Articles /Interviews

In Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra


It was a windy day, perhaps going to rain. I was eagerly waiting for 6 pm since I was going to meet poet Jayanta Mahapatra at his residence in Tinikonia Bagicha, Cuttack,Odisha, for the first time. I mean for the first time at his residence. I had met the legendary poet a couple of times earlier, once when he had been invited to hand over the gold medal to me as the topper of the University in a seminar in BU, Odisha in 1995. I was quite mesmerized to see the poet in his calm-like-the-Buddha countenance. Again I met him at Sahitya Akadmi a few years ago in Delhi, after I had completed my PhD on his poetry along with the poetry of three other Indian English poets. I speak to Jayanta-da over phone quite often, and he and Mausi (his late wife) had been inviting me to their place. But I was most unfortunate since I got a chance to visit Cuttack only after the sad demise of Mausi.

Jayanta Mahapatra (1928): Besides being one of the finest English poets of the global poetry canon, Mahapatra is also a part of the trio of Indian poets who laid the foundations of Indian English Poetry. He has authored 19 books of poems. He is the recipient of most prestigious literary awards like the SAARC literary Award, Allen Tate Poet Prize, Padmashree, Sahitya Akademi Award and many others.

Anyway, everything happens in its own time, so did my visit to Jayanta-da’s place. I reached on time, and found the same, ever-smiling, warm-hearted, thin, composed and smart Jayanta-da, receiving me and my son Parth with open arms. We had a long chat - about poetry, art, culture and academia (and even Odia food!) while my son was busy clicking photographs of every detail of his sweet home and chatting with his house keeper, a nice and caring lady. Jayanta-da offered us the best samosas of Cuttack, insisted like a parent that we should eat a few more! I was amazed, looking at him, his simplicity, listening to his words, looking at the black-and-white  photographs of his Cleopatra-like beautiful late-wife, greeting us from the walls of his “little study”, that he showed me with a child-like enthusiasm. It was an evening that made my life a little more meaningful!!

In this interview with Jayanta Mahapatra, the father of Indian English Poetry, I quote a few excerpts from my discussion with him that evening:

Nandini Sahu:  Jayanta-da, could you please tell me, why is poetry important to you?

Jayanta Mahapatra:  I cannot deny that the writing of poetry has been a cathartic means for me to purge myself of the various imperfections in my life. This has been more so in the beginning stages of my creative career, I Suppose. Poetry’s cleansing effect was important for me; the sort of relief I experienced when I finished a poem filled my whole being. Gradually, however, the sharpness of this feeling disappeared as I went from poem to poem. And poetry became crucial for me. It became a need. It’s strange how certain things come into your life and never let you go. Like a trap. And so, poetry held me, like a mysterious disease, or an illness.  

NS: How do you begin to plan a new poem?

JM: No, there is no planning whatsoever when I go on to a new poem. Maybe very few poems of mine have been planned. I think a poem like “Grandfather” was planned, there was history behind it. Or else a new poem emerges out of a sudden feeling, perhaps a phrase, an idea, a consciousness of something, or a consciousness of my own self. I began writing late in life, and I knew nothing about writing a poem then. It was a kind of hunger that words could fill. At times those words could make a poem, mostly they failed to make the poem. I left it to my inner sense to complete the poem, and the process was intuitive, exploratory.

NS. What is the relationship between the voice of your discourse voice and your writing voice?  
JM. I feel this question has a great relevance for those writers who do their creative writing in English. And in India one cannot ignore the fact that English, as it is spoken, varies from state to state, from one part of the country to another. Let me not go into this particular angle. I’d like to think that my speaking voice goes into my writing voice, almost, I would say. But even this isn’t true. For example, if I consider a word like “otherness”, it would merge perfectly into the English poem I am working on. But this word would not, generally be carried in the voice I am using to communicate with another person. But perhaps I don’t understand these things…. I belong to a generation where language was a formal medium; the literatures I have read have intensified this idea. It would be hard for me to use the speech of the new generation, the “digital” generation. I’d be content to keep my writing voice similar to my speaking voice in my poems. Finally, I’d conclude by saying that I’d like to write the language I’ve learnt all these years.

NS. Jayanta-da, of late, you are writing your autobiography in your mother tongue, Odia. Which language are you more comfortable with – English or Odia?

JM. Perhaps I am more at ease when I am writing my autobiography in Odia. There are no obstacles, no walls that I encounter when I am using Odia; the prose is meant for Odia readers and there is nothing “foreign” in it. There is no armor I have put on here and my prose should reveal the man inside, that is, me. And yet, because I read English, spoke English since I was four or five; because we had to use English all the time during school hours it was mandatory, you know, that I developed that love and fascination for the English language. It was my “grooming” in the English language that went on for 38 years – before I started to write poetry in English.

Later, I began to use my mother tongue, which is Odia. As to whether I am “more” comfortable with Odia or with English, it is not right for me to name one of the two. For me, the potential of English is great, and I could say that my obsession with English as a language for creative writing has gone into making my identity as a poet.

NS. Culture plays a very important role in your narrative. How and why do different cultures work as an inspiration to your work?

JM. When you talk of culture, I’d naturally go to my Odia culture, to my roots, from what I have imbibed from my parents and friends. I can truthfully say that I continue to be, even at this late age, to be affected by those early approaches of my parents. In a way, haunted. And it is not possible that I break free from those things, whether good or bad. This Odia culture has gone on to build my identity as a person, and then as a poet.

Learning is important for me, and as I have advanced in years, I realize how much the influence of great writers have been. I’ve learnt much, from poetry, from fiction and philosophy – from these great writers and their different cultures. I still go on learning from new writers that I discover, and so from their cultures. I am certain these have gone into the making of my own work.   

NS. I have often discovered that Indian mythology enriches, augments your poetry. I would request you to please comment.

JM. Even when dawn is breaking over Cuttack, my home town, myths are taking up my waking hours. Myths that have gradually become reality. And my poems, when I begin to write them, use whatever is happening around me…. Look, if you are implying about the deliberate use of mythology in my poems, I don’t think you are right. However, myths are a part of our culture and poetry has to go on with them. But I don’t think Indian mythology has “enriched” my poetry. I feel the real object of all writing is to communicate something of importance, to find readers who would believe in your poetry. That’s all.

NS. I have a curious question for you Jayanta-da. Who,do you think, are the good poets on Indian English poetry today?

JM. The “good poets”? I wouldn’t know. Every poet has a good line or so, including me, but good poets are hard to find. Everywhere.

NS. In that case, what, do you think, is the future of Indian English poetry?

JM. One can see that English is not on the way out in India, as was envisaged by our
intellectuals fifty years ago. And I believe Indian English poetry is going to stay. Whether the future of this poetry is something to look forward to, is a different matter.

NS. Looking at the perfectionist that you are, I would like to know, do you revise and rewrite your poems?

JM. Yes, I do. And I believe every poet does this. A lot of revision has to be done.

NS. What would be your advice to the younger generation of poets?

JM. I don’t have anything to say. A poet has to write, has to keep on writing. Period. 

NS. Thank you, Jayanta-da, for sparing your precious time.

More by : Dr. Nandini Sahu
Views: 6208      Comments: 9

Comments on this Poem Article


02-Dec-2019 01:27 AM

Comment Jayant Babu,
I have admired your courage to return the title bestowed on you which has on date grown to be a farce. Somehow or other, the very system constipates me but then, inability to protest, one has no choice but to digest it. I do not wish to be credited for loving my parents doing all that I must gratefully in being the son. The game is seeking to be known, to grow taller than one is, exert influence despite merit don't entitle, pronounced great minus that truly pronounces it, Its to seeking identity in being starved to be somebody. I have known and met some such persons. They have great ability to manoeuvre greater than their creative ability. Here I admire you. A flower needs no credit for flowering neither makes any effort to attract any recognition. Its not for sale. It is contented in being it is seeking nothing. Its us who demand credit for addressing father as a father or brother as a brother.
may I see you sometime as may be convenient to you. I am in Bhubaneswar and my email id is:

Tarun K. Kanungo
26-Nov-2015 00:00 AM

Comment I am research scholar in area poet of jayanta I would like to contact and meet in wait your appointment. I try so many times but I can't contact. please will give me your cell number and address sir.

18-Apr-2014 00:00 AM

Comment We are in Jayanta da!He remains the 'Father' of modern Indian English poetry.The statement may be interpreted as bias and partial.Indian English poetry became an engagement and passion for many with this great personality from Cuttack(as opposed to any metro city). Thank you Nandini for this very special interview with Jayanta da! I re-visit my visits to Tinkinia Bagicha....Jaydeep Sarangi

Jaydeep Sarangi
02-Sep-2013 00:00 AM

Comment Dr Nandini Sahu,I have gone through your research work which is really a precious work.It's really an opportunity to have some time with such a great poet of international repute.your interview with Jayanta Mahapatra is a brilliant one.What you have discussed with him is a source of inspiration to many.We are benefited by the interview.

Dr Shiba Shankar Nath

Dr Shiba Shankar Nath
29-Dec-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Thanks Prof Nandini ji for a nice interview with Jayanto da, the poet I adore most.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
03-Nov-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Wonderful interview. The questions are sensitive and thoughtful and the responses laced with a rich tapestry of wisdom, brevity and modesty. Congrats to Dr. Nandini for revealing to us the mind, the heart and the soul of a poet par excellence!
Even Jayant da's prose is like poetry.

Ramendra Kumar
01-Nov-2012 00:00 AM

Comment Excellent interview! Jayanta Babu's revelations are very much suggestive and inspiring. Dr. Nandini Sahoo has done a wonderful job.

Bipin Patsani
31-Oct-2012 00:00 AM

Comment A perceptive interview in which Prof. Nandini has focused on many unknown aspects of Jayanta Mahapatra's poetry. The great stalwart of Indian English poetry is now reaching the extreme end of senility. But still he is very much active in his mind. His sensitive mind is beautifully revealed in the interview. Nandini writes beautifully and herself being a great poetic soul feels the greatness of another poet. There is a homeliness in the interview and the capacity for visualisation of the within of 'the' poet who is now nearly silent but gives vent to his pent up feelings and ideas to the interviewer .We are benefited by the interview.

Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee
30-Oct-2012 00:00 AM


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