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Myth as Continuity: Contemporary Oriya Literature

Subhendu Mund

The perceptions of myth and archetype have of late been revivified owing to their natural spontaneity, collectivity, and universality. Myth criticism has progressively emerged as an influential discourse in the Western academia, especially after the Jungian submissions of “depth psychology” and “primordial images”, and Maud Baudkin’s path-breaking  Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) were substituted by more literarily meaningful construal of Northrop Frye in his canonical work The Anatomy of Criticism (1957). The early discourses identified the presence of underlying mythical patterns in all kinds of literature, and even described imaginative literature as articulations of essential mythic formulas and archetypes; but the influential contributions of Claude Levi-Strauss (Structural Anthropology: 1958, The Savage Mind: 1972, and Myth and Meaning: 1978), and the French structuralist Ronald Barthes (Mythologies: 1973) have further revised the extant perceptions, and the discourse now calls for less literary approaches to myth. The structuralist approach, for instance, looks upon myth and archetypes as “subconscious language”, and contentless system of signs. While Levi-Strauss presented myth as a kind of thought, halfway between precepts and concepts, Barthes looked upon it as a ‘naturalising function’. Myths of a bygone era being transformed into aesthetic structures, and becoming a way of representing reality, has opened up a new acuity that the mythic analogue involves a “view of the world as a form of timeless, static experience” (Lugowski 42).

In this age of interdisciplinary scholarship, myth and archetypes have paved the way for fresh interpretation and re-presentations in the realm of literature, an activity, which has always been deriving from myth. Interestingly, Northrop Frye, and not Jung, influenced the studies in myth and archetype that came into circulation in the Indian creative and the academic world a few decades ago. At the conceptual level, Frye’s project represented the social process of constructing and revitalising myths. Myth re-appeared before the readers as stories that are told and shared, re-told and re-interpreted by a multidimensional continuity. They were stories that “may give shape to some kind of ritual, some sense of continuity between what we do and what other people did in the past” (Abrams 10).

While the western academia was being enthralled by the newfound dynamics of the unconscious, our own bhasha literatures were also predictably influenced by it. There were painstaking scholastic interrogations on the prevalence of myth and archetypes in our modern literatures, and a linear analysis of texts became the order of the day. In the western critical methodology the concept basically emerged a useful tool for literary analysis that explored the synthesis between the universal and the particular, seeking to re-define the parameters of social construction of gender, and to construct theories of language, of the imaginal, and of meaning that take gender into account, while striving to re-locate the place of the modern individual and the society in the spectrum of eternal time and space.

While the West was trying to fabricate new myths, revitalise popular myths, and invent popular archetypes in a common ancestry in the western mythological systems in the Greek, Latin, Biblical literatures, etc., our intellectual response in India to the academic high drama was charged with awe and wonder. Little did we realise that our traditions abound with myth and archetypes which are intrinsically woven into our very sociocultural fabric, and that they are quite capable of multidimensional re-formations and re-interpretations even in the context of the modern and postmodern complexities. We must admit that the western engagement in the discourse was directly responsible for our awareness of the significance of myth studies, but its utility in the Indian context should have come to a close there. Our academe — even the creative writers, conscious artists as they are in the our times — was literally swayed away by the western critical upheaval over myth and archetype forgetting the fact that western critical parameters are not necessarily relevant to the appreciation of Indian literatures. G. N. Devy rightly observes, “Most of the Indian critical talent has been wasted in pursuit of theory, much of which has been totally irrelevant to literature in India” (106); and he further elaborates, “In criticism … modernism brought with it the trend of pseudo-theorizing, for most of it was theory based on alien theories without any relevance to Indian traditions” (117).  Sitakant Mahapatra, a poet appropriately given credit for his creative use of myth in poetry, has expressed chagrin over critical stereotyping in Oriya academia in his famous essay ‘Literary Criticism as Building of Bridges: A View from Oriya Literature’ (1993). Exemplifying the Yashoda myth, he points out, “A poet uses myths and archetypes to describe a contemporary or universal situation” (86), … “But critics can also look only for a mythical name to label a poem as using myth. This takes away the sense of discrimination which can make literary criticism meaningful and worthwhile”(87). A judicious balance, and an Indocentric approach, are, therefore, crucial in the appreciation of our bhasha literatures.

The scope of this paper is necessarily encyclopaedic as it entails an overview of Oriya literature so as to demonstrate my hypothesis of continuity, and also because I postulate that the creative use of myth and archetype in Oriya literature is not a recent phenomenon, but a well-established and continuous activity running through its history of many hundred years, independent of the fresh spate of intellectual interest in the related discourses both here and abroad. One can easily notice the presence of “collective motifs of the human psyche” in the canonical works written in different historical periods of Oriya literature. Nevertheless, my paper aims at foregrounding the ‘contemporary’ aspect by making a more detailed study of mythopoesis in the hitherto ignored postmodern Oriya writing and popular culture.

The uniqueness of our myths is that they originate from the matrix of a mainstream mythological system prevalent for ages in Bharatavarsha, and yet every subculture has its own versions, diversions, and interpretations of the grand narratives. In the puranas, mahakavyas, kavyas, even in our paraliterature, these have found fresh identities over the years, and have evolved continuity forever present in the creative as well as the popular psyche. In the Oriya literary tradition, myth, legend, history and folklore, often in overlapping intertextuality, form the very basis of imaginative literature. Even in its earliest compositions, for instance, in Keshaba Koili, by Markanda Das, one can see the play of mythopoesis through the sadharanikarana of Yashoda’s maternal agony of separation from her little foster son Krishna who had left her and Gopapura for Mathura on an irreversible journey. Beginning from Adikavi Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata, the first and the most versatile Oriya mahakavya written in the early fifteenth century, through the works of the sixteenth-century saint poets, most importantly Jagannath Das and Achyutananda Das, and then the Riti tradition, down to the pre-modern literature of the mid nineteenth century, Oriya literature has arguably had its roots in the Oriya systems of mythology. The archetypal patterns one finds in the corpus of Oriya literature of the last six hundred years or so have the extensions and re-formations of the extant patterns, moulded periodically in accordance with the authorial predilections or requirements of the sociocultural conditions. The archetypes, basically primordial images, form a part of the collective unconscious through imaginative ratifications in our puranas and mahakavyas. With time, they remain as the psychic residue of numberless experiences and interpretations of the same kind, and thus claim to become an integral part of the inherited response-pattern of our collective life.

The second half of the nineteenth century may be described as the Pre-Modern Age in Oriya literature, because it had its genesis in the cultural collision between the East and the West. Literature of this era flourished on an imaginative interplay of myth and archetypes with copious borrowing from the western traditions. While Gangadhar Meher, minimally affected by westernisation, strove to interpret mythology through an individualised perception of societal values and ethical principles in the colonial context as is evident in his Tapaswini, Keechaka Badha, Pranayaballari and Indumati. Madhu Sudan Rao, an idealist, sought similar expression through Sita Banabasa, and other poems. Radhanath Roy, the exponent of westernism in Oriya poetry, emerged as the most successful mythographer of his times by creating new myths, legends, and archetypes, as well as alternative histories in his poetical works, namely, Chilika, Usha, Chandrabhaga, Kedara-Gauri, Nandikeshari, Parbati, and Mahajatra.  Their great contemporary, Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918), the Father of Oriya fiction, employed myth as the very infrastructure of his novels (Chamana Athaguntha, Mamu, Prayaschita, and Lachama) and his short stories. Most of his successors have more or less emulated his puranic narratology. It might be of interest to mention here that many of the nineteenth-century poets and writers not only translated the Sanskrit texts of puranas, but also selected episodes and characters from mythology to create alternative mythologies. This tradition, a continuity of the earlier creative engagement with mythopoesis, gave a new lease of life to the tradition, notwithstanding the intervention of western ideas and forms channelised through English education.

The writers of the various ideologically motivated schools – the Satyabadi, the Sabuja, the Nationalist and the Sub-nationalist, even the Progressive — in the colonial period of the twentieth century could not do away with the overbearing presence of myth. They too continued the imaginative and innovative formulations of the archetypes and myth in one way or the other. Archetypes, continually getting revitalised and re-interpreted, and accumulated in the collective unconscious kept resurfacing to form and re-form images, now more evocative and meaningful with a somewhat conscious manipulation of the shared experiences in creative writing.

It is only after the Independence that modernism of Western literature, mainly English, could exert its influence over our literature, and our writers came up with a variety of experimentations in themes and techniques. In the 1960s, the modern sensibility seemed to creep into Oriya literature, especially in poetry and drama, and naturally enough, myth came in handy as the most efficacious vehicle of expression. The influence of Eliot, and the western literary movements like symbolism, imagism, impressionism, and expressionism, along with the unconscious presence of myth and archetype in the racial memory, helped the Oriya poets and writers of the post-sixties to completely switch over to mythopoetic approaches for their creative articulation.

Sachi Rautray, Anant Pattnaik, and the other pioneers of modern Oriya literature who had begun their career in the colonial era, drew copiously from the fountainhead of the Oriya collective unconscious and contextualised them in their works. It is interesting to note that a conscious use of myth was found in greater intensity in poetry rather than fiction. Godavarish Mohapatra, Gopinath Mohanty, Kanhu Charan Mohanty, Surendra Mohanty, Nityananda Mohapatra, and Raj Kishor Pattnaik were, generally speaking, writers of social realism, many of them taking national consciousness, Gandhian politics, national reconstruction, etc. as their sources of inspiration. It is interesting to observe that almost all of them, emulating Fakir Mohan Senapati, continued using a mythological framework both in plot construction and narrative style. Nevertheless, they did not forget to exploit myth and archetypes of their own tradition to re-present the colonial and the postcolonial conditions. Gandhi, for example, emerged as a new archetype in the popular consciousness, and was suitably employed in fiction. Surendra Mohanty’s Andha Digannta (1947) is a case in point. On the other hand, Gopinath Mohanty (Paraja, Amrutara Santana, and Dadi Budha) and Parashuram Mund (Mulia Pila: 1951, and Basundharara Mati: 1982) succeeded in formulating a new set of alternative myths and archetypes in their fictional works by drawing from the deities and rituals of the folklore and the ethnic tribes of Koraput and Kalahandi respectively.

One of the greatest influences in the post-independence era has been Surendra Mohanty, who revitalised Lord Jagannath as a very powerful and influential archetype through his two novels, Neela Shaila (1968) and Neeladribijaya (1972) by a skilful assimilation of history, legends, folklore and reality.  His works, in fact, demonstrate a well-defined contour of continuity of the Oriya tradition. The Jagannath archetype already alive in the collective unconscious got revivified through these two classics. It was further reinforced by popular fictional works like Chandra Sekhar Rath’s Ratha Saptaka, and the contemporary researches into the cult of Jagannath, as well as the support of the Puri-based Anam literary-cultural movement. It may not be irrelevant to mention here that it eventually gave rise to an epoch of Jagannath-centric popular culture in Orissa. The 1970s saw the beginning of a resurrection of sorts of the Jagannath archetype in popular imagination, and since then it has had unprecedented expressions in various forms: jatra, stage and radio plays, cinema, teleserials, music albums, etc.

Mention may be made here of those novelists who have culled from mythological sources to build up their narratives. Kanhu Charan Mohanty, a novelist of the earlier generation, borrowed a character from the Mahabharata, Satyabati, as the protagonist of his novel of the same title. Shantanu Kumar Acharya is a pathfinder, who has exploited a synthesis of myth, folklore and reality to produce his memorable novel Shakuntala. Nrusimha Charan Panda, Anadi Sahu and Surendra Satapathy may also be mentioned as exponents of myth and archetypes in their full-length fictional works.

Any study of myth and archetype in Oriya literature would be incomplete without highlighting the centrality of poetry and the contributions of Guru Prasad Mohanty, Bhanuji Rao, Ramakant Rath, and  Sitakant Mohapatra,  with a back-up constituted by such gifted poets of the second generation as Soubhagya Kumar Mishra, Prasanna Kumar Mishra, Deepak Mishra, Harihar Mishra and Rajendra Kishor Panda. Even the post-independence poets of the Progressive trend like Brajanath Rath and  Rabi Singh could not ignore the potency of mythopoesis  in their works. Ramakanta Rath and Sitakant Mahapatra, who have been dominating the poetic scene for the last forty years, have invariably been appreciated as mythographers of rare ingenuity. Rath has received laudatory critical attention for his complex and original treatment of a popular archetype in his magnum opus, Sri Radha, although he does not admit that it is “a myth-based work”. He explains, “The Radha I have taken efforts to characterize, is not the Radha portrayed in literary and religious tradition”, but the fact remains that he has exploited the extremely evocative mythical name/character of Radha, and has tried to present her – on his own admission — as the archetype of “the beloved” with “love-lorn feelings” is self-explanatory (qtd. in Kar 185). Mahapatra, on his part, is hailed as the most resourceful mythographer of modern Oriya poetry by drawing his mythical patterns and archetypes from the Oriya tradition right from his debut poem Astapadi,  to his recent works. Poets like Saurindra Barik (Upabharata, Anubharata) and Sharat Pradhan (Jajati, Hiranyakashipu), Pratibha Satapathy (Shabari), Suresh Parida (Kanhu) and others have also successfully re-presented characters from mythologies as archetypes in their works.

Oriya drama of the last thirty years or so, especially after the closure of the professional theatre and the emergence of the Naba Natya Andolan, modernists like Manoranjan Das, Biswajit Das, Bijay Kumar Mishra, Ratnakar Chaini, Ramesh Panigrahi, and Kartik Chandra Rath have ushered in a western influenced change both in theme and stagecraft. Some of the playwrights were so busy with the self-imposed task of casting the Oriya drama in the western mould – bringing in Gogol, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, Priestly, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, et al to the Oriya stage — that they nearly forgot mythography.  However, Mishra’s Parshuram, Chaini’s Punascha Pruthibi, Rath’s Jatugriha, Panigrahi’s Dhrutarastrara Akhi and Sri Sri Mahalakshmi Puja, Kunja Ray’s Chandrasena, Niladri Bhusan Harichandan’s Swargarohana – most of them written in or after the seventies – illustrate, in one way or the other, their engagement with mythopoesis. This almost initiated a new trend, and many of their successors, such as Dr Subodh Pattnaik (Abaruddha Uddhaba), Rati Ranjan Mishra (Sita), Bijaya Satapathy (Kamsara Atma, Karna), Pramod Tripathy (Suna Pariksha Dandadhari), and Shankar Tripathy (Pruthibi Sharashajya) exploited myth either as the source of inspiration or used the established archetypes as signifiers.

        The contemporary engagement with myth is, of course, qualitatively different from that of the previous ones. The literature of the past twenty years or so, especially the works of those poets and writers born around the time of decolonisation shows a marked departure from the earlier tradition both in theme and technique. Many of these writers may be called postmodernists considering the self-reflexive approach to their works.

Owing to the explosion in printing technology, such as the computer, and the availability of latest know-how, has made book production writer-friendly. The urge of self-expression has reached unprecedented heights, and as a result, there is an amazing increase in the quantity of published books. The quality of production is generally so good that it is difficult to make out the difference between the good, the bad and the indifferent ones. The overwhelming bulk of the books published in the last decade or so has become the critics’ nightmare. Moreover, the works of the writers who made their appearance during the last decade of the twentieth century is difficult to procure as most of them are published by the writers themselves or obscure publishing houses.

On the other hand, many of those writers who had started their career in the late sixties and the early seventies – the list would be painfully long – are still active, and are willing converts to the latest trends. Most of them are self-conscious, and interestingly, quite responsive to the ongoing movements in the literary world here and abroad. Postmodernism – yet another theoretical burden imported from the western academe as a package with globalisation — is the latest buzzword among the practicing writers of today.

The relevance of the recent trends or discourses to our social context is not contested here, but I am afraid that the procrustean application of the postmodernism to our culture and literature would perhaps do no good to the apprehension of our condition. The participation of theoreticians like Ronald Barthes and Levi-Strauss in the discourse has, admittedly, broken new grounds. The recent emergence of Nativist and Essentialist scholarship in the country has been trying to foreground various forms of paraliterature as alternative sources of myths and archetypes. The postmodern approach seems to underscore the participation of the popular lingo, subaltern articulations, the dalit voice, the tribal literatures, in short, the self-expression of the silenced, marginalised ‘Other’.

In the Oriya context, however, postmodern epistemology has appreciatively begun to see the established mythical patterns in a subversive manner. For instance, the feminist and the dalit views have of late changed the status quoist perceptions by taking a fresh look at our established institutions. One important feature of Orissa is the presence of various sub-cultures and sub-languages that have long been striving to achieve mainstream endorsement. For instance, the so-called Koshli, the rich, mellifluous sub-language spoken by about twenty million people living in the western part of Orissa, has yet to be recognised as a language, but there has been in the last few decades an impressive input of lyrics (very popular in Orissa), plays, even a couple of films, not to speak of the bulk of fervent literary exercises.  Interestingly, a substantial body of this literature consists of the re-telling of mythology, where commendable mythographical innovations may be noticed. The work of Haladhar Nag, for example, has of late compelled serious consideration. He has hardly received any formal education, but a gifted poet as he is; his work draws attention for its spontaneity and candidness of expression. Friends Publishers, a very respectable publishing house has already published his collected works in 2000. I would like to mention two of his very popular poetical works: Achia (The Untouchable), a commendable specimen of the dalit point of view, which re-creates the famous myth of the Shabari in the Ramayana to interrogate the basic issues involved in the caste hierarchy and communal segregation; and Bachar (The Year), which takes Earth and Time as characters, and formulates new archetypes out of them.  In the mainstream literature, this trend has inspired younger Oriya poets like Basudeb Sunani, Akhila Nayak, Bharat Majhi among others to formulate counter-myths to give voice to the Dalit angst.

The Orissan scenario of Feminist literature is not quite impressive. We do have a good number of women writers, but most of them still remain the prisoners of patriarchal stereotypes. The situation marginally changed in the 1980s, most probably due to intensity of the post feminist shift in the global movement.  This shift compatibly coincided with the intervention of a feminist interpretation in archetypal studies of literature. It brought about a new, and suggestive, but controversial extension to the discourse. Feminist archetypal theory and criticism of literature and the arts appeared in three canonical works: Annis Pratt’s Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (1981): a critique of Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934); Estella Lauter’s Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth Century Women (1984); and Estella Lauter and Carol Schreier Rupprecht’s Feminist Archetypal Theory: Interdisciplinary Re-Visions of Jungian Thought (1985). The eminent French feminist Julia Kriesteva also joined the discourse by acknowledging a Jungian contribution to the feminist discourse on the maternal. Interestingly, the 1980s Oriya literature, especially poetry, consciously or unconsciously seems to reflect a feminist archetypal attitude. Some notable examples are Pratibha Ray’s novel Jajnaseni (1985), and Pratibha Satapathy’s poetical works, Sahada Sundari (1978), and Shabari (1991). It would make an interesting study to compare the maternal archetypes of Yashoda as re-presented by Markanda Dasa’s fifteenth-century work Keshaba Koili, Sitakant Mahapatra’s Yashoda poem (1981), and the similar works of women poets, such as Bijayini Das, Pratibha Satapathy and Mamata Dash. The rising awareness of woman’s condition in a patriarchal framework keeps finding fresh archetypal mediums in the poetry of Giribala Mohanty, Manorama Biswal Mohapatra, Aparna Mohanty, Prabasini Mahakud Tiwari, Sunanda Tripathy, Sucheta Mishra, Ranjita Nayak, Indira Dash, and the new generation of younger talents. Feminist poetry of this trend strives to revitalise mythical archetypes to give expression to the present day realities related to the woman question.

Myth, as submitted earlier, has been a rich source of creative imagination in Oriya literature since its earliest times. Contemporary literature has modestly been a continuity of the great tradition albeit with a more conscious and centripetal exploitation. In the process, our writers have re-discovered a new medium to articulate their perceptions of the contemporary life, and in turn, our literature has been able to connect itself to the roots of the Oriya psyche. Thus, Myth and Oriya literature at contemporary times also continue to be interdependent and complementary to each other.

Mund, Subhendu. ‘Myth as Continuity: Contemporary Oriya Literature’. Myth in Contemporary Indian Literature. Ed. K. Satchidanandan. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2010. 60-70.

  Works Cited

Abrams, M. H..   A Glossary of Literary Terms.  1947.  New Delhi: Macmillan, 1996.

Devy, G. N.. After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Criticism.  Bombay: Orient

Longman, 1992.

Kar, Nishamani.  ‘Sriradha: A Study’. Indian Literature.  202. Mar-Apr. 2001. 184-92.

Mahapatra, Sitakant.  Discovering the Inscape: Essays on Literature.  Delhi:  B. R.

Publishing Corporation, 1993.

Lugowski, Clemens. Form, Individuality and the Novel: An Analysis of Narrative                        

         Structure in Early German Prose. 1932.  Trans.  John Dixon Haliday.  Oxford:

Polity Press, 1990.


About Ashok Palit

Ashok Palit has completed his graduation from Upendranath College Soro, Balasore and post graduation from Utkal University in Odia Language and literture.. He has also carved out a niche for himself as a scribe of eminence after joining the profession in 1988. He is also an independent media production professional. He brings loads of experience to Advanced Media, Ashok Palit as a cineaste has been active in film criticism for over three decades. As a film society activist, he soared to eminence for his profound commitment to the art film appreciation and aesthetics of cinema. His mode of discourse is often erudite but always lucid and comprehensible marked by a perfect acumen so rare in the field. A film aesthete with an immense fond of critical sensibilities, he wrote about growth and development of odia cinema in New Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Asian Age and Screen. He has been working as an Editor for Cine Samaya from 2002-2004.. He had made solid contribution on cinema in many odia Dailies and weekly such as Samaj, Prajatantra, Dharatri, Samaya, Satabadi, and weekly Samaya.

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