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Jayanta Mahapatra – A Poet Par Excellence

Dr Bhaskar Roy Barman

Jayanta Mahapatra, one of the most respected poets writing in Indian English, has been recognized as a poet par excellence and has, so to say, laid the foundations of Indian poetry as one of the widely recognized trio, consisting, besides him, of A.K. Ramanujan and R, Parthasarathy. He distinguished himself from the other two members of the trio in refusing to stay put in the Bombay School of poets. He has succeeded in carving out a permanent niche in the world of Indian poetry by articulating a poetic voice distinct from those of the other two because he is the voice tranquil.

In this paper, I shall strive to elaborate on my thesis that Jayanta Mahapatra is a poet par excellence. He has authored, among others, poems rich with a classical dimension such as ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Hunger.’ I shall deal with these two poems a little later. Before doing that, I shall augment my smattering of knowledge of Jayanta Mahapatra’s life and works with a new perspective. We should remember that Jayanta Mahapatra is an offspring of Oriya literature.

Born on 22 October 1928, Jayanta Mahapatra was the first Indian English poet to have bagged the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award which has added a golden feather to his crown and been tagged to his literary career. The conferment of ‘Padmashri,’ the fourth highest civilian honour in India, upon him, has catapulted him into a singular prominence throughout the world. But he returned the honour in 2015 in protest against intolerance in India. In a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, Mahapatra wrote, “Mine is a small insignificant step. But it is my way of showing protest to the growing asymmetry that is evident in the country. I express my desire to return the award. My act should not be interpreted as any kind of dishonour to the country.” (Reported in Times of India, 22 November 2015). The 88-year-old poet received the civilian award in 2009 for his contribution to the field of literature.

Jayanta Mahapatra, born into a prominent Christian family in Odisha, had his schooling at Stewart School and went on to do higher studies at Patna University, Bihar. He obtained an MSc degree in physics from that University and taught this subject at various government colleges in Odisha with a reputation.

Jayanta Mahapatra’s unrivalled poetic talent manifested itself in the publication of 27 poetry collections, 7 in Odia and 20 in English, including, among others, “Relationship,” “Bare Face” and “Shadow Face.” In addition to writing poetry, he has manoeuvred his literary talent into exploring the domain of prose by publishing, among others, “Green Gardener,” an anthology of short stories, and “Door of Paper: Essays and Memoirs.”

I have not set out to elaborate on how many poetry collections Jayanta Mahapatra has written or how many awards he has received; they count for little in the backdrop of his contribution to enriching Indian English poetry which paved the way for him to become a poet par excellence. As we know, Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetic talent has been nourished by the atmosphere around the landscape of Odisha.

Post-colonial Indian English poetry and post-colonial English literature are new terms for commonwealth literature outside of Anglo-American tradition. ‘It is different from colonial English poetry (i.e., Pre-Independence Indian English poetry) in the treatment of themes, choice of imagery, and creation of new idioms.’ (Das,130). The Indian English movement which occurred in the fifties and sixties went to the extent of decrying, perhaps unjustly, such pre-Independence poets as Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, and Sri Aurobindo, because their poetry smacked of the Romantics and the Victorians and ‘followed the genteel English poets and the confessing Americans.’ (103). In the seventies, post-colonial poetry shook itself free of the influence of such poets as T.S. Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and so on, emerged as an independent genre, and asserted itself in a sound and varied perspective. Orissa has significantly contributed to the growth and development of English poetry in the post-colonial era.

Jayanta Mahapatra is singled out as being the first to have introduced Indian English poetry in Odisha. He is read and discussed throughout the world, as are Nissim Ezekiel and A.K. Ramanujan. His poetry, unlike those of Nissim Ezekiel and A.K. Ramanujan, has a pungent flavour of obscurity, complexity, and elusiveness.

As a poet par excellence, as I say, Jayanta Mahapatra presented himself late in Indian English poetry. He started writing poetry at the age of forty. His first book of verse, “Close the Sky Ten by Ten,” which was published in 1971, when he was about forty-five years old, brooked no delay in bringing him recognition as a poet of importance. His other works of poetry came in quick succession, such as, to name just a few, “A Father’s Hours” published in 1976, “A Rain of Rites” in 1976, “Relationship” in 1980, and so on.

Jayanta Mahapatra began writing poetry on the moulds of the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Nissim Ezekiel. After his poetry matured considerably, he switched over to writing his poetry on the mould of his own experiences, thoughts, and impressions of the world around him. The truth is that the English language did determine his writing, through his readings of many eminent English poets. Jayanta Mahapatra confessed to his being infatuated with the English language in an interview given to Madhusudan Prasad, reference “The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra” edited by Norman Simms (1986). He said, ‘I started writing poetry late…When I began, I suppose I was more carried away by what the English language can do; I was so much obsessed with the feel of words, and their sound qualities. It was a wrong thing, perhaps, a craze for language, and hence my first poems were in a way, attempts in which the language left the ideas of the poems behind them, lost in the depths of words. But as the years went by and I went on to publish more, finding out what my contemporaries in other countries wrote, my notions of poetry kept changing, Today I see that the idea behind the poem (or in the poem) is slowly beginning to surface, and my poems are being more direct ones.’

Before passing on to dealing with Jayanta Mahapatra’s two poems ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Hunger,’ I shall rivet my readers’ attention on the themes of his poems. Jayant Mahapatra steers his ‘thematic concerns’ around dealing with sex, sexuality, and poverty. He is said to have excelled over other poets in exploring Odisha’s cultural tradition and background and particularly its landscape encapsulating its social life, tribes, and rituals of the people of Odisha.

There are a good many poems concerned with sex, sexuality, and poverty, and among them are, ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Hunger,’ in which the poet peeps deep into what contributes to the fulfilment of sexual urges and constitutes harlotry. Another poem ‘Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street’ is no less important than the two poems referred to. This poem demands to be dealt with in some detail. This long poem deals with how poverty squeezes a poverty-stricken girl into taking to the path to prostitution and shows in realistic detail the relationship between a prostitute and her customer. The customer in the poem indulges himself in sex with the prostitute and suddenly finds himself assailed by a sense of guilt and a feeling of shame at having sexual intercourse. He feels, at the same time, that he is learning something grim about women. Suddenly he hearkens back to reality in the prostitute’s words ‘Hurry, will you? Let me go.’ And these words fling at him a realization of where he stands concerning the prostitute.

As a poet par excellence, Jayanta Mahapatra has not stayed put on the aspects of sex, sexuality, and poverty. He sometimes has moved around to the psychological and the philosophical. There are many psychological, philosophical, and reflective poems he has written, conspicuous among them are ‘The Logic,’ ‘Grass,’ ‘The Exile,’ ‘The Abandoned British Cemetery at Balasore,’ ‘Total Solar Eclipse,’ and ‘The Moon Moment.’ I shall pick only a few poems to touch upon here, in consideration of the constraint of space. ‘The Solar Eclipse’ deals with scientific and superficial approaches to the natural phenomenon of the solar eclipse. The scientific approach consists in saying that ‘Quietly the moon’s dark well moves on’ and the non-scientific approach of ‘the fearsome Brahmin’ priest is saying that ‘the darkened sun is a portent of the gods.’ ‘The Exile’ philosophises realistically on land’s distance; the mouldy village; the hills charred by the sun; the corpses burning on the funeral pyres; the old, ailing squalid town; and the long-haired priest of Kali. The poems treat a tussle of good and evil to defeat each other which has a pungent flavour of ‘realism and surrealism’ blended. ‘The Abandoned British Cemetery at Balasore’ is again a psychological poem, reflecting on the dead in the deaths of young persons.

In all his poems Jayanta Mahapatra tries to probe deep into human nature. Now I shall pass on to the two poems ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Hunger.’ Three poems, such as ‘Indian Summer,’ ‘A Missing Person’ and ‘Dawn at Puri,’ which form a trio, so to say, leaped to prominence in the early part of the twentieth century, The poetry in the trio is categorized as Imagist poetry, the movement founded by Ezra Pound. Imagist poetry characterizes itself by being short, rhythmic, concrete, and concise in language and imagery.

I shall discuss the poems ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Hunger’ in light of this theory. ‘Indian Summer’ written in line with the imagist poetry referred to, is a very short poem interspersed with vivid and concrete pictures. This poem does not zoom in on a specific idea, so it is difficult to locate the actual theme in this poem. The theme purports to be assimilation as images of temple priests chanting their sacred verses in voices louder than is usually against the wind blowing sombre, crocodiles slithering back into deeper waters, and heaps of rubbish set afire smouldering in the morning sunlight. The pictures presented in the poem are not connected. Such things often happen in an Indian summer. Readers are likely to bump into a different and intimate picture presented in isolation from the wonted pictures of an Indian summer. The picture is of the speaker’s wife, dreaming in the long afternoon, lying on the bed, indifferent to the sounds emanating from the funeral pyres burning nearby and this picture closes the poem.

Now about the poem ‘Hunger.’ It treats how a poor fisherman is forced by poverty into selling the body of his teenage daughter to her customers to have extra money earned in addition to his regular money earned by selling fish. The protagonist, that is the speaker in the poem, had his sexual desire gratified by the teenage daughter of the fisherman. The poor fisherman’s daughter so succumbed to stark poverty has to allow her customers to use her body to earn money to help provide food for herself and her father. The poem has a psychological flavour. The protagonist appears torn by a conflict between passion and a sense of guilt. He, to seek relief from the burden of his familial and social anxieties, had sexual intercourse with the fisherman’s daughter, but at the same time felt assailed by a sense of guilt for having de-womanized the innocent girl. The poem is aimed at demystifying the life lived in the so-called red-light zones.

References:

Das, Bijay Kumar. Critical Essays on Post-Colonial Literature. Atlantic

Publishers &Distributors Pvt. Ltd: New Delhi, 2007.

Dr Bhaskar Roy Barman  was born in Feb 1950 at Badurtala, Comilla (now in Bangladesh). He is an internationally published poet, short-story writer, novelist, translator, critic and book-reviewer. He did  M.A. in English literature, B. Ed. (Methods in Teaching) and D.Litt in Language and Linguistics. He is presently working as a teacher. He has to his credit two books of fiction besides editing two books and translating one.His published works include:  (i) Modern Short Stories : The Trap & other short Stories, (ii) Gateway to Heaven (novel), (iii) Folktales of Tripura (iv) The Rhymester (a novel translated from Bengali) and (v) Mélange : An anthology of short stories (translated from Bengali).

Among his awards is the Tripura Ratna (India).

Courtesy:Muse India(Issue 105 (Sep-Oct 2022)

About Editor in chief

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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