POETS FROM ODISHA WRITING IN ENGLISH: A TALK By Dr. Saroj K. Padhi

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Jul 10 2018 4.00

 

In the contemporary poetry scenario, there are quite a large number of poets from Odisha who have been writing poetry in English and among them a few have occupied the center stage in enriching the corpus of Indian English literature. Among them we have the golden trio: Jayanta Mahapatra, Niranjan Mohanty and Bibhu Padhi. Though they belong to Odisha, they share  pan-Indian concerns for which they constitute a significant part of the great tradition of Indian English poetry along with other poets.

JAYANTA MAHAPATRA, born on 22 October, 1923, began writing poems rather late in comparison with his contemporaries. But this late beginning does not in anyway distort his achievement. His poems have appeared in most of the reputed journals of the world. He received the prestigious Jacob Glatstein Memorial Award (Chicago) in 1975. He is the first Indian poet in English to have received the Central Sahitya Akademi Award(1981) for his Relationship . His other volumes include Close the Sky, Ten by Ten, Svayamvara & Other Poems, A Father's Hours, A Rain of Rites, Waiting, The False Start & Life Signs, Dispossessed Nests, A Whiteness of Bone, Lies of Dawn, Uncertain Light etc. His translations (from Oriya  to English ) bear the stamp of his originality too.

The richness and sophistication of language, the softness and delicacy of the words chosen, systematized orchestration of authenticated experiences through the exact palpability of images, the sincerity of harping  on the 'feel' of the experiences rather than on their 'thought', the sweetness of music emerging from a fountain-like flow of the verse-form contribute to the greatness and ingenuity of Mohapatra's poetry.

However, in the early phase of his poetic career, we find Jayanta Mohapatra experimenting with words, sounds and semantic possiblilities. But soon he gets over this struggle slowly during  his poetic journey and by the time he composes ‘Relationship’, the seventh volume of his poetry, he attains a certain maturity in style and expression. In this magnum opus of his, he explores a complex web of relationships such as of the self to the poet, of the self to tradition,culture,mythology,history,folklore,of the poet to his poetry and above all of poetry to art and sculpture. The poet’s attempt to connect himself with his self and with the land of Odisha both in time and be out of it, discovers the Eliotesque Objective correlative in the stones , walls and sculptures of the Sun Temple of Konarka. This once glorious temple built in the 13th century, now crumbling, contains the sculptural treasures of the past with images of gods, goddesses, gandharvas, apsaras and the various phases of human life. Here the poet’s confrontation with the anguish of a prodigious self is relieved as he comes to terms with it through his aesthetic drive to reach out a timeless dimension and reveal the mystery of time and death. The Temple in Ruins provides apt metaphors and symbols to the poet for conducting the journey into this unknown region and recording the mystery of myth, time and death that shape and move our life. The poet acknowledges his rootedness to the land of Odisha in an open citation where he says;

“To Odisha , to the land in which my roots lie and lies my past and in which lies my beginning and end, where the wind knees over the grip of the river Daya and where the waves of the Bay of Bengal fail to reach out today, the twilight soul of Konark, I acknowledge my debt and relationship.”

His commitment to and identification with Orissa becomes complete when he exhorts the dark daughters engraved on the body of the Sun Temple at Konark: let me quote the lines:

Tell me your names, dark daughters

Hold me to your spaces

In your dance is my elusive birth, my sleep… 

that swallows the green hills of the land

and the crows that quicken the sunlight in veins,

and the stone that watches my sadness fly in and out

of my deaths, a spiritless soul of memory.

    Mahapatra’s uniqueness as an Indian poet  writing in English lies in his rootedness. The details of landscape that come alive in his poetry suggest the voice of a true insider singing about the ‘still sad music of humanity’.

 

The next poet for discussion today is  late NIRANJAN MOHANTY,

whose volumes of poems are:(Silence the Words, On Touching You and Other Poems, Life Lines, Prayers to Lord Jagannatha, Oh This Bloody Game!, Krishna and Tiger and Other Poems and A House of Rains. His poems have appeared in magazines in India, UK, USA, and Canada, such as Chandrabhaga, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Indian Literature, Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Kavya Bharati, JIWE, New Quest etc.

Mohanty explores the post-colonial space, with a nostalgia for the past as well as a concern for the contemporary social problems. He is highly meditative, reflective and keeps himself preoccupied with the realities affecting common run of humanity in a language convenient to his muse. Mohanty’s Oriya identity is revealed in the following candid confessions about his use of English as the language of his poetry; It’s half Orissan, half Indian It gives the flavour of watered rice The fragrance of plough shares and soil. ( Prayers, 75 ): Mohanty makes effective use of the English language to make it a medium of expression of his native land, its culture, tradition, myths and legends . Like Jayanta Mohapatra, Mohanty has tried to acclimatize English language to an indigenous culture and has created his own idioms in English to suit his modes of poetic expression.

 Niranjan Mohanty began his poetic journey with his first collection of poems titled, Silencing the Words . Mohanty is greatly influenced by the poetry of Jayanta Mohapatra who is known for his use of extensive and difficult imagery, myths and symbols. This first volume of Mohanty was a sort of experiment with words. Mohanty’s second volume of poems Oh , This Bloody Game! unfolds varied experiences of life brooding over a broad spectrum of philosophical inquiry. Mohanty’s poetry reveals his sincere search for his roots in which he discovers his identity. The poet identifies himself with “the ruined temple” ( History-I ) . He ruminates over his grandmother’s stories of ghosts, devils and witches. Reflecting upon the past he tries to learn its essences ,“I tried to learn the language of a stone” (37-39). Here he echoes Jayanta Mohapatra who “consecrates” himself “at the altar of the stone” {Relationship ) . Mohanty discovers wisdom in the memory of the past;

“I know if I am to be wise, I must rock on the cradle once again” (56-57).

Mohanty who has his roots in Jagannath culture reveals its impact in Prayers to Lord Jagannath , a long poem that epitomizes Lord Jagannath the living and loving God for the people , particulary of Odisha. In all religious festive occasions countless Oriya devotees of the Lord throng the streets of Puri and chant the name of the Lord in a dance-like movement “ O Lord, on the wide avenue of your love, / your devotees, your blind disciples / dance like waves, not knowing exactly, / what vibrates, what stirs the air” ( 8 ). Mohanty speaks for and represents every Oriya. Hence, the poet’s communion with the Lord is to be taken as the communion of every Oriya. The poet feels possessed by the round eyes of Lord Jagannath. “ It’s true that nothing possesses me / So madly, so deeply , so neatly / As does the rotundity of your eyes oh Lord!” ( 78). It is believed that the twenty two steps leading to the temple of the Lord is the very heaven. They are regarded as most sacred. According to the poet, heaven is not somewhere in the sky but on the twenty two steps of Lord Jagannath’s temple.

Even in his religious poems like Prayers to Lord Jagannatha and Krishna , he is not forgetful of the contemporary problems of his society. He laments over the pitiable condition of the people who are victims of “loot, larceny and lewdness” and  denigrates the perpetrators of it. This is the world where “prices of everything go up” but “ the price of human flesh has become cheaper” (Prayers. 126). When the poet opens his windows for light, they show him the true picture of his country. The poet is visibly shocked at the sordid pictures of violence and bloodshed which have overtaken his entry; “ here is my country / In the streets, bomb blast / In temples blood bath”. It makes him exclaim with dismay; “ a godless emptiness everywhere / What hell my country has turned into!”( Game-19).

 

The last poet for today’s discussion is BIBHU PADHI

Born on 16 January 1951, is an Indian poet and writer. He writes in English and Oriya languages. He is also a literary critic and translator. He has written several books which are:

  • Going to the Temple ,1988
  • A Wound Elsewhere,1992
  • Lines from a Legend,1993
  • Painting the House (Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 1999)[11]
  • Games the Heart Must Play: a trilogy in of love poems(Bhubaneshwar,: Pen & Ink, 2003)[12]
  • Living With Lorenzo: Poems on D H Lawrence (Cuttack: Peacock Books, 2003) [chapbook]
  • Choosing A Place (New Delhi: Gnosis/Authorspress, 2011)[13]
  • Migratory Days (New Delhi: Authorspress, 2011)[14]
  • Brief Seasons: 60 love songs, (Bhubaneswar, Timepass, 2013)[15]
  • Magic Ritual (New Delhi: Authorspress, 2014)[16]
  • Midnight Diary (New Delhi: Authorspress, 2015) [17]

 

In his first collection the title poem “Going to the Temple” embeds a cluster of individual and collective memories, myths, rituals, folklore etc. the last four lines speak about the memory of grandmother singing song about the moon while feeding the child and inviting the moon to the hollowed palms:

“In the quiet half darkness

I struggled to keep the moon

Safe and healthy

Above my hallowed palms.        (Going to the Temple,11)

Padhi’s poetry is characterized by haunting sense of the past in the present. The absent figures like ancestors, grandmother and all the near and dear ones affect the present in a soothing manner as the poet loves to have dialogue with them in his quiet and contemplating mind as he pens down his lines of poetry.he combines the abstract and the concrete in a beautiful way as it is seen in the following lines:

        Thoughts and things grow over

         The eyebrows like wild tropical trees

         Where insistent roots strain the eyelids.

His poems like ‘Night watch’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Grandmother Soliloquy’, ‘I have a small voice speaking’, ‘Midnight stranger in the house’ try to explore folk belief in spirits coming out of their graves in the night and visiting the near and dear ones. This shows how there’s a mysterious connection between the past and the present.

Cuttack as a place is a strong presence in a number of his poems and it provides enough poetic material to his poems. This millennium city with its diverse communities, customs, traditions and rituals, its lanes and by lanes, ancient building, the ruins of Barawati fort and river Kathjodi and Mahanadi with their unpredictable moods and above all its presiding deity, ‘Goddesses Chandi’ find enough space in his poetic landscape. Other places like Puri and Konark rich in history and myth also stir the poet’s imagination. His four small poems of ‘Konark’ are reflections on loss and death and his attempt to reconcile with the lost and the dead. The love poems like ‘All through the long night’, ‘On trying to describe a Kiss’ seek to explore the mystic of the body. The former presents the attraction between the man and woman in terms of magnetic field. The latter is a highly sensuous poem describing the passion and excitement of kissing. The title poem, ‘Going to the Temple’ deals with our elaborate attempt at eluding our pain and loss, expressing our fear and love through rituals. The poem ends with the poet’s longing to make the smile of the goddess his own. The second volume of his poetry ‘A Wound Elsewhere’(1992) explores the elsewhereness of all loss and pain that cannot be explained or accounted for. Poems like ‘Sunday’, ‘Powercut in March’, ’Birthplace’, ‘A Day of Rain’, ‘Cuttack, 5am: Winter’ deal with familiar scenes and situations in Cuttack that move the poet in some kind of speculation on the unfamiliar. ‘Sunday’ is a satire on people’s show of generosity to begging children, ‘Powercut in March’ refers to the regular powercut in summer that gives the poet an opportunity to watch clear bright stars in the sky.his son asks how stars stay still unless they support each other and whether that particular star he points out is his grandmother. These questions are the questions asked by the child within the poet. And his intimation with the dead is his intimation with immortality. ‘Birthplace’ is a lively account of the poet’s birthplace with selective details, ie. Cuttack with the rivers in three sides. He writes:

I have been here since the time

I was born a good thirty five years ago

In this town encircled by three rivers

With the superstitious clouds

Of my towns forefathers

Still hanging about my eyes

In a loving  stupor.

        The poems in his third volume ; Lines from a Legend,1993 add many more dimensions to the theme of being possessed or of longing to be possessed and also the struggle to be free.

         The poems in his fourth volume are more concerned with specific familiar, domestic, common place situations than with the realm of spirit or vision.

   Painting the House, the fifth anthology contains within it many memories and dreams of the past years. Dreams stick to the walls, many unfulfilled dreams haunt the place and the fear of the years waiting to come hangs about.

Loses and absences through the process of time and their significances are the main themes of Bibhu Padhi’s poetry. These loses are so deeply felt and so deeply explored by the poet that they assume certain shapes which are determined by cultural beliefs and norms expressive of communally shared quest for the mysteries of life. Myths,legends, rituals, folklore are all exploited by the poet to have that eerie sense of the inscrutability of life. Folk beliefs and rituals are the most frequently visited sites for the poet in this quest.

*****

 

About the Author

Dr. Saroj K. Padhi, an Associate Professor of English in the Govt. of Odisha, is at present working at J K B K Govt. College, Cuttack. Born in 1962, he has been writing poems in English and Odia since his school days. Till date he has published innumerable poems in most of the leading magazines of the country and abroad. He has published two books of criticism: 1. Jayanta Mahapatra’s Relationship: A Critical Study 2. English Essayists: A Critical Study and about 12 research articles in different journals and eight anthologies of poetry in English namely Pearls of Dew, Shattered I Sing, Rhyming Ripples, Petals in Prayer, Silent Sight,  Moon Moments, A Slice of Silence and Elusive Spring.