Jayanta Mahapatra is one of the most esteemed names in the domain of contemporary Indo-Anglican poetry. He is usually regarded as a post-modern experimental poet. An important aspect of the new poetry or modernist poetry pioneered by Ezekiel and Daruwalla has been a constant encounter with the personal and immediate perception in relation to the outer reality or the external world. In the sixties, Indian poetry in English entered a very exciting phase of creativity in the form of arrival of fresh talents; such Shiv K Kumar, R Parathasarathy, A K Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, A K Mehrotra, and Jayanta Mahapatra. Of them, Jayanta Mahapatra enjoys a unique privilege and shares it with A K Mehrotra. In fact both of them view poetry as a structure of images and deal with their obsessions, memories, doubts and other personal experiences.
Mahapatra has confronted excruciating, harrowing and traumatic childhood. He was meek, shy, often an object of mockery and embarrassment in school. He was doubly detached from his ambient atmosphere—he was born into a Christian family in predominately Hindu neighborhoods, and, he wrote in a tongue, which was not his vernacular. It was conservatively thought that English was an outlandish parlance and could not be a medium of expression of edifying fortitude of our native land. Although he preferred this alien channel of utterance and articulation yet the sum and substance dominate his poetry are connected and communicated to the pragmatic and stark reality of Orissa as well as India such as hunger, myths, rites, rituals and sometimes they transcend all that is mundane and terrestrial to embrace the universal significance as, sexuality, spirituality, self and eternity. He is a kind of attentive awareness of the darker realm of being.
He has some salient features which makes him distinct from most of his contemporaries:
(i) He belongs to lower middle class family while most of his contemporary poets hail from well groomed and highly educated ancestry.
(ii) He started writing poetry at an age when people stop writing poetry. He was forty then. He himself confesses: “My poetry came at an age when most poets would have been basking in the warm glow of success.”
(iii) Right from 1971, he has published twenty volumes of poetry which is a record in the history of approximate two hundred old Indian English Poetry. Some are yet in the pipeline as he is still coining the verse even more maturely than he did ever before in the teeth of chronic asthma and recurrent migraine.
(iv) Moreover, he is the first poet in the Indian English Poetry to grab Shitya Akademi Award, the biggest in the field of literature, in 1981 for his ambitious and magnum opus, 'Relationship'.
(v) His poems have been publishing comprehensively in highly reputed journals of the world:
(i) Chicago Review(U.S.A), (ii) New York Quarterly(U.S.A), (iii) Poetry(U.S.A), (iv) Sewanee Review(U.S.A.), (v) Critical Quarterly(England), (vi) Times Literary Supplement(England), (vii) Meanjin Quarterly(Australia) and (viii) Malahat Review(Canada)
He is the poet who commands respect and recognition more overseas than at home. In an interview with Sumanyu Satpathy, he expresses his predicament thus:
“I got more encouragement from academics outside my country than inside because I was not writing the type of poetry that appeared in Bombay."
C.L.L. Jayaprada has similar opinion and in Indian Literature Today, the author writes:
"He is the case of a writer who first recognized abroad before getting deserved attention at home. Even now one could say that critical output on Mahapatra is not appropriate to his own work"
Even Arun Kolatkar also has similar observation:
"His work has been published in several important anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology (1912-1977) edited by Daryl Hine and Joseph Parisi. Despite these significant achievements, Mahapatra’s work haven’t got the attention it deserves in India."
(vi) Generally, it is observed that the faculty of science has poor control on language and literature. Though Mahapatra is an academician of Physics yet he treats the poetry with great fervour and vivacity. He converted this adversity into opportunity. In an interview to the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ he emphasizes:
“Physics taught me that time held you captive, but it also made you free. I was nothing but an infinitesimal speck floating in the vast universe. This broadened my vision, but I also feel pressurized, burdened by the weight of time."
In this regard, the observation of famous and critical critic, M K Naik is also plausible and interesting:
“In his persistent use of images drawn from the world of science, especially in his early verse, Mahapatra has few peers among his contemporaries. The presence of these images can be easily accounted for, when it is remembered that physics is Mahapatra’s 'Kitchen Wench'.”
It is further substantiated and supported by following example:
"Mahapatra establishes three plausible relations between a poem and a reader by applying 'Electrostatic Theory of Physics’. A poem is essentially an experience and this might
(a) Reach the reader almost immediately, spontaneously--in the manner of electric charge passing through a good conductor such as copper or iron;
(b) Reach the reader with difficulty, slowly, under great stress, like that of charge passing through a bad conductor like glass; or
(c) Not be able to pass or communicate at all, as though there was a break or gap between them.... The capacity or power for conducting the essential experience of the poet will primarily depend upon the poem itself---on the poem's design." add this
It is his knowledge of Physics that enables him to explain the relation between a poem and the reader in splendid way. And can we predict promulgation of such principle from a pure literary pundit?
(vii) Last but not least, the poet is peerless in profundity, prolificacy, peculiarity and poignancy of his poetic imageries, symbols and visions. Mahapatra’s poems have a cornucopia of images. He grips them by the sleeves. He draws his images from family and domestic life, from culture, myth, science, and nature where rivers, sky, sea, rocks and stone, everything become alive in images. His poetry accentuates a keen consciousness of cultural and sociological traditions of his native locale but his visions and imageries seem to surpass all regional or national boundaries to attain universal appeal and implication. His poetry is varied in theme and content but what enhances the appeal of his poetry is his individualistic stance on the role and function of imagery. This puts the uninitiated reader under severe strain and perhaps because of such difficulty Mahapatra remains ignored by the general readers and critics as well but persistent readers are certainly be rewarded if they try to extricate themselves with the valid meaning or argument from them.
Mahapatra has taught Physics as a senior professor for a long time in the famed Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. In a revealing interview, he even declared his intention of abandoning his teaching job for giving more time to poetry. His late starting of writing poetry did not deter him from the path of creativity. Two important factors have also contributed to his development as a poet of distinctive originality. His encounter with Physics made him analytical, detached and ambivalent towards phenomenal world and ancestral beliefs at the same time. Similarly, his attitude towards poetry is quite exploratory but initially his feel for words and their sound qualities made him turns towards it. As for his themes, he is a personal poet, obsessed with hunger, poverty, loneliness and a search for roots and self. His attitude to Orissa, the place to which he belongs is, however, a matter of deep concern. As M K Naik has rightly pointed out, Mahapatra’s poetry is ‘redolent of the Orissa scene’ and even the titles of his copious poems demonstrate the unmistakable hallmark of Orissa:
(i) Dawn at Puri; (ii) Bhubaneswar; (iii) Orissa; (iv) Main Temple Street, Puri; (v) The Abandoned British Cemetry at Balasore, India; (vi) The Temple Road, Puri; (vii) Konarka; (viii) Rains in Orissa; (ix) The Captive Air of Chandipur-on Sea; (x) Tourists at the Railway Hotel, Puri; (xi) In an Orissa Village; (xii) In the Autumn Valleys of the Mahanandi; (xiii) Living in Orissa; (xiv) Deaths in Orissa; (xv) The Chariot Festival at Puri; (xvi) A Brief Orissa winter and (xvii) Puri
In critical evaluations he is usually described as a significant poet of Oriyan sensibility but this is only partially true. As a matter of fact, Mahapatra’s poems deal with intricacies of human relationships, social problems of post-indepdence phase, personal themes of love, sex, sensuality, marriage and philosophical or cultural issues as well. In addition to these, Mahapatra has a special interest in the predicament of man vis-à-vis Nature, Time and rush of history. He is an academic poet but his poetry is highly personal, allusive, ironic and even confidential.
If we map contour and compass of his poetry, we find that he has made every attempt to metamorphose from Oriyanness to Indianness and the books titled ‘Temple’ and ‘Dispossesed Nests’ are the best and relevant example of this. The former book deals with the weal and woes of ordinary women of India and the latter denounces barbarous and brutal killing of the innocents by the extremist and large scale death and devastation of human beings in Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Moreover, he is the avid fan and follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and ideology. Gandhi and Gandhism is the recurring captions, theme and essence of his multitude poems: The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic: 1975; Gandhi; 30th January, 1982: A Story (M Gandhi); The Fifteenth of August; Red Roses for Gandhi and Bewildered Wheatfields. At the same time Mahapatra is shattered at the deteriorating and declining moral and conduct of the people of India, which is in defiance of the Gandhi’s preaching and contemplation. Mahapatra reveals his worries in an interview with Sudeep Ghosh thus: “I belong to a lost generation. I can’t look into the future. You see, we were brought up on Gandhi, Dostoevsky and Tagore. Today, any trivial act ends up in violence; there is no more tolerance in people, or in organization. Gandhism is a word, a metaphor for people. We appear to have lost our ideals.”
Mahapatra is adept and ambidextrous in short and long poems. Bruce King has suggested that there is ‘variety’ in his poetry. His early poetry bears resemblance to various modernist and post-modernist movements in poetic styles and theories of craft (e.g. collage, Montage, Beat movement). In the next phase, this kind of abstractionism or surrealistic word-play is assimilated within a proper structure. In the last phase, there is greater clarity by means of the poet’s wrestling with location, myth, ritual and cultural background.
Mahapatra is a reflective poet with ironic stance. It is a poetry of exploration where the need for survival with dignity in the midst disease, corruption and decay seems to be basic preoccupation. He is a master of many rhythms and harmonies. He is at times satirical but at other times he is confessional but never lapses into mysticism or solipsism. Even in his early poetry, one can notice poet’s struggle with words and phrases as an attempt to come to terms with the hard reality.
If we take a bird’s eye view of the title of his volumes of poetry, we can easily conclude what could be the theme and matter of his poetry. Most of them imply tragic vision of life to which the poet is predominately and essentially committed. They connote bleak, barren, loneliness, silence, frustration and repentance:
(i) Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (ii) Waiting (iii) The False start (iv) Dispossessed Nests (v) Burden of Waves and Fruits (vi) A Whiteness of Bone (vii) Shadow Space (viii) Bare Face (ix) Random Descent and (x) The Lie Of Dawns: poems 1974-2008
Critics, authors, analysts and readers complain of lack of humour in his poetry. For this he has got his own reason and defence. In a conversation with Sudeep Ghosh, he reveals:
“Oh well, may be I was made that way. It is difficult for me to be humourous in the poems I write. There is so much despair in the world around me – so much hate, so much injustice, so much poverty. And religious fanaticism, for no reason. I wish I could write a humourous poem. I haven’t.”
In short, Jayanta Mahapatra finally emerges as a poet of human conditions and grows into one of the finest contemporary Indo-Anglican poets. Mahapatra is a poet of quiet but ironic reflection of life’s bitter-sweet memories, happenings and revelations. Indeed in recent years, a number of reviews, articles and discussions have taken place and the poet himself has clarified his position in his own articles and speeches but even now he remains a neglected poet. Some of his best poems: Dawn at Puri, Hunger, The Whorehouse in Calcutta, A Rain of Rites, Grandfather, Total Solar Eclipse, Temple, The Lost Children of America, Indian Summer Poem, Evening Landscape by the River, The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic:1975, have found mention in curricula of various schools, colleges, universities of the country and the world as well as in the anthologies of Indian and world poetry in English.
He has been editor of some literary journals and newspapers. They are: (i) Chandrabhaga is a bi-annual literary periodical, named after the eminent but arid river of Orissa. This magazine is of great significance to the poet as it provided launching pad to the poetic career of Mahapatra as he was able to establish approach and rapprochement with numerous editors and publish his plenteous poems in, of copious and coveted monthlies of the world. The publication of this journal ceased in 1985 after fourteen issues due to financial crunch and it has been again revived in the year 2000, in the wake of the earnest request and substantial support from his friends, followers and poetry lovers especially Rabindra K. Swain. Since then the magazine has been publishing uninterruptedly till date. (ii) South and West (U.S.A. special India issue, 1973) (iii) The poetry for the Sunday edition of the Telegraph (iv) The poetry journal ‘Kavya Bharati’
Moreover, his writings in prose have also appeared in various special issues. He has published a collection of short story (The Green Gardener) in English and also composed poems in Oriya to canvass and win the love, affection and support of local people. Besides, he has also translated poems from Oriya and Bengla into English which signifies his trilingual possession. He has won several laurels and distinguished awards inside and outside the country. The list of recent honours and awards conferred to him are:
(i) Allen Tate Poet Prize for 2009 from the Sewanee Review for his poems published in it in 2009.(26 July 09) (ii) An Honourary Doctorate by Ravenshaw University, Cuttack (02 May 09) (iii) ‘Padma Shree Award’ from the President of India (26 Jan 09)
Despite the mixed blessing of Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry, he was, he is and he will be remembered and mused by the poetry and literary lovers, in and out of the country, by virtue of the seeds of the verse sown by him. So let us conclude this essay by quoting an extract from the renowned British romantic poet, brimming and bubbling in confidence, P.B. Shelley:
“If I have been extinguished yet there rise A thousand beacons from the spark I bore”.