Mahapatra, Jayanta

views updated


Nationality: Indian. Born: Cuttack, Orissa, 22 October 1928. Education: Stewart European School, Cuttack, 1933–41; Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, B.Sc. (honors) 1946; Patna University, M.Sc. (honors) in physics 1949. Family: Married Jyotsna Rani Das in 1951; one son. Career: Sub-editor, Eastern Times, Cuttack, 1949; lecturer in physics, Ravenshaw College, 1950–58, G.M. College, Sambalpur, 1958–61 and 1962–65, Regional Engineering College, Rourkela, 1961–62, and B.J.B. College, Bhubaneswar, 1965–69, all in Orissa; reader in Physics, F.M. College, Balasore, 1969–70, Ravenshaw College, 1970–81, and Shailabala Women's College, Cuttack, 1981–86. Visiting writer, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1976–77, in Australia, 1978, Japan, 1980, University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 1988, Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta, 1988, and University of the Phillipines, Manila City, 1988; visiting fellow, Shivaji University, Kolhapur, 1983; invited poet, Asian Poets Conference, Tokyo, 1984, Singapore Festival of Arts, Singapore, 1988, New Literatures in English Conference, Giessen, West Germany, 1989, Cuirt International Poetry Festival, Galway, Ireland, 1992, Poetry International, The South Bank Centre, London, 1992, El Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes, Mexico, 1994, and Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art, La Jolla, California, 1994; Indo-Soviet Cultural Exchange writer, U.S.S.R., 1985. Associate editor, Gray Book, Cuttack, 1972–73; guest editor, South and West, Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1973; editor, Chandrabhaga, Cuttack, 1979–85; poetry editor, Telegraph (Calcutta), 1985–89 and 1994–96. Since 2000 editor, Chandrabhaga: A Magazine of World Writing.Awards: Jacob Glatstein memorial award (Poetry, Chicago), 1975; Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) award, New Delhi, 1981; Rockefeller Foundation award, 1986; First Prize (International), Scottish International Open Poetry Competition, 1990; Gangadhar National award for poetry, Sambalpur University, 1994; Ramakrishna Jaidayal Harmony award, 1994. Address: Tinkonia Bagicha, Cuttack 753001, Orissa, India.



Close the Sky, Ten by Ten. Calcutta, Dialogue, 1971.

Svayamvara and Other Poems. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1971.

A Rain of Rites. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1976.

Father's Hours. Calcutta, United Writers, 1976.

Waiting. New Delhi, Samkaleen, 1979.

The False Start. Bombay, Clearing House, 1980.

Relationship. Greenfield, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1980.

Life Signs. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Dispossessed Nests: The 1984 Poems. New Delhi and Jaipur, Nirala, 1986.

Selected Poems. New Delhi and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Burden of Waves and Fruit. Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1988.

Temple. Mundelstrup, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1989.

A Whiteness of Bone. New Delhi, Viking Penguin, 1992.

Bali. Cuttack, Vidyapuri, 1993.

The Best of Jayanta Mahapatra. Kozhikode, Bodhi, 1995.

Kahibi Gotie Katha. Cuttack, Arya Prakashan, 1995.

Shadow Space. Kottayam, D.C. Books, 1997.

Baya Raja. Cuttack, Vidyapuri, 1997.


Tales from Fakirmohan (for children). Cuttack, Orissa, Students'Store, 1969.

True Tales of Travel and Adventure (for children). Cuttack, Orissa, Students' Store, 1969.

Orissa. New Delhi, Lustre Press, 1987.

Poemas. Mexico, Instituto de Cultura de Campeche, 1994.

The Green Gardener. Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 1997.

Translator, Countermeasures: Poems, by Soubhagya Kumar Misra. Calcutta, Dialogue, 1973.

Translator, Wings of the Past: Poems, by Jadunath Das Mohapatra. Calcutta, Rajasree, 1976.

Translator, Song of Kubja and Other Poems, by Sitakant Mahapatra. New Delhi, Samkaleen, 1981.

Translator, I Can, But Why Should I Go: Poems, by Shakti Chattopadhyaya. New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 1994.

Translator, Verticals of Life: Poems. New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 1996.

Translator, Tapaswini: A Poem. Bhubaneswar, Orissa Sahitya Akademi, 1998.


Manuscript Collection: All India Poetry Centre, Bhopal.

Critical Studies: By K. Ayyappa Paniker, in Osmania Journal of English Studies (Hyderabad), 13(1), 1977; "Crisis of Belief" by Frank Allen, in Parnassus (New York), spring-summer 1981; "Jayanta Mahapatra: A Poetry of Decreation" by Meena Alexander, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (Oxford), 18(1), 1983; "Vision of a Reconciliator" by Gary Corseri, in Fiction, Literature, and the Arts Review (Brookline, Massachusetts), spring 1983; "Neither Alien Nor Postmodern: Jayanta Mahapatra's Poetry from India" by John Oliver Perry, in Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), 8(4), 1986; The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study edited by Madhusudan Prasad, New Delhi, Sterling, 1986; Jayant Mahapatra by Devinder Mohan, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1987; "Experimentalists II: Mehrotra and Mahapatra," in Modern Indian Poetry in English, by Bruce King, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987; "Rites and Signs: A Note on Jayanta Mahapatra's Poetic Sensibility" by G.N. Devy, in Living Indian-English Poets: An Anthology of Critical Essays, edited by Madhusudan Prasad, New Delhi, Sterling, 1989; "Silence As a Mode of Transcendence in the Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra" by D.R. Pattanaik, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 16(1), 1991; "Telephone Message for Mr. Jayanta Mahapatra: A Memoir" by Cyril Dabydeen, in World Literature Written in English (Singapore), 32(1), spring 1992; "Quest for Roots: Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra" by Niranjan Mohanty, in Creative Forum (New Delhi), 5(1–4), 1992; "The Abstraction of Language: Jayanta Mahapatra and A.K. Mehrotra As Indian 'Postmodernists'" by Joseph Swann, in Fusion of Cultures?, edited by Peter O. Stummer and Christopher Balme, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Rodopi, 1996; The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra by Rabindra K. Swain, New Delhi, Prestige, 1999.

Jayanta Mahapatra comments:

Mystery has always fascinated me—a sense of the unknown, of things unexplainable, even in those areas which appear so very familiar in our lives—and so it is with poetry. All poetry that touches, arousing a tremor in the heart, should have this element of the unknown in it; a manner of silence which suddenly stops the reader, as it were, expanding the horizon in which the reader finds himself. I suppose not many people believe in this kind of poetry, although, judging from the traditionally built-in sense of mysticism an Indian has, such poetry should have had a wide readership.

Mystery is like the rain, falling like false jewels in the sky, which catch the light as they fall, like the trail of a rainbow; and perhaps it is these bits of a rainbow which a poem should catch to be able to move the reader and instill in his or her mind a "stirring" of some kind.

I should call this stirring in the mind a madness, which might border on irrationality; but it is exactly this quality of the unknown and ununderstandable which go to make the beauty of a poem. And this is how I feel: that one must try somehow to reach the border between things understandable and ununderstandable in a poem, between life and death, between a straight line and a circle.

Perhaps this paucity of our knowledge about death, about the nowhere which exists in the mind about the knowledge of death and of our future, and about this boundary when flesh disappears and time enters, holds an unusual power that drives one to create the flow in a poem. And so, the unknown, the mysterious which one can never fully fathom, leads to an unending questioning in my own poetry.

In a poem I wrote some 16 years ago, titled "A Rain of Rites," I found myself once again at the border between two separate regions of the mind—between what, perhaps, I understood and what I did not, using "rain" as a symbol for that substance which makes up my life, those blurs of vague light that pulsate with the days, making me ask at the end of the poem:

   What still stale air sits on an angel's wings?
   What holds my rain so it's hard to overcome?

I suppose such questionings come from somewhere deep within oneself, and that there is no reason or rationale for these things. But such questions and such searching move me, and I am unable to resist them in my poetry. For poetry is voice—vaak—and it is a voice which is forged from those elements which constitute the world both within and without—a voice which carries with it its unusual power of survival.

I think I have always been in love with silence, and its destruction is, to me, as perhaps to everyone else, a matter of concern. Silence is a word which comes back over and over again into my life and, consequently, to the poetry I write. And silence exerts an air of mystery that makes me reach into the unknown, to sense things I had never felt before.

So, for me, a poem is knit together by an inconceivable silence. Silence which is an intangible substance, of which words are but manifestations, words which can build the poem from a silence and to which the poem must eventually return. Does this silence lie within the heart? Maybe it does, as it waits to burst out of one with a childlike pang of pain on its way to becoming the idiom of the poem. For this silence is a sound I will always remember, as it appears to move through my days, and I feel it like an armor I sheathe myself in, to protect myself from the outside world.

And at times perhaps, not having exactly understood this silence I experience within myself, I let it open out for me a thousand memories, a thousand longings, as these, in turn, come into being in a poem I write. For there is no doubt that a poem is always made in the field of one's imagination. So somehow poem after poem comes to be, as I use this silence I feel as a myth, using different symbols and metaphors as they suit my own experience.

When one writes in this way, maybe poetry enters the country of dream and the meaning of the poem becomes unclear, difficult to emerge from the poem itself. This is what some critics have said about my poetry: that it becomes obscure, not giving up its meaning easily to the reader after one reading. But I ask myself: What use is a poem if it is easily understood, if there is a straightforward working of the words, more in the manner of a statement? True poetry, perhaps, has always lent itself to an indirect approach, and where one wants to return to an overwhelming silence. It becomes difficult to explain such processes which take place in the mind.

So because the poem happens in the mind, the poem itself becomes the idea. When I write a poem around the idea of silence, then perhaps the whole poem is my silence; not the words which contain the idea and which might not be apparent at all to the reader of the poem.

As I write this, I know it becomes harder and harder to explain the idea of silence and its mystery. And I do realize that a poem is made in isolation: although once it is made, it should reach out to the reader. In my poetry, I have measured this silence of mine with symbols like "rain" or "sleep" or "stone"—which are, once again, very private symbols. Born as we are to fundamental thoughts of doubt and uncertainty, it is not easy to predict anything in this world we live in, least of all the outcome of a poem. But the workings of the mind go on, even as I realize that the fact of observation of an object is uncertain, because it is linked with the passage of time and with the fact that we are always moving, as pointed out so aptly by the German physicist, Werner Karl Heisenberg. So also, I know of nothing for certain in our world.

The pattern of understanding has not appeared to change with the poems I have written and it shall probably remain so. For me, poetry shall only be the flash of light which one sees when one is nearing the end of a tunnel. The poem itself, the process which goes to make it, will ever remain a mystery. All knowledge is provisional, so why should a poem be otherwise?

The mind in one's being is shaped by all one sees and all that one has failed to see. From this mind, the poem. Once the poem is done, I can feel its power stir in me, perhaps in a way of consolation for things I have not been able to do. Perhaps it brings me back to reality, while a mixture of pain and satisfaction fills the senses—it is difficult to know.

And yet, our sense of what a poem is, is formed out of the very fact of assimilation of those many poems we have encountered through the years, and it is no use denying that these links have not been made in one's poetry. I should like to think that this has happened in the poetry I have written. If the quality of mystery appeals to me, then this has come from the value I have learnt to place on how such words and ideas have gone on to become poetry. And this poetry, like all other art perhaps, alternated between deception and revelation.

Finally, I'd like to admit that studying physics and then going on to teach it for years has made me aware, intensely in some ways, of this world we inhabit; it tells me where I am. Does it help me in some way to find my bearings? I cannot say. Most of us Indians are grounded to the regions of our existence with our quality of fatalistic consciousness, and so help us to be on better terms with the unconscious. Physics has revealed to me that there is a presence of this unconscious in even inert matter; maybe this has fairly well integrated the conscious and the unconscious in me. But in the beginning I never wanted to write poems to suit my readers, keeping my thoughts to the reader's limits and never going beyond the reader. Perhaps this restricted my readership in India, and it was painful, but I didn't want to make any literary concessions.

One cannot deny that such poetry is mysterious, touching the abstract at times. Whether such poetry fails or succeeds is a different matter. But it is the kind of poetry I like to write. Words like "silence," "darkness," "sleep," or "absence" are indeed unknowns in the world of ours; and, used in poems, may be scorned by critics, but often engage the reader's sympathies.

Ruled by the unconscious, it seems but natural that one comes out with the mysterious in a poem. I am not insisting that this unconscious is a god, or a computer gone haywire. But it dictates. It makes me imagine. It makes me speak in different ways to satisfy the need to say what I feel. And that is all I can truthfully say.

(1995) After years of continuous writing, one feels today that one should perhaps give up the notion of writing poetry altogether, because this is all we know; that they, the words, the makers of poetry, will forever remain beyond us in spite of our painstaking attempts to let the poems we have made tell us we are content with them. And perhaps at some point of time there is an inexplicable urge to build a sort of wall, which could well mean the feeling not to write at all; or perhaps the breaking down of some hazy dream, not any reality—like watching the flesh of the knife the poet holds slice into the heads of this double-headed snake called poetry. And yet, if neither is real, what difference does it truly make?

At times I ask myself: Is this because, time and again one is appalled by the debilitating poverty I am exposed to as an Indian, living by the slums in the heart of this old, congested city? And about which one has been able to do nothing?

Poetry has always been responsible to life. By this, I mean that a poet is first of all responsible to his own heart, otherwise he cannot be called a poet. And maybe those other factors which are necessary to the makings of a good poet will come only later. And so, if the poet's conscience matters, it seems but natural that he would write about those things which appear unfair to him. It is the poet again who will talk about injustice and cruelty and greed in the society in which he lives, hoping in his heart of hearts that these would be taken care of. Certainly one cannot place the poet in the role of a social reformer; but there can be no denying the fact that he would like to see a just and fair society come into existence, to see the smile appear on the face of every destitute child on the street, on every man, woman, and animal on this earth he inhabits.

But these are tall orders. History has always proved otherwise. The outcome is that the poet uses his "bad heart" to go on writing his poems until he comes to a stage when he would perhaps make the ultimate decision in his life: not to write. This comes about through years of painful work, through countless words which he had supposed would get the attention they deserved. It is the Wall he faces at this moment….

*  *  *

Many of Jayanta Mahapatra's poems are hermetic. They refer obliquely to unspecified desires, guilts, and memories which haunt the "inner world of his own making—a world spaced by his own life, of secret allusions, of desire and agony, of a constantly changing alignment between dream and reality," as Mahapatra put it in "The Inaudible Resonance in English Poetry in India" (Literary Criterion 1980). It is the creation of an inner world, evolving in complexity and richness from poem to poem, volume to volume, that makes Mahapatra a postmodernist constructing his own realm of silence, solitude, memory, and desire, while remaining haunted by the Indian environment, with its rituals and myths, from which he feels separated by his Christian upbringing, skepticism, and scientific education.

Mahapatra early developed a unique style in which multiplicity of significances, dislocated, often baffling syntax, and disruption of grammar are held together rather by rich patterns of imagery and sound than by any clarity of argument or narrative. In the poem "Love," in Close the Sky, Ten by Ten, we are warned, "leave thought alone/to find the meaning/… it will not turn / to / a sentence." The title Close the Sky, Ten by Ten comes from "Sanctuary," a statement of withdrawal into the self (possibly from extramarital pleasures): "now i close the sky/with a square ten by ten." The obscurity results from a complexity of themes presented obliquely within short lyrics built from contrasts, contradictory statements, and other techniques that tend to oppose or deconstruct what at first appears to be claimed.

Mahapatra first pulled his fragmented themes together into a more unified vision in A Rain of Rites, where meditation on the local landscape is a starting place for the articulation of emotions felt at the edge of awareness. In such poems as "Dawn," "Village," "Old Palaces," and "Samsara" the imagination acknowledges the external world, then de-creates it, finding a possible alternative reality within the self passively awaiting illumination and renewal. Some poems, such as "The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street," reveal a new interest in social content, while others, such as "Indian Summer Poem," obliquely allude to traditional Indian symbols and myths. The volume is unified by its recurrence of themes and images and by a constancy of tone and mood, with the rain, sky, dawn, river, flowers, roots, shadows, stones, trees, and sun becoming symbols in the poet's quest for significance: "What is there in ceremony, in a ritual's deeply hidden meaning?/The familiar words are roots, and out of place."

Mahapatra's titles seem part of a continuing private autobiography—Waiting, The False Start, Relationship, Life Signs. The evolving body of poetry alludes to false starts, hopes, disillusionments, anxieties, and contradictions as Mahapatra gropes "from poem to poem for the key to human understanding." While the lyrics are rich in the atmosphere of the Indian landscape, its legends, and the historical past of Orissa, their main concern is what Mahapatra has called "the essentiality of his being." He often returns to the problem of what he is, the truth of what he sees and feels, and his sense of being distinct from the traditional India of his surroundings. In "Waiting" he contrasts the "deadened dust," "soiled three-year-old children," and "luckless widows shuffling up and down/the fractured temple steps" with his observation of them: "You hardly know the vision isolates you"; "Every day I see them debase themselves/and am afraid, understanding nothing."

Relationship is a twelve-part dream epic, a psychic quest into the poet's roots as represented by the past and symbolism of Orissa. It is an attempt to go beyond the self, to give classical poetic status to the locality, while unburdening the sense of guilt that results from the poet's alienation from the culture in which he lives: "I know I can never come alive/if I refuse to consecrate at the altar of my origins."

In Life Signs Mahapatra's vision is his main theme: "the song that reaches our ears is just our own"; "It is the silence which says the world is not ours"; "So we drag meanings/from what we see"; "Or is it only desire, hoping to resume its inner light." The magnificent "The Lost Children of America" is as much about the poet's own relationship to India as it is about those foreigners drawn to the myths of his country. While it is easy to become impatient with his mannerisms, obscurity, private symbols, and long, incantatory lines, Mahapatra has developed the unique vision, style, and poetic mode of a major writer.

While Mahapatra's subsequent volumes appear uneven in quality, with slack rhythms and odd associations, that was often true of the earlier books until they became familiar and could be seen in perspective. The later volumes increasingly are concerned with death and focus more on the social problems of contemporary India as the poet attempts to go beyond his own isolation to write of a nation of hunger, poverty, injustice, violence, and fanaticism. The two parts of Dispossessed Nests: The 1984 Poems include somber, disillusioned, somewhat obscure meditations on the deaths caused by Punjabi terrorists and the horrors of the Bhopal disaster in which thousands were injured or killed by chemical fumes. The poems in Burden of Waves and Fruit, selected from a period after the late 1970s, are linked by such recurring images and themes as rain, the sun, dreams, memory, the past, and fear of death. There is more use of rhyme, line closure, and other formal structures than in the earlier books. The sources of poetry—desire, memory, life, and death—are related, as in "Song of the Bones," which asks, "Does one find death/in an act which comes out of love?" The movement is from the volume's opening poem, with its rain, expressionless sky, and "old fireflies" (the sparks of memories; see the "Fireflies" of Manohar Shetty's A Guarded Space [1981]), to the concluding "The Year's Last Evening," where the speaker thinks of "walking past a fear,/turning away as though it did not exist here."

Temple is a lyric sequence mixing Indian legend, mythology, and ideas about illusion, reality, and self-referentiality (the poet, the sources of his imagination, and his poem) in a dream about women in Indian history, culture, and contemporary society. Horror at the gang rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl is juxtaposed with the suicide of an eighty-year-old woman, the exemplary purity of Sita, bloody sacrificial offerings to goddesses, and the Hindu belief that women's orgasm (shakti) is the divine force and ultimate consciousness. The Hindu notion of existence as suffering is central to the vision. Is reincarnation the source of the sufferings with which women are burdened?

The patterns of experience and style as established in Mahapatra's previous works continue and evolve along similar lines in A Whiteness of Bone. Most of the same themes as before—the inner and the outer worlds, the quest for significance, pain and suffering, love, truth, poetry, memories, dreams, silence, old age, childhood, myths and rituals, social and political circumstances, time, and death—and the same images—rain, the sky, night, day, the sun and moon, stars, river, water, wind, roots, stones, rocks, sand, flowers, trees, birds, fishes—proliferate here again and are handled with an increased sureness of touch. Language, too, has gained further fluency and control. The syntax is less convoluted, with frequent use of endstopped lines and of rhyme. Although Mahapatra's poetry is still suffused with mysterious meanings, it has become easier than before to trace the lines of thought and feeling in it.

The main themes of A Whiteness of Bone are death and time. The bone of the title symbolizes the loss of life's significance and the decay that the passage of time brings. Published in the sixty-fourth year of Mahapatra's life, the book has an ominously somber quality about it. An experience of continuous pain and a tragic sense of despair permeate the poems. A dichotomy between the eternity of the physical world and the evanescence of human existence, as in "Unreal Country" ("Only the world/is left, and the rain/that hangs from the branches") and in "Dawn" ("The foothills survive./Footsteps of a few who walked on them/are silent"), runs throughout A Whiteness of Bone. Only a spontaneous engagement with the present, like a child's, as in "The Waiting," brings a happiness that transcends the limits of the ephemeral: "To wait for purpose is to be devoid of meaning./But the child does not wait any more./He leaves no tears,/no tales or marks." As before in Mahapatra, poetry is the subject of several poems, which connects one with an eternal reality, as in "A Sound of Flutes": "Through your notes/you would let my death live,/a heartbeat of hooves/tame sheep leave over devious slopes." In "All the Poetry There Is" Mahapatra says that poetry "appears to rise out of the ashes" of suffering: "And the ashes turn and wheel through the dance/like birds of prey in awesome grace in the skies."

In A Whiteness of Bone the focus of Mahapatra's poetry tilts further away from an absorption in the self toward social reality. He seeks wisdom and expansion of his poetic vision from involvement with the poor and the simple. "In An Orissa Village" recalls the advice of an old villager: "'Look at the sky,' you had said,/'not why you came here nor/what you try to see.'… Someday, if I keep recalling you,/maybe understanding will go out/into the world with me." In "Evening Ritual" (after a visit to a Koraput village) the poet remembers another "old man saying if I wanted to help them,/if I had seen anything there that mocked my world/Here was the light that stumbled on my words"; the poem concludes, "Now perhaps, I'll wait for morning,/my sleep nourished from people/who had caught the moon in their tears,/the shadows thick with the ashes of burnt stars…" Numerous poems, such as "Deaths in Orissa," "The Rage in Those Young Eyes," "The Fifteenth of August," "Of Independence Day," "A Sullen Balance," "Another Love Poem," and "Red Roses for Gandhi," lament the conditions prevailing in contemporary India and call for redress. "A Sullen Balance" captures the feeling of utter helplessness and decay a person living in India experiences: "Like a patient crocodile/she leaves her prey to rot into softness/fastened beneath the roots/of some banyan of our heritage/that overhangs the river of our time." "Red Roses for Gandhi" describes how a number of students chose to immolate themselves by fire in protest against the government's unjust policies: "They are dying, dancers in the air, like birds, almost human,/adorned with the sunshine of youth,/their hearts consumed with purpose,/their hands folding their flame like festive ritual lamps,/gathering wings…" Like the previous collections A Whiteness of Bone also contains poems about the gas disaster of Bhopal. "The Hill" delineates the suffering caused by the tragedy: "Even the palms hide their high heads/in the bare sky, like all resolves./For somewhere either children have died/or have not died."

Mahapatra continues to translate poetry of other writers from Indian languages into English. His translation of Bengali poems by Sakti Chattopadhyay, who has a love of life, in I Can, But Why Should I Go is of a piece with his own poetry. His book of poems in Oriya, Bali ("The Victim"), represents an aspect of Mahapatra's rootedness in his native culture different from his English poetry.

—Bruce King and

Surjit Dulai