Reflections on Jayanta Mahapatra

Dr. Zinia Mitra, Nakshalbari College, Darjeeling, India

I consider myself opportune indeed to have been able to work on a poet living and active, opportune enough to have been able to correspond with him personally. What drew me to do my thesis on his poetry was the research gap and more importantly, his poetry. After I began corresponding with him, inquiring this and that, some from the point of view of a research scholar and some more from unadorned human curiosity, I found him a custodian of a wonderful mind, sound and modest.

After a few correspondences and conversations the poet planned to visit Darjeeling which never quite worked out. Instead I had the opportunity to visit his house in Tinkonia Bagicha, Cuttack. I was invited at a translation workshop in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Mahapatra lives in Cuttack, which is 26 kilometers away from Bhubaneswar. Now who would miss such a chance?   I called up to inform him that I was in Bhubaneswar, and he invited me over. His invitation was warm and spontaneous. Just as to visit Konark is to be strongly reminded of Samba (Kalkut), to visit Khoyai is to be strongly reminded of Ramkinjkar Baij, to visit Orissa is to breathe in the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra –so rooted is his poetry in that land.

A man does not mean anything.

   But the place.

   Sitting on the riverbank throwing pebbles

   Into the muddy current

   A man becomes the place.

                                   (Somewhere , My Man)

His house at Tinkonia Bagicha stood like an unedited volume of poetry   shaded by tall old trees. The poet lives there alone warm and happy, in a world of his own, surrounded by books, papers, letters, pieces of unfinished writings and with a mind that extends beyond the four rooms and also beyond the land we call Orissa.

Jayanta Mahapatra can be called one of the founders of the modernist tradition in Indian poetry in English. The other names that come up when we discuss him in this light are those of Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy. Manu Dash   calls Mahapatra one of India’s finest living practitioners of poetry in English, (Wings Over the Mahanadi). When we read the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra along with other Indian English poets of his generation, we find that these poets whittle a similar response to their background. They all strongly share a sense of rootedness. The linguistic and religious identity that they share and reflect is seen today as the aftermath of a protracted decolonization that had inspired India after its independence.

To live here…

     antlered in sickness and disease ,

     in the past of uncomprehended totems,

     and the split blood of ancestors.

   One would wear like an amulet. (Shadow Space)

Yet Mahapatra’s poetry has a distinct fiber of its own. Although his poetic persona is the centre of every poem he writes, he does not meddle with the incidents or the scenes he describes. He maintains the deportment of a distanced estranged spectator with a tranquil voice of his own that gives his poetry a voice distinct from those of his contemporaries.

The conversation at his house took an interesting turn. Mahapatra was pursued by a desperate urge to express himself, as he wrote in Father’s Hours,

Somewhere ,the urge to talk about oneself

Consumes the entire lifetime.

His desperation made him eventually take up poetry writing. He took up his pen when he was forty, a time when most of the poets reach the crest of their career . But he reaped amazing results. Amazing not only because of the extensive list of awards he won beginning with International Who’s Who in Poetry, London, 1970 (second prize), the prestigious Jacob Glatstein Memorial Award (Chicago) 1975, to Raed Leaf Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry, 2013, Hyderabad, Padma Shree award in 2009, not only because of the extensive list of the invitations to poetry reading that he received both within the country and abroad, but also, or, more so, because a lecturer in physics ended up as a doctorate in literature (honorois causa).

Mahapatra was a school going child during the second world war. Air base had been set up just beyond his town and the daily newspaper brought in news of war. Like many others during the war the poet’s family survived on meager rations. During the period there was poverty evident all around. Poverty stricken men whined, suffered from epileptic fits. There were blind boys and girls, cripples and beggars. The poet habitually escaped the harsh world into a world of his imagination, a world of dreams and readings. But that did not make him insentient of his surroundings. They all persisted in his mind to recur later as imperative images in his poetry. Childhood also occupies an important place in Mahapatra’s poetry. Many of his poems are a looking back at that unforgettable past, that meek and shy Jayanta that he has left behind.

there is a past which moves over

the magic slopes and hamlets of the mind,

whose breath measures the purpose of our lives.

To study a poet’s or writer’s life, a researcher conventionally divides her/his life into three or more phases, the beginning, the middle and the end or divides the oeuvre by some major incidents that affect his/her life, and , that, as critics would claim, have palpable influence on his/her writing. Though admittedly, it makes little sense, many poets seem to comfortably walk away with it. In case of Jayanta Mahapatra we can perceive his entire oeuvre separated by a thin line into two distinct stages : the Experimental Stage ,when the poet was seemingly experimenting with the medium of his expression, and the later Experiential Stage when he emerged as a poet sure of himself. His Experiential stage, stylistically and thematically, grows palpably out of his Experimental Stage.

The first two volumes of Mahapatra, Close the Sky Ten by Ten (Dialogue Publishers, Calcutta) and Svyamvara and Other Poems ( Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta) both published in 1971, are slim volumes that show the poet’s preoccupation with the form of poetry. Jayanta Mahapatra’s name does not appear in the anthology edited by V.K. Gokak that was first published in 1970 (Mahapatra’s first volumes in 1971) and has its thirteenth printing in 2004, though it included poems of Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K.Ramanujan, P.Lal. I am not certain if editors would pick or have picked any poems from these two volumes to represent Mahapatra. It is with A Father’s Hours (Delhi: United Writers,1976 ) and A Rain of Rites  (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press 1976) that the poet begins his flight. In the volumes that follow, he reveals himself as an imagist , sometimes a surrealist, a realist occasionally bordering on the confessional mode, a social thinker , and even a feminist, if we look deeply at the images of women that his poetry gives us. An item in the newspaper disturbs him and he takes his pen and cries his heart out. However, as I have said before, he maintains the stance of a detached observer throughout. Mahapatra is also considerably influenced by the ‘open field poetry’ of Robert Bly and James Wright. Many of his poems characteristically begin with an observation of the natural world and rapidly gives way to obscure personal associations of guilt, failure, childhood memories, hope or desire that find expression and fulfillment in a private world of his own. It is because of such poems that stir something deep inside us, his minute realistic observations, his particular detachment, that his poems haul us so strongly and even after we are done with reading Mahapatra we are not quite done with him.

Dr. Zinia Mitra is the Head of the Department of English at Nakshalbari College, Darjeeling, India. She has carved a niche for herself as a critic, reviewer and translator. Her travelogues and articles have been published in The Statesman. Her reviews, articles, translations have been widely published in books and journals. Her books include: Indian Poetry in English Critical Essays , Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: Imagery and Experiential Identity and Twentieth Century British Literature: Reconstructing Literary Sensibility. She is on the advisory /editorial board of academic journals. Her poems have been published in Muse India, Ruminations, Contemporary Literary Review India , Kavya Bharati. She was the invited poet at the Fifth International Poetry Fest, Andra Pradesh, India. Contact: ziniamitra@gmail.com

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