PROFESSOR BY PROFESSION, PLAYWRIGHT BY PASSION, AND A LEGEND IN RECLUSE—PROF. RAMESH PRASAD PANIGRAHI By Sukanta Rout
Some fifty years away over the days already gone, loitering lonesome along streams and around hills down the lower vicinity of his village in the afternoons arriving with long holidays in summers, a preteen boy in short pants, was, perhaps, seeking the source of benign bliss he shares selflessly now with others in as verdant a valley as his aesthetic world. And the bliss that so bewitched the boy and bent him to be its life-long votary, was, indeed, no less heavenly than listening to or reciting the Vedas—the holy book of Hindus. For, all that fascinates forever, is a delicately pure thing called drama that is originally the content of Natya Veda- the fifth and final book in the series of Vedas propounded by Bramha for entertainment and enlightenment of the mortals. Its sweet essence initiating inception of the universe on a cycle of conflict, climax and catharsis and its absence immersing the universe in an abyss of doom and destruction, surely, caught the fancy of this boy so early.
In summing up the unfathomable experience years after, the aesthete emotes impulsively, “It was a feeling of eco-feminism…an unconscious interview with Mother Nature who cast a spell on me; I was quite unaware when it tempted me to tear myself apart tamely in order to be sown with seeds--the seeds of vital creative impulse. It is rendered as a temporary tranquil chasm in the chaos by pre-Panini era philosophical discourses in terms like ‘Paravak’ and ‘Pasyanti Vak’ having no equivalent in English. This is just like the moment when the whole cosmos was created, they claim.”
And through autumn he would sit outside, every evening, in wide open yard amid his houses on a folding sack cot and watch with intense eyes, the flowers of colors and variety– marigold, rose, cock’s comb coyly craving for a piece of the moon that shined and shadowed evasively in company with clouds overhead. He even used to walk about one kilometer or so away to the bank of river Rushikulya in those moonlit nights on the sandy path strewn with petals of Nageswari blown over from the garden fringing all along it on its either side in spite of his friends warning him about stray cobras, very fond of fragrance of these flowers, that could wind around the feet.
The cobweb of mystery coating the cosmos was, indeed, coaxing out of this adventurous urchin, a mystic that, so many years after, would become Dr. Ramesh Prasad Panigrahi weaving assiduously more mesmerizing mysterious cobwebs with threads spun out of his powerful plays and plotlines for entertaining and enlightening all he cares for. And he cares for none of his interests, but that of the whole world. So he would kneel down daily at the feet of Maa Pataleswari—the village deity, and implore wistfully for the wellbeing of the world…too a big worry for a small boy’s head.
Retired from his noble profession of professor in English in Ravenshaw College a few years back, Dr. Panigrahi was born in 1944 in a little known village called Dharakot Garh inclining idly at the side of Sulia Parbat, a foothill of Eastern Ghat mountain range in Ganjam District in Odisha, a coastal province in India. His initiation into the aesthetic world of art occurred at a tender age of twelve or so with his shaky little fingers drawing luscious lines of lyrics on scrap paper, that brought him the tag of approved songwriter in AIR and DDK, much later in life. Lyricist, essayist, critic, story-weaver and screenwriter…having his indelible imprint all over the length and breadth of the cultural fabric of Odisha, this versatile trendsetter had turned a household name here…more so as a playwright and theater activist, well by the early eighties.
“He could fix my cursory look… stranger standing in the corner, gazing with wondering eyes and greeting me with folding hands in a gesture of veneration on my way to the meeting place on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati at Balasore. He asked me humbly when I stood near him, “Do you know me?” My wonder was mild. What he answered immediately was terse, but voluminous…’I have travelled all that long way from Baripada just to have a glance of you.’
What prompts his fans to wish earnestly to have an audience with him? Has the conjurer more tricks up his sleeve than out in his hand? Yes, the high drama built into his scenes on an otherwise drought like landscape here, is like a drop of rain for the thirsty onlookers who, unaware, ride or run to acknowledge and ask for more showers? And he has been obliging them with ever more astonishing works figured to be well beyond hundred, today, all along his prolific period since the premiere of his first play ‘Mukti Mandap’ in 1963.
He speaks from his heart, “I owe the inspiration to my audience…they arouse the urge in me to feel like creating. When I perceive my audience or readers really love my works, I tend to leap sprightly two steps more.”
Message or morality, ethos or ideology, above everything else, the drama rising in an ever accelerating tempo imbues the audiences at the end with its ultimate unique appeal called catharsis—a sheer bliss. In dispensing it in a platter of his plays, he is as generous as other players on the world stage.
An old man in an inordinate wait on the verandah of a village post office with a sweet expectation for arrival of a letter from his only son fighting at the front is as highly dramatic as Vladimir and Estragon’s long wait for Godot and Santiago’s solitary struggle for prize catch at deep sea. Tide rises buoyantly intriguing the audience with yet enigmatic information that the old man’s long awaited letter has been purloined by the post master, a man of honesty and integrity. This minor character in a sub-plot in his “Kamalpur Daka Ghar” is an index of immense appeal, his bulging ensemble of plays, screenplays hold stuffily…Timira Trushna, Bindu O Balaya’, ‘Mun, Ambhe O Ambhemane’, ‘Dhritarastrara Akhi’, ‘Durghatanabasatah’, ‘Jane Mahapurushnka Janma’, ‘Mahanataka’, ‘Kabara’, and ‘Anandanagaraku Jatra’.
When Oriya theatre was exasperating under stifling pressure of absurdities and oddities, he breathed a new lease of life into it by ushering in an era of radical experimentation in continuity with tradition. He treats his narrative with streaks of colors as widely contrasting as sympathy and sarcasm, poignant pathos and hilarious laughter after piecing it up with twists and turns as thrilling as cliffhangers.
A legendary connoisseur of dramatic art—he is an inspiration to the dramatists, directors across the country. He modeled the narrative of his play, 'Mahanatak' on myths, ahead of Girish Karnad. Haya Badan by Girish Karnad assumed to be the first play introducing myth came out one year after "Mahanatak" was produced.
In his long stint stretching over last fifty years, he has as much prompted wonder among his contemporaries as inspired admiration among his followers. An avant-garde in many movements, literary and cultural, he is aptly hailed as savior of Jatra which was then on the verge of extinction, by vitalizing and refurbishing it with a magic wand. He fashioned it with a miraculous fancy dress of artistry that warmly wooed the rued audiences fed up with mediocrity and callousness. The performers, once a hungry and wary lot without any takers at their door, could have huge pays and perks. Almost all his Jatras were in demand for nights in row. The titles of his plays like his narratives instantly touch a string at heart…’Bhinna Eka Ramayana Anya Eka Sita’, ‘Laxmanara Tinigara’, ‘Thikana Hajichhi’, ‘Marunadira Danga’, ‘Majhi Naire Ghara’, ‘Thakura Achhanti Chaubahaku’, ‘Jaga Hajigala Badadandare’, and ‘Deula Padichi Debata Nahni’. The audience goes crazy for his plays. The tickets for a show of his play are, surprisingly, sold in advance with a great crowd despairing for it on each night.
The films with his tight-knit screenplays like ‘Samaya Bada Balaban’, ‘Thakura Achhanti Cahbahaku’, ‘Kotia Manisha Gotia Jaga’, ‘Pathara Khasuchi Badadeulu’, ‘Subhadra’, ‘Soubhagyabati’ and the Hindi serial ‘Rishte Kaise Kaise’ based on his scripts aired by Metro channel were sheer feast for the eyes.
In the afternoon of his life and so in the vibrant period of his career, he is apprehensive about carrying out his other important mission of getting Odisha recognized all over the world. The pages to be written about his native state in English, he presumes, will pass past the figure of two crores…about her art, literature, dance and sculpture and her rich heritages. This burden weighs heavy on his head, now. He has written in a seminal study on history of Odia literature compiled in a series by Mittal Publications, New Delhi and entitled as History of Ancient Odia Literature, History of Colonial Odia Literature and Modern Odia Literature where he explores many untold tales about our literary and cultural tradition.
He has to his credit, two compilations of literary essays in English and ‘Continuity In The Flux’, published by Harman publications, New Delhi, besides innumerable articles. He has been awarded by Odisha Sahitya Academi in 1984 for his play ‘Maha Nataka’ besides being felicitated regionally and nationally on many occasions for his contributions to culture and dramatic literature of Odisha. All his fans are intrigued by the enigma behind Government of India’s institutions for not conferring the dues he deserves. The aesthete outpours , “I had to fight off tears of joy when a woman, almost a stranger, invited me and served lovingly, fried pohala—a fish at her home in exchange of what she had received in watching my plays. “This is the best award I have ever got.
The catharsis compared with what one experiences after a session of deep meditation is aplenty in his plays…in his scenes, in his sequences. It instills a new lease of life into the audience…it helps him connect with the Almighty. It lets one mingle with him. He feels to be Rama, Jesus or Muhammad imbued with a sense of poetic justice. He says regretfully, “A man proposed to bring me an award from Kendriya Sahitya Akademi. The terms and conditions he offered in exchange were taboos in my style to oblige…that is to sacrifice the award money. It will be too much humiliation for my creations. It will all look soiled in such nasty attire. Famed as a scion of erudition and high integrity, he really hates lobbying unlike others. Indeed, any award if it is anywhere will fall short of the cost of his creations.
One day, the post peon reveals everything about the purloined letter before the old man. The old man yells in outrage…such a sweet piece of news…something to be stored inside the heart, would lay stolen so long!…a letter from his loving son fighting at the front! But the news is a bad omen…his son shot dead in the war since long. The brave old man does not wail…he now realizes the juice that the western horizon is streaked red with, is the blood from the chest of his son…his son is martyred for the sake of the motherland. He goes mad with mirth and bursts out in a long guffaw that slowly lapses into a loud heart wrenching cry. The resolution and catharsis mingles with each other in this poignant piece of throbbing drama matching anything excellent anywhere. ………
About the Author
Sukanta Rout was born on 13th June, 1965 at Jajpur, Cuttack, Odisha. After completing his Master’s degree in English from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, he pursued his Diploma Degree in Screen Playwriting from UP Govt Film Council. Currently, he teaches English Language and Literature at Choudwar College, Odisha. He was a compere for Youth Programme YubaVani, AIR, Cuttack from 1984 to 1988. He owns a Theatre Troupe named Shadows and has written, directed and performed plays in National and International Theater Festival across India. He has written and directed dramatized version of our Odia classical stories such as Revathi, Sariputa, Budha Sankhari, Andharua, Patadei,Gopapura, etc. and also directed and written his own Odia plays such as Haripur Chaka, Vote, and Jajapuria Bandhu. As a theatre activist, he conducts theatre workshops throughout the year and a regular at Rabindra Mandap, Bhubaneswar. “Novella” is his first short novel. He has worked as a sub editor for a quarterly tabloid named "The Indus Valley Times" published from Bhubaneswar and contributed articles on art, culture, tradition, vocation, and film to the magazine "Stet" published from Delhi. He lives in Cuttack