes his “meditation chamber”, “a private chapel” for “experiencing pain and pleasure”. The sufferings of the protagonist are, obviously, similar to those of his female counterpart in “missing person”.

Similarly, the poem “Logic” is extremely over packed with meaning. It is essentially an indictment of a male thinker—a scholar, immersed in his mental reflections; and the woman persona is deeply pinned down by the 

use of logic by her better half:
“Make me small and edible love.
This scalp hurts not from the steep drag
of your hands from my own practiced drivel.”

In “The Whore House in a Calcutta Street” the woman is painted nearly a mechanical tool of man to whom she requests:
“Hurry, will you? Let me go,
and her lonely breath thrashed against your kind.” 

Mahapatra here effectively underscores the pathetic condition of those unfortunate women who, despite their false chatter, do have deep feelings. Hunger and male exploitation seem to have driven them into the flesh trade which they have accepted with a kind of stoic registration.

“Life is painful, the process of writing a poem is painful; poetry is going into and finding the centre of yourself. I suppose, you can’t do this if you don’t give up your own self.” (Mahapatra). It is often been pointed out, and rightly too, that Jayanta Mahapatra has, in his mental make up, something of the existentialist outlook on life. He is a close observer of men and things, and finds: 
“Every man, every beast
trapped, deaf in his own sleep”. 

Naturally, the vision of life he presents in the poetry is extremely horrifying which transports the reader to that inner core of existence: “Where there is nothing of the paradise charm that man has long been dreaming of.”

His contemporaries are generally satisfied with the expression of their confessional problems—sexual, marital, extra-marital, financial or otherwise. Hence they fail to have much sincerity about them. They fail to have a voice that comes from Jayanta’s “varanmayi” personality “is stun total of all his inner and outer qualities”. Kamala is engagingly feelingful, Nissim is playfully ironically but Jayanta is vaguely gloomy. His poetry leads us to dark world where there is loneliness and despair.

The vision of the life he builds up in poem after poem is, therefore, as blood-curdling as its actual experience in contemporary life. As he himself writes: “What appears to disturb me is the triumph of silence in the mind”. A careful consideration of his popular poems—“A Missing Person”; “Lost”; “The Logic”; “Hunger”; “The Whore House In A Calcutta Street”—have already achieved something of that tragic vision of life that has been “the crowing glory of the very best in the world”.

In “A Missing Person”, Mahapatra presents a woman who is watching for her lover in the “darkness room”, and fails to find her “reflection in the mirror”: 

In the darkened room
a woman
cannot find her reflection in the mirror.” 

The technical devices used by Mahapatra to project this tragic vision are remarkable for their deep connection with the poet’s Indian background. Panikar pointed out that Mahapatra’s concern of the vision of belief and loss; dejection and rejection are typically Indian. Mahapatra is, obviously, at his best when he speaks of the “drunken yellow oil lamp (which) alone could find where she finds her body”.The poet in Mahapatra is, obviously, a poet of the twilight realities of loneliness—a poet of ailing and aching heart pining for what is not.

Mahapatra’s presentation of the tragic vision of the contemporary life proves beyond any shadow of doubt that as a poet he does not carry the conventional badge of the academic class. He is absolutely free from pastiche, borrowing and derivativeness. As a poet, he is partly personal, partly existential, partly socio-cultural, and partly archetypal. He has a much more extended scope and range than any of his contemporaries—Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Shiv Kumar or Ramanujan.

Hence his greatness as a poet is quite apt; everywhere he gives something new and original; he is not like other poets but “Greater than the greatest in the modern Indian world”.


  1. As the images keep fleeting by, speeding fast and slipping away before they are caught so are the flimsy things of his poetry, as so many things come to the mind’s plane momentarily and vanish away so soon similar is the case with this writer of verse who writes keeping in view art and architecture, sculpture and figurines and chiselling upon stones, sociology, folklore, myth and mysticism of the land. Orissa, its mapping, cartography and demographic reading does he, takes he in his poetry. It is very difficult to dip into the unconscious mind, a minefield of raw and unstable emotions and feelings, a reservoir lying deep within. The fickle mind and consciousness of man is the poetic space of his. To delve deep, his is a poetry of the asthi-kalasha, panda-dana and kalpurusha; mind, mass and matter while on the other the tales of hunger, thirst, lust and relationship keep baffling us. How to resolve the unresolving mystery of life and the world? Time is a great factor and everything into the hands of it as the things keep rolling, shaped and re-shaped and the process continues on. There is nothing as static, everything but in a flux, is the thing of his deliberation. The poet does not like to put forward his pinion. He just keeps viewing and making view them and the observation is personal, kept reserved.

  2. In Jayanta Mahapatra, the echoes of four English poets can be heard; William Wordsworth, John Keats, William Butler Yeats and David Herbert Lawrence. He is Wordsworthian as for his lyrics of silence, nature mysticism, delineation of his Lucy and a simple man talking about the simple rural folks, Yeatsian as for myth-making and imagery and Keatsian as for beauty is truth, truth goodness and Lawrentian for man-woman relationship. The brevity of Ezra Pound too is therein. Waiting as a collection begins with The Morning-I, telling of a morning in the stride and clasp of a sweeper girl with human excreta while in the second morning poem, a starkly naked Jain monk calmly walks down the road determined. At The Burning Ground, Dusk, Fragments, A Poem For Mahatma Gandhi, Sky, The Stranger, are the poems of a type. Published in 1979, Waiting is one in the line of his other collections, but a good work indeed as for its historicity and myth-making. The poet is very, very historical and thematic here as for topographic and physical references. A Country Festival, Taste For Tomorrow, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, Konark, Dhaulagiri, The Temple Road, Puri, Learning To Flow Free In The Chariot Festival At Puri, etc. are Orissa-relating poems. Today’s house will be tomorrow’s haunted house; a dilapidating mansion, is the basis of his viewing. There is nothing as concrete, stable and certain; everything but fickle and frail in his poetry.
    In A Whiteness of Bone, there lie in the silences shared and unshared. As we cannot describe silence and solitude so is the case with Mahapatra and his poetry. A Whiteness of Bone, published in 1992, is one of the representative collections of Mahapatra who keeps emboldening his poetic stance.Though word-play, imagistic penetration, vacant thinking and random reflection seem to be the chief properties of the poet, but instead of it, he has added to it substantially. The poet detects a voice of melancholy and it is also a fact that he is an admirer of William Wordsworth; a votary of tranquil silence. Pope’s Ode on Solitude and Keats’ On Fame also can make a sense here. The book has appeared from Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi and is of a considerable poetic merit. Silent In The Valleys, All The Poetry There Is, Afternoon, Shadows, Light, House, A Death, In An Orissa Village, The Dispossessed, Bone of Time, Summer Afternoons, The Time Afterward, To A Young Girl. The Hill, In The Darkness of The Night, Doors, Farewell, Dawn, Red Roses For Gandhi, Song of The Homeless Girl, etc. are the poems which appear in it. There are several poems titled as Dawn and Waiting and one should not confuse while picking them for studies. There is a ‘Dawn’ poem in A Rain of Rites and also a different ‘Dawn’ poem in A Whiteness of Bone. Song of The Homeless Girl is the last poem of the collection. Jayanta Mahapatra as a poet is sad and serious and he hears the sad, solemn and still music of humanity just like Wordsworth. The wail and sob of Ruth, as described in Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats is in his poetry. The lyrics of Jayanta are the lyrics of silence; nothingness and nihilism, existentialism and absurd living and absurd dwelling. To him, life is but a waiting and we do not know it when the waiting will end.

  3. Jayanta Mahapatra as a poet is not one who comes from the field of literature, whose business will be emotion and feeling as the cheap sentiment of his, but is a physicist, a professor of physics writing in English.To see it from his discipline of study, physics is his poetry and he has found his theme in physics, the branch of it called astrophysics, light and darkness chapters. The history of the origin of universe is the thing of his deliberation. What it is today will not be tomorrow. Where does light break forth and where does it retreat back to? Who can answer all these questions, the things of the fickle and unconscious mind? Everything is but in a flux; ever-changing state. If this be the state of the things, what to say it more? Imagery is the chief tool of his and he keeps working.

  4. The pains of dark daughters none has come to feel it which but he delineates at the end of the book named Relationship for which he receives the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1981.Who are they, he wants to know them; he asks to reveal their identities. The dark daughters may be the poor daughter of India who go on working without asking for amenities. After remaining they themselves half-fed and half-clothed, they continue to keep the homes. May be it that they are devadasis turned stone, sevadasis exploited and the nautch girls turning speechless. It is very difficult to ascertain who the are? May be it that he has written after seeing the sculptures on the Konark Sun-temple? Dark is dark, let it be. What to say about the Creational Time, the Creational Mother Divine, the Womb Divine? Relationship is a lengthening of Derozio’s My Native Land and a miniature Leaves of Grass by Whitman. The pictures of the dark daughters can be felt in the fisher girl and the missing person seen in the image of a village woman. Had the mother not borne, how could have the son the earth?
    Catching the boat of Time, he floats over the waters from Chandipur to Chilika. The rock-built temples standing against time, marking the passage of it, the coming and going of man, he notes all that to enlarge upon and penetrate deep. Thematically, there is not too much in Jayanta’s Realtionship. Orissa is the land of his birth, nativity and roots. How can he cut the connections; the bonds of relationship with the soil and the land, the rocks and stones of it, the faiths and beliefs of it, the myths and mysticism? The fallen Shiva-lingam and the embarrassed yoni, what to tell about? Men as riders to the sea struggle to eke out a living and the surfing waves sometimes calm and sometimes roaring.
    The mythical text of Relationship is very elusive and it keeps eluding us written against the mythico-historical background. If Waiting is a book of history, Relationship is a book of myth, mystery and mysticism combined with visionary glides and the flights of imagination. The poet fancies, dreams and dreams; a book of dream allegory is it indeed.
    Relationship is a book of Orissa by an Oriya man writing about the dreams, aspirations, visions, thoughts, beliefs, myths and mystery of the land where he was born, where he grew up and attained manhood too, the land of his birth and rearing, karma and dharma.

  5. Jayanta Mahapatra’s The False Start, which appeared in 1980 from Clearing House, Bombay, begins with A Day of Rain poem, followed by more, such as Suppose, Today, Absences, The Gift of Night, Poem For Angelia Elston, Another Evening, Last Sadness, The Gradient of Dreams, Through The Stone, Woman In Love, A Sailboat of Occasions, Bound, The Secret, Slum, Pain, The Rain Falling, After The Rain, Time Drawing In, Something Spreading Itself, The Mountain, The Storm, The Rising, The Accusation, A Sense of Adventure, Shadows, A Sense of the Obvious, The Moon Moments, Ash, The Day, A Kind of Happiness, The Day After My Friends Became Godly And Great, The Years Down, The House, The Retreat, Tonight I Hear The Water Flowing, The Hour From The Window, Steps In The Dark, the poems one by one to continue with again, The Door, The Abandoned British Cemetery At Balasore, India, The Evening That Is To Come, Measuring Death, A Certain Refrain, the poems figuring in to confirm it that he is absurd, existential, a poet of the void, the shadowy space, who to answer his questions, what is this world, why are we here, what the purpose of living, what does it stay here, who is what, who can but say it?
    Everything turns false, even his start and this contributes to emotionally. Let us not talk about the experiments. Perhaps his Ph.D. in physics never did he do it as his experimentations failed they miserably. Nissim Ezekiel too does not have a Ph.D.. Leave it that he can give it to others, even being a without the Ph.D guide on the basis of experience or as a poet, but never was he able to do it. The Mountain, The Abandoned British Cemetery At Balasore, India,Shadows, are the oft-quoted poems from this collection of poems. The Abandoned British Cemetery At Balasore is just like Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard where the poet sees the tombstones and reflects over the foreigners lying dead and buried in the cemetery, bringing to our memory the images and pictures of the Raj Days and the colonists on a mission or tour to India, in the heat and dust of its own, the hot and humid conditions doing the rounds and also to those times of epidemics when survival was almost negligible, hoping against hope. A poet of rocks, stones and trees, like the Wordsworth of Strange Fits of Passion, he deviates and digresses a bit to be thematic herein. His poems border on the unconscious, the dark reservoir, taking here to there to nowhere. An abnormal’s babbling can give the lead too while life is too as such that our norms and ideals keep changing with, what it is right for one is wrong for others and it is really difficult to judge who is what and what is which.


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