Literary Shelf

A Tribute to Jayanta Mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra, the first Indian poet writing in English to receive the Sahitya Academy Award for his book of verse, ‘Relationship’ in 1981, passed away on 27th August at the ripe age of 95.


Jayanta Mahapatra, the Odia-speaking doyen of Indian English poetry, is known more as a pioneering voice in Indian English poetry with a dozen titles in his name.

He was a physicist by profession and taught physics for about three decades at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. Yet, having endowed with deep intelligence and sensitivity towards emotions, and believing that “Poetry [is] the science of human emotions” he wrote poetry with the eye of a scientist delving too far into the unknown and unchartered domains of the living on the planet. Though claims to have “stumbled into poetry like a blind man who couldn’t see what was ahead of him”, Jayanta Mahapatra by “revealing himself” through his poems, indeed created a strong bond with his readers.

His major poetic volumes are: Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (1971), Svayamvara and Other Poems (1971), A Father’s Hours (1976), A Rain of Rites (1976), Waiting (1979), The False Start (1980), Relationship (1980), Burden of Waves and Fruit (1988), Temple (1989), Bare Face (2010), Random Descent (2021) and Noon (2023). “In his poetry, both theme and technique go together as he experiments with language poem after poem in trying to acquire inwardness with it. He is capable of using English language with passionate precision that helped him to establish his identity as India’s foremost poet in English” (Das, 2009).

He is a great imagist—as he exploits imagery and imagism like Ezra Pound, poems come to him as images and reflections and the reader would go on seeing them like a passenger gazing out of a moving train’s window. His images emanate from the exterior world of phenomenal reality and the surrealistic world and also the way these two worlds are related. As MK Naik Observed, image is the primary pigment of his poetry—indeed, it is almost his characteristic way of reacting to experience and also recording it. In the poem, "Evening Landscape by the River", we encounter his landscape imagery that is steeped in melancholy: “This is the kind of sadness which closes the eyes / Here the memory of faces of the dead never appears.” His images being highly evocative and haunting work wonders in his poetry.

He is equally powerful in myth-making. He weaves personal and private myths. As claimed by him in an interview, it is the “land of Orissa” — its “traditions, myths and the history” — that sustained his poetry by affording him “new outlooks and ideas”. It is his weaving the words around the local mythology that afforded his poetry “an accord with the social order, and of harmony with the universe”. Studded with such myths which carry social, moral and religious force, his poems directly speak to the readers about the essential humanity.

The moment I think of Jayanta Mahapatra, his poem “Dawn at Puri” — - the symbolic and metaphoric poem — - along with Hunger strikes to mind at once. The poem takes us to the Puri beach and the pilgrims visiting the Jagannath temple on the shore every day. Amidst the “Endless crow noises”, the poet notices “White-clad widowed women / past the centers of their lives / … waiting to enter the Great Temple” hoping to acquire peace—a faith so sacrosanct. “Their austere eyes / stare like those caught in a net / hanging by the dawn‘s shining strands of faith”. All this subtly hints at what they have withstood and what else remained in the lives of these “nameless women”. Then his gaze suddenly shifts to the beach again where “the smoky blaze of a sullen solitary pyre” reminds him of his aging mother’s “last wish to be cremated here” to acquire eternal bliss, which to the poet appears “uncertainly like light / on the shifting sands”. These lines speak of the realities of existence and the vagaries of life. The “endless crow noises”, the “solitary pyre” burning on the beach are such powerful imageries that are sure to knock us inwardly. The “skull in the holy sands” reminds us of our very existence and its end — indeed the very path that we have to tread. It is a poem of faith and doubt that is sure to transfix the reader in between.

"Hunger" is another poem of Jayanta Mahapatra that simply hits your conscious hard. For, it depicts bitter truths and hard realities of life. A fisher man, as his “white bone thrash his eyes” and believing that “the purpose with which he faced himself” affords sanctity to his words, asks the visitor, “will you have her [?]”. The lustful persona “followed him across the sprawling sands” with “the flesh [that] was heavy on my [his] back” and entering the hut that “opened like a wound” heard the fisherman saying, “My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen… / Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine”. In that “flickering dark”, the hunter extinguishes his hunger as the hunt “opened her wormy legs wide”. Thus, the poet, perhaps, gives an answer to the hunter’s hunger for ‘flesh’ and the hunt’s hunger of the belly. It is really difficult to believe if this can happen. The skies may crash over the offering of the father of his own daughter to prostitution, but the reality is that the brutal exasperation and desperation of the fisher man to sustain himself and his lean daughter with “the fish slithering, turning inside” on that sea beach could perhaps, find no other way. This is yet another reality of the human life: the flickering hope and burning aspirations taking us nowhere. The poem that is brutal in its precision of despair rattles the reader depicting life’s bitter truths and stark realities that are very hard to swallow.

His poems also echo philosophical elements: In the poem "Exile", we witness a realistic component: the mouldy village; the hills charred by the blazing Sun; the corpses burning on the funeral pyres; ashes hurled by the wind settling on skin; the old, ailing parents; the squalid town; and the long-haired priest of Kali into which the philosophy of the poet subtly creeps in: “It is an exile / Between good and evil / Where I need the sting of death.” Thus, he accomplished a fine blend of realism and surrealism in this poem.

"Listening to a Prayer" is another interesting poem that figured in his A Rain of Rites collection of poems which appeared from The University of Georgia Press, Athens, USA, published in 1976. In it, the bell placed in front of the “stone cuts” trembles hearing pains and wishes “of countless people” calling on the gods to pray and worship. “The temple square” was so jam-packed with people that “the wind / has nowhere to go”, and so settles on poet’s shoulder. Thus, there was “neither a silence/ nor an answer”—an answer to the trembling of the bell. Does the poem, slicing through the myth of “stone cuts”, suggest to bhaktaas supplicants to look for God inside their hearts and meditate on it silently?

Jayanta Mahapatra expounded a wide spectrum of themes—human relationships, social problems, love, sex, marriage, morality, human nature, and mother nature—using excellent language that matches the significance of the idea being elucidated.

His style of elaborating themes in his poems, the originality in articulating the subject, use of the most appropriate words and phrases to portray images enabled Mahapatra to become one of the leading Indo-Anglican poets and win many accolades, both internationally and domestically.

Here it is in order to say that this physicist-turned-poet striking a functional harmony between Mysticism and Science enquired, questioned, investigated the life around him, and came up with striking verses that show the promised land on the other side of the wilderness.

Besides being a poet of repute, Jayanta Mahapatra was also a distinguished editor of a literary magazine, Chandrabhaga that was published from Cuttack. He is known to have mentored many young poets so gracefully through the magazine.

I never met him but feel I know him through his poems. Somewhere in 2010 when we requested him to write a couple of poems for publication in our newly started The ICFAI University Journal of Commonwealth Literature, this poet instantaneously honoured us with two poems, viz., "Winter in a City" and "A Growing Ground". And the correspondence that we did have with him made us experience his infinite grace and humility, recalling of which causes Goosebumps even today.

We pay our humble tribute to this truly generous and magnificent poet who left for his heavenly abode on August 27, 2023, leaving behind the “world that dances only to darkness.”


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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