World Literature

Jayanta Mahapatra

 

BORN: 1928, Cuttack, India

NATIONALITY: Indian

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

A Rain of Rites (1976)

Relationship (1980)

Life Signs (1983)

Temple (1989)

Bare Face (2000)

 

Overview

Jayanta Mahapatra writes largely about the people and places of Orissa, an eastern Indian state. His sensibility is deeply submerged in the local landscape—a vast panorama of temples, rivers, mountains, marketplaces, cafes, brothels, and forests—and the rites, rituals, ceremonies, and seasons of the place.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Christian Upbringing in a Hindu Land. Jayanta Mahapatra was born on October 22, 1928, in Cuttack, Orissa, the first child of Lemuel Mahapatra, an inspector of primary schools, and Sudnasubala Rout Mahapatra, a housewife of simple habits and no education. Mahapatra was brought up in a lower-middle-class Christian family, according to Christian rules and in strict separation from the surrounding Hindu way of life. The tension slowly began to affect his personality, and he began to have differences with his mother in ways that constrained him from relating with others outside the house. Mahapatra thus developed a permanent aversion to his mother (although he was fond of his father) and grew up as a reclusive, dreamy, and detached child. His family situation and dreamworld made for complex emotions that found their way into his poetry. Mahapatra’s father was always a source of consolation, education, and inspiration for him. The two enjoyed a pleasant and gratifying relationship. Lemuel Mahapatra fostered in his son a love for narrative art and stimulated his creative imagination early in life.

During Mahapatra’s youth, India was officially a colony of the British Empire. This led to a mix of both traditional Indian and contemporary English cultural influences, most notably the widespread use of the English language. A popular movement supporting the independence of India gained momentum throughout the 1920s and 1930s, largely due to the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi. The country finally achieved its independence from Britain in 1948, while Mahapatra was still a student.

From Physics to Poetry. In 1949 Mahapatra received a master’s degree in physics and began to work as a lecturer at Ravenshaw College. Subsequently, he taught at other colleges in Orissa. He wrote poems while working as a teacher but had a late start as a professional writer—he was in his early forties before he started to publish his works. Successive volumes of his verse brought him recognition not only in India but also in other countries.

In 1975 Mahapatra became the first Indian to receive the coveted Jacob Glatstein Memorial Prize, given by Poetry magazine. From 1976 to 1977 Mahapatra was a visiting writer in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa; he traveled to Australia and Japan in 1978 and 1980. He continued to teach physics until he retired in 1986.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Mahapatra's famous contemporaries include:

Edward Albee (1928-): Albee is an American playwright who writes mainly black comedies in the tradition of the theater of the absurd.

Noam Chomsky (1928-): Chomsky is an American linguist and political activist best known for his critiques of the modern media and U.S. foreign policy.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982): Dick was an influential American science fiction writer whose works have been adapted to several popular films.

Carlos Fuentes (1928-): Fuentes is a Mexican novelist who has been a significant influence on contemporary Latin American literature.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928-): Garcia Marquez is a Colombian fiction writer widely considered one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

Hosni Mubarak (1928-): Mubarak is an Egyptian statesman who has been the president of Egypt since 1981.

Elie Wiesel (1928-): Wiesel is a Jewish writer and political activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is best known for writing about his Holocaust experiences.

 

Works in Literary Context

In his poetry Mahapatra transforms the profane into the sacred in order to describe the cultural life of his people. The setting of Orissa, however, is always intersected by the poet’s own experience and reactions to his homeland. As Devinder Mohan observes, ‘‘His self-exploratory journey leads him to the point of heightened self-awareness, then to self-actualization and of course ultimately towards self-realization, which has forever remained the highest goal of every sadhaka (devout practitioner) of all arts.’’ Like T. S. Eliot, Mahapatra creates order out of disorder and cohesion out of chaos by way of performing his duty as a poet.

An Indian Sensibility in the English Language. Mahapatra writes in English, yet his poetry is distinctively Indian. His struggle in his early poetry was compounded by his efforts to synchronize his Indian experience with the English language. For this reason, in his early verse, ‘‘earth, life, and language become exterior blinking spaces, isolated yet longing for a sense of simultaneity, a sense of possibility of segmental intermingling.’’ Mahapatra carried out this crusade of experimentation and exploration both in theme and language.

Many of Mahapatra’s poems feature his home, Orissa, a rural region of India. His themes are the traditional, apparently timeless concerns of his country—spirituality, hunger, death, and rebirth. His questioning, somber poetry evokes the Indian belief in cultural stasis and inevitability. He explains that he was raised to believe that ‘‘things happen as they do because ...of things that have happened before, and that nothing can change the sequence of things.’’ Thus, Mahapatra often writes of immediately perceived physical and social realities without probing their causes.

A further reason for the dominance of the rural Indian sensibility in Mahapatra’s poetry may lie in his lack of acquaintance with a world of poetic tradition. Mahapatra is a physics professor who admits, ‘‘I haven’t read much poetry in my life,’’ and he did not start writing until he was almost forty years old. He produced his first volumes of poetry after briefly experimenting with writing short fiction and participating in writers’ workshops.

Discursive Style. Mahapatra is known for his distinctively discursive poetic style. The absence of sympathy with suffering humanity in much Indo-Anglian poetry troubles him. For that reason, he emphasizes key contemporary social issues in his verse, thereby generating critical debate among readers and scholars. His subjects include poverty, hunger, prostitution, death, suicide, crime, war, violence, religious bigotry, and the exploitation of women and children. These problems afflict the entire Indian nation, and he feels them even more acutely in his native state of Orissa. Mahapatra has formulated a poetic idiom of his own; he does not concern himself with coherence in metrical arrangements and grammar in syntactical constructions in capturing the human soul.

Mahapatra uses symbols and images from his immediate surroundings (often found in nature) for an easy evocation of the native sensibility. His allusions to a variety of subjects make his poetry richer in meaning and resonant with deep erudition. As Ujjal Dutta notes, ‘‘Mahapatra is fond of juxtaposition of images in a sequence of disorder.... For him, the external reality is not something out there, but something that yields to the pressure of the consciousness and is sieved through it.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

In his poetry, Mahapatra explores contemporary social issues and emphasizes present-day problems, such as poverty, violence, war, and exploitation. Here are some other works that take a similar approach:

''I Explain a Few Things'' (1937), a poem by Pablo Neruda. This poem starkly depicts the devastating result of the Spanish civil war.

Age of Iron (1990), a novel by J. M. Coetzee. This novel depicts the social and political consequences of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Blood Diamond (2006), a film directed by Edward Zwick. This film explores the connection between diamond merchants and the financing of warlords that fuels ongoing conflicts in Africa.

 

Works in Critical Context

Perhaps because Mahapatra started publishing poetry only in his early forties, he was not initially taken as seriously by reviewers and researchers as other Indo- Anglian poets. It therefore took some time for him to make his presence felt on the Indian literary scene. Like the works of his favorite poet, John Keats, Mahapatra’s early poems met with a hostile reception from many critics and commentators. Slowly, however, Mahapatra gained ground in Indian criticism and eventually came to be recognized as one of the significant poets of his generation.

Mahapatra’s first volume published in the United States, A Rain of Rites (1976), was highly acclaimed and resulted in his attendance at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. His later verse heightened his reputation as an accomplished and prolific poet. Mahapatra has now become a favorite with scholars and readers in India and abroad. Reviewers have responded warmly and favorably to his poetry. He has by now acquired the status of a leading Indian-English poet and is currently one of the most active Indian cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world. His rich perception of life and experimentation with the English language have made him a major and mature presence in contemporary Indian poetry in English.

A Rain of Rites. A Rain of Rites was published a few days before Mahapatra’s departure to the United States in 1976. In response to this work, Dick Allen observed that ‘‘Mahapatra, in contrast to most American poets, is most at home with poems which touch the beyond. The poetry of A Rain of Rites is that of a man taking up a stance against or within mysteries, sensitive to the moods of days and years.’’ The collection is largely devoted to women and their position in Indian society. The subject is mainly the maltreatment of women in India and their passive submission to fate for reasons such as hunger and poverty. His preoccupation with women in these poems reflects his experiences with his mother in the past and his relationship with his wife in the present. Reviewing this collection, Vernon Young wrote, ‘‘The manner of apprehension in [Mahapatra’s] wonderful, sensate poems inevitably brings to the tongue the word ‘sophistication.’... Evident in every cadence is the long over-ripening of a sardonic wisdom, the tired consciousness of too many beginnings.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Mahapatra demonstrates a strong concern for the dominance of senseless violence in modern society. Can literature adequately express the nature of this violence? How, if at all, does poetry such as his contribute to ending this violence?

2. Mahapatra initially had little knowledge of world literature, but after receiving critical attention, he traveled widely. Can you detect a transformation in his poetry to reflect a wider global viewpoint? What aspects of his career as a physics instructor influence his poetry?

3. Mahapatra often features his hometown of Orissa in his poems, which he uses to explore traditional and timeless concerns of India such as spirituality, hunger, death, and rebirth. List some of the traditional and timeless concerns of your culture, and write a poem making use of your home town to explore these concerns.

4. Choose several of Mahapatra’s poems that deal with a single contemporary social problem and write an essay discussing how his poetry brings to light important aspects of this problem.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bhat, Laxminarayana. Modern Indian Poet Writing in English: Jayanta Mahapatra. Jaipur, India: Mangal Deep, 2000.

Kulshrestha, Chirantan ed. Contemporary Indian English Verse: An Evaluation. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1980.

Mohan, Devinder. Jayanta Mahapatra. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1987.

Paniker, Ayyappa. Indian Literature in English. Madras, India: Anu Chithra, 1989.

Prasad, Madhusudan, ed. The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Sterling, 1986.

Periodicals

Alexander, Meena. ‘‘Jayanta Mahapatra: A Poetry of Decreation.’’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1983).

Allen, Dick. ‘‘To the Wall.’’ Poetry (September 1977).

Allen, Frank. ‘‘Crisis of Belief.’’ Parnassus (1981).

Chitre, Dilip. ‘‘Poetry in the Enemy’s Tongue: On Two Indian Poets Writing in English.’’ New Quest (March-April 1979).

Mohanty, Niranjan. “Recollection as Redemption: The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra.’’ Poetry 1985.

Pattanaik, D. R. ‘‘Silence as a Mode of Transcendence in the Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra.’’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1991).

Perry, John Oliver. ‘‘Neither Alien nor Postmodern: Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry from India.’’ Kenyon Review (1986).

Rayan, Krishna. ‘‘The Tendril and the Root: A Study of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Relationship.’’ Literary Criterion (1991).

Stachniewsky, John. ‘‘Life Signs in the Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra.’’ Indian Literary Review (April 2, 1986).