Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry & the Quest for the Self through the Soil

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Quest for the Self through the Soil in Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry

By – Subhajit Mukherjee (introduction at the end of the paper), Vol. III, Issue. XXVI, March 2017

            After the period of Independence and more particularly during the 1950’s and 60’s, Indian poetry in English began to flourish in a new way. Under the leadership of Nissim Ezekiel, it broadened its vistas. Poetry became inward-looking and much more realistic. In the post-Independent poets, we can feel a radical shift in their writing—a shift from the macrocosm of the country to the microcosm of the self. If the pre-Independence poets were identity-conscious, the post-Independence poets became identity-conscious and medium conscious, the one supplementing the other. Post-Independent India also witnessed a characteristic change in Indian English Poetry. It is now Indian in sensibility, Indian in

After the period of Independence and more particularly during the 1950’s and 60’s, Indian poetry in English began to flourish in a new way. Under the leadership of Nissim Ezekiel, it broadened its vistas. Poetry became inward-looking and much more realistic. In the post-Independent poets, we can feel a radical shift in their writing—a shift from the macrocosm of the country to the microcosm of the self. If the pre-Independence poets were identity-conscious, the post-Independence poets became identity-conscious and medium conscious, the one supplementing the other. Post-Independent India also witnessed a characteristic change in Indian English Poetry. It is now Indian in sensibility, Indian in choice of themes and ideas, and English only in language. It is rooted in and stems from the Indian milieu and environment, culture and tradition, landscape and mindscape. Poetry written in English today in the world has an identity, based on nationality and culture. That is why Indian English Poetry became very much culture specific. Its vitality rests in its remaining rooted in the region from which it originates. It is the indigenous tradition which marks the natural feature of our poetry, whatever be the original language. Poets like A.K Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra, Arun Kolatkar, R.Parthasarathy and many others not only handled this other language with consummate ease but also shaped it to suit their purpose of mixing the global and the local, and to portray the picture of a nation.

            At present, Jayanta Mahapatra (b.1928) stands tall in the realm of modern Indian English poetry. He is an authentic voice, one who has been honoured first abroad and then at home. Within a period of four decades (1971-2007), he has published seventeen volumes of poetry. He has been the first Indian English poet to receive the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry for his book “Relationship” in 1981.                                                                                                                                   It is quite surprising that Jayanta Mahapatra entered into the literary scene quite late. He started writing poetry at the age of forty when majority of poets reach the zenith of their career. Born and brought up in Orissa, it was expected that Mahapatra would write in his mother tongue Oriya, but he did not. As he explains:

I am in love with English. And then, my schooling was in English–and I learnt my language from British school masters mainly from English novels; H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ballantyne from whom I caught the first delight of words graphic with meaning. Further I feel I can express myself better in English than in Oriya. (Raghavan 59)

Mahapatra was twice removed from his immediate surroundings–first he was born in a Christian family and second, he wrote in an acquired medium, English. Despite these factors, Mahapatra’s poetry reflects a deep awareness of the Indian background. It faithfully describes the locale, landscape or his relationship with his land. In this connection Dr. Jayeep Sarangi writes:

Linguistic multiplicity and cultural diversity in India may apparently contribute to a poet’s identity; but in reality, these forces remain committed to defining, and authenticating a distinctive identity. Jayanta Mahapatra is a Christian, living in a Hindu society—a society which pays maximum homage to Lord Jagannatha, the presiding deity of Orissa. Jayanta Mahapatra’s grandfather accepted Christianity out of compelling forces of famine and poverty. There is always a sense of insecurity and alienation in his poetry. He perpetuates his quest for identity and he is keen on the assertion of his self-emanating from a veritable part of his holy land and its rich socio-religious traditions. (Sarangi 5)

So, Mahapatra’s poetry is all about India and Indianness. Mahapatra has been living in Orissa since his birth. Therefore, Orissa constitutes the core of his poetry. Virtually the Orissa landscape—with Puri and Konarak occupying a conspicuous position, has a strong presence in his poetry. The sun of the eastern coast of India shines through his poems.

            As a writer, Mahapatra is able to transform the storm-tossed land of Orissa–a land ever tagged with the sights of famine, misery, starvation etc. into an instrument of life and art. According to him, landscape is not only a physical phenomenon rather it is a parameter of life and faith, unchangeable as his own body. To him, landscape is an extension of a persons’s physical self. In his poetry, we find two-fold landscape–one that of his surrounding world and another that of his inner self. As he is firmly rooted in his native soil, he is fully conscious of the legends, history, and myths associated with these places. He seems to be captivated by these landscapes. These native landscapes constantly appeal to Mahapatra to relate it to his poetic craft. Mahapatra usually establishes a correspondence between a regional landscape and the religious faith of the locale.

            Mahapatra moves very often from local to universal. His poetry encompasses the macroscopic India in the microcosm of Orissa. The problems he has experienced and observed in his own place, he could associate them with the problems that are universal and omnipresent. He is of the opinion that a poet’s identity cannot be only his private and personal upbringing, his response to landscape, his consciousness of the tradition and culture with which he identifies himself makes up his identity. Mahapatra confirms his inseparable identification with his native land in one of his poems, “Somewhere, My Man”:

A man does not mean anything

But the place.

 Sitting on the riverbank throwing pebbles

into the muddy current,

a man becomes the place. (42)

So, there is a fusion between the man and the place. In order to provide the nourishment to traditional Indian ethos in his poetry, Mahapatra takes recourse to the locale—the social, topographical and cultural background of his birth place. So, Srinivas Iyenger rightly observes: “No true poet can escape tradition, for all our yesterdays are involved in the poet’s deeper consciousness; and no true poet can escape the pressure of the present, for he is in it and of it, and the best he can do is to relate the immediate present to the living past …” (641-42).

            In the poetry of Mahapatra, we find a constant presence of Orissa. He is sincerely concerned with his landscape, history, tradition, myth and culture. Moreover, the depiction of the Oriya life in his poetry ventilates his conscious as a poet sympathizing with the hard realities and the problems of the country in general and specifically with Orissa. Mahapatra’s poetry bridges the gap between the traditional and the modern. In his poetry, we find an amalgamation of the regional outlook and the Indian social problems. No doubt, Mahapatra’s poetry is all about Orissa and herein lies his authenticity. Like many a poet, his poetic output is an outcome of his pangs of alienation which he constantly bears in his mind and it remains his constant companion. Mahapatra feels alienated like many other Indian English poets by the choice of language in which he wrote. With Dom Moraes, he shares the troubled and insecure childhood. Mahapatra feels that he was somehow alienated from the core of Indian ethos. He was born in a Christian family in a predominantly Hindu locality. The conversion of his grandfather was one of the factors that had affected him like his insecure childhood. Mahapatra somehow managed to cover up his alienation and bridges the gap through the use of his Hindu name. In 1866, Orissa was struck by a terrible famine. In order to save himself from starvation, Mahapatra’s grandfather Chintamani Mahapatra embraced Christianity. Though Mahapatra is born and brought up in a Christian family, in his poetry, we find no trace of his personal identity. But he merges into the racial consciousness. The glorious past of the native land and the poet’s inner psyche are amalgamated into an organic whole.

            The landscape of Orissa, as depicted by Mahapatra in his poetry, is not simply the picture of the scenic beauty of Orissa but it also comprises the physical landscape—the temples, the ruins, the inevitable presence of the mythical Past. Landscape is brought in close relation to the culture of the people. The golden triangle—Puri, Cuttack, and Konarak supply the chief ingredients to weave the fabric of Mahapatra’s poetry. Legends, history and myths associated with these places constitute the central theme of his poetry. The Oriya landscape acts as the objective setting bringing about the mental evolution of the poet.

         The famous town Puri is considered to be a sacred place by the Hindus. It is the sacred place of Lord Jagannatha, the presiding deity of Orissa. The Hindu devotees find redemption and celestial peace at Puri. The poem, “Dawn at Puri” emerges as a realistic document of the Hindu psyche and their age-old beliefs and traditions. Mahapatra marks this unflinching belief of the Hindus in this poem:

her last wish to be cremated here

 twisting uncertainly like light

on the shifting sands. (28)

Being aware of his environment and firm roots in the orthodox cultural convention, the poem deals with the local details. The poet is disappointed with the hollowness of traditional practices and customs. Here the poet ironically brings out the incongruities in the Indian life, as well as landscape. At Puri, we find a stretch of beach called ‘Swargadwara’ or ‘Gateway to Heaven’ where the dead are being cremated. Many pious Hindus or widows feel that it is possible to attain salvation by dying at Puri. People from different parts of India mingle together irrespective of caste, colour and creed. The poem brings out through successive images the characteristic atmosphere of Orissa, its sufferings, poverty, hunger and its age-old customs and rites and rituals. The image of the crow, sand, widows, the shell caught in a net – all evoke the early morning ambience of the sea beach at Puri.

            The image of widow is an important image for Mahapatra. It associates the disagreeable. Their presence here places the poem in its specific Indian locale. The images of the widows are pregnant with symbolism. The widows, in a country like India were, and in some societies still are forced to live a life of austerity. They are therefore characterized not as ‘old’ but as women who are ‘past the centres of their lives’. Their wait for the access into the Great temple also becomes symbolic of their waiting for death. With the help of a simile, the poet describes the vague consciousness ruling the superstitions of human mind. Just as a fish stares vacantly after falling a victim into fisherman’s net, similarly the religious-ridden widows caught in the nets of faith stare blankly with eyes full of despair and devoid of any confidence. They are lost in the darkness of overwhelming unconsciousness. The poet is not free from those conventions and practices. His ageing mother has expressed her “last wish” to be cremated in this beach. The ‘sullen pyre’ reminds the poet of it. Thus we come across a very faithful portrayal of the landscape around the poet. Bijoy Kumar Das remarks in this context:

In his two poems titled, “Dawn at Puri” and “Main Temple Street Puri”        Mahapatra underlines the importance of Puri and what it means to the Hindus in our country. Widows long for breathing their last at Puri, lest they should attain salvation . . . since the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri, points to unending rhythm, dying in this place will take one to silence the ultimate desire of a human being which will unable him to attain “Nirvana.” (8)

Therefore, Puri emerges as a chief character in Mahapatra’s poetry. To him Puri is not only a setting but also a protagonist. People like priests, lepers and crows are all part and parcel of Puri and these images also make Puri life-like.

            His another poem “Taste for Tomorrow” is an imagist poem. The poem is short and precise. The poem depicts one morning scene in the town of Puri. Through this poem Mahapatra mocks at the sight of the town. The poet presents the picture of a wide street which is the only wide street of the town. He compares this street to the huge loosely hanging tongue of some monstrous creature. The next picture is that of five lepers whose faces have partly been eaten away by the disease. The lepers reverently move to one side as the holy priest passes by the street. At the end of the street, Mahapatra finds a large crowd waiting to enter the temple. The poet describes the sight:

At Puri the crows

The one wide street

Lolls out like a giant tongue.

Five faceless lepers move aside

As a priest passes by.

And at the street’s end

The crowds thronging the temple door:

A huge holy flower

Swaying in the wind of greater reasons. (6)

So, the hard reality of the town finds metaphoric expression through the images, used by Mahapatra. The ‘giant tongue’ and the ‘holy flower’ points to the poet’s consciousness of the myth of Kali in the description of Puri scene and Jagannatha also points to his awareness of the culture of Jagannatha which is said to be an integration of all the Hindu religious cults prevalent in Orissa. The ‘huge holy flower’ depicts the unchangeable human devotion associated with their deities. Though the place of the Temple is sacred, it is unable to wipe out the ‘faceless lepers’ who are considered to be born sinners.

            Therefore, Mahapatra is a realist. He can view life and its various emotions and mysteries against the backdrop of the landscape of Orissa. The burden of the poet’s consciousness makes him handle the poem in such a way that the calm serenity of the landscape strips the society off the mask of civilization. For the poet, the landscape of his native place often mirrors the past glory and the dead ancestors.

            The poem “Evening Landscape by the River” focuses on the lost world through a lively depiction of a rural scene. The poet feels sad as he surveys the scene. The feeling of sadness is almost overpowering and it makes him feel as if his eyes were closing. The atmosphere is so gloomy that one forgets everything, even the faces of the dear ones who have departed from the world. The poor fishermen live in broken shacks situated close to the river. There is a temple in the distance and it is absolutely still in meditation. The river is full of water, and in the darkness of the evening, the light of the moon falling upon it unsteadily, as if it has no intention to continue there. The very minute details of his locale prove that Mahapatra is the son of the Oriya shore.

            Relationship, Mahapatra’s award-winning masterpiece, tells of his quest for his roots. In this volume Mahapatra comes out with his real strength. The poem has attracted the attention of the readers as well as the critics all over the world. This volume contains myth, tradition and history of Orissa, the land of great historical, cultural and religious values. Relationship is divided into twelve sections and begins with an invocation like in an epic. Its chief concern is to know the origin of this Universe:

Once again one must sit back and bury the face

in this earth of the forbidding myth,

the phallus of the enormous stone,

when the lengthened shadow of a restless vulture . . . . (9)

Mahapatra believes that myth is always a part and parcel of the earth. So he stresses the need of invoking the earth. The manner in which the invocation is made by the poet, shows that he is to deal with the problems of humanity in general. Relationship is a poem of unrelatedness, in style as in topic. It speaks of the poet’s rediscovery of relatedness with his own ground; it trembles with a hope of a discovery of being and comes close at times to betraying his own spirit. It yearns for the comfort of home for the end of fallibility and guilt; whereas the truth of the poem could only have been reached by fallibility. It seems to survive its temptations. It is tempted by total identity with the myths of home, but cannot avoid the discordant memories. The locale also has a great bearing on “Relationship.” The poem is centered round in a monumental historical ruin. The poem is indeed a deliberate attempt on the part of the poet to connect himself with his self and with the land of Orissa both in time and beyond it.

            The history of Orissa, the myths, the legends and rituals associated with its place draw Mahapatra’s attention and he tries to revive them in his poetry. In this poem, with a sense of nostalgia, he fervently remembers the heroic past of Orissa. He exhibits the glory and pride of the ancient Orissa in his poetry. He recalls with reverence the prowess of his ancestors who fought the Kalinga War in 261 B.C that converted the emperor Ashok into a deeply religious man. In this connection, he refers to the river Daya which serves as a witness to his ancestors’ heroic effort that has acquired a mythic dimension. The poem is set in Orissa. Living in the present Orissa the poet cannot shrug off his ties with the past empire once known as Kalinga. Kalinga was a maritime nation in the past. It established regular trade with islands of Indonesia and countries of the far east. It was rich and prosperous. The kings of the dynasty who ruled over the vast empire from 6th to 13th century A.D. were great patrons of art, literature and architecture. The majestic Sun temple of Konarak was built under the fostering patronage of the king of the Ganga dynasty in the 13th century. The temple is ruined today but its relics can capture the hearts and can glorify the Oriya craftsman’s search for the beatific vision in the realm of art and aesthetics. Mahapatra’s flowing verse form takes the readers from reality of the present to myth and legend-strewn past and back again to the reality. The narrative, with its measured tapestry of images drawn from the past and present of the place, peculiarly creates a dream impression of the lasting impact. The poet takes us from the ruins of the ‘phallus’ to its beginning in the 13th century. He revitalizes his sense of historical past in recapitulating the legends tagged to the temple’s finish.

            According to the legend, twelve hundred masons were appointed to complete the temple within twelve years. Failing to complete the temple in the scheduled period, the masons would be beheaded. Dharma, the chief architect’s son fixed the crowning slab of the temple and jumped into the river in order to save the fearful masons. Mahapatra laments the fact that the immensity of that glory achieved by the ancient heroic race has now become just memory and nothing more and that the successors in the present age have proved unworthy to keep up that glory. Thus Mahapatra points to the sharp contrast between the success of the past and failure of the present thereby showing the painful picture of decay and deterioration in ideas and values:

It is hard to tell now

What opened the anxious skies,

 how the age-old proud stones

lost their strength and fell,

and how the waters of the Daya

stank with the bodies of my ancestors;

my eyes close now

because of the fear that moves my skin. (14)

The poet laments the downslide because he feels that he is an integral part of everything that Orissa is identified with. He has a strong sense of belonging which accounts for his nostalgic tone. In Relationship, he refers to the beautiful fort of Cuttack which is now in ruins, a symbol of the vanquished dynasties.

            In Mahapatra’s poetry, the inner landscape constantly interacts with the outer landscape. The poet is influenced by the landscape of Orissa and observes the annual migratory bird. The birds, due to the seasonal change, come all way from Siberia to the warm water of Chilka, a beautiful lake in Orissa. The poet’s suffering lies in the fact that while the birds and animals are able to react naturally to the seasons of the year, he is incapable of doing so, as he is cut off from the heroic traditions of his ancestors: “The stones of the temple reminds him of a guilt-ridden/Past, to which he bids farewell: Fear of my guil,/I bid you farewell” (38).

            Relationship establishes a sense of relationship between self and the other. The personal emotion of the poetic self is chiefly tied very profoundly with the environmental surroundings, tradition and totality of life. Mahapatra has realized the heart-beat of the dead artist in the stone- carving art and sculpture of the temples in Orissa. He has also made an interaction with stone-carving and inscriptions. He has established the relationship between man, god and eternity of time.

            Thus, Mahapatra’s search for roots of origin of man, and the origin of the universe leads him to search relationships with different aspects of life. Finally, he discovers the eternal pleasure. This permanent joy exists in love of self along with the society in which he belongs to. At last the poet reaches to a point from where he can have eternal silence. The silence is key to such recognitions. Hence, this study of the poet and his locale confirms the fact that in Mahapatra’s poetry there lies an inseparable relationship between the poet and his place along with the people. It cannot be denied that Mahapatra’s creation of such poetry is only the result of his oneness with the soil. His poetry functions as a creative medium and depicts the poet’s search for his soul. It is a kind of pilgrimage that brings him towards the heart of his homeland and explains to him the immensity of his being and the meaning and significance of his life and living.




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Subhajit Mukherjee belongs to the culturally rich district of Bankura, West Bengal.  He has completed master’s degree in English Literature from Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol. His special area of interest is Indian English Literature and Post colonial studies.

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