The Story Of How Braja Mohan Became Fakir Mohan Senapati; His Fight For Distinct Identity Of Odia

Bhubaneswar: Fakir Mohan Senapati was born at Mallikaspur in Odisha’s Balasore town on the day of Makar Sankranti in the year 1843. Makar Sankranti on his birth year, was January 13. 

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Saturday paid tributes to Vyasa Kabi on his 179th birth anniversary.

Fakir Mohan Senapati, regarded as the father of modern Odia literature, dedicated his entire life for the progress of Odia language. He also played a leading role in establishing the distinct identity of Odia language and literature. So, it would not be wrong to say that the story of Fakir Mohan is indeed the story of the “renaissance” in Odia literature.

This line from his first original poem Utkal Bhraman (Tours of Orissa) “When there is the bustle of progress everywhere, will Utkal be still in slumber ?” resonates with Odia nationalism.

The story of how Braja Mohan became Fakir Mohan is quite intriguing. It is a story of faith, which is so relevant to the present times. Born in 1843 at Mallikashpur village of Balasore district, Fakir Mohan afflicted with an unknown disease when he was seven years old. His grandmother Kuchila Dei, prayed hard for his survival and she pledged in a Dargah that if he recovers from the ailment, the boy would be turned a “Fakir” (Muslim mendicant). Miraculously, Braja Mohan recovered and as pledged by his grandmother,  came to be known as Fakir Mohan. Thereafter, he was made a “Fakir” for eight days during Muharram of Ramzan month every year and offered “Simi” at Pir Dargah with whatever he received as alms during that period. He emerged as a novelist of rare calibre not only in Odia language but also in Indian literature.

Fakir Mohan’s formal education began only when he was nine years old at ‘Chatsali’ in his village and then moved on to a free Parsi school at Balasore, which had three Muslim teachers and an Odia Pundit who taught how to write letters to the relatives and petitions for submission to the courts. Since he could not afford education, he is said to have even worked at his teacher’s house to pay the fee. Later, he got admitted to Mission School at Barabati and went to become a teacher here till 1871.

Fakir Mohan remembers those days in his autobiography, “No printed books other than the Bible were available in Odia those days. The Mission Press at Cuttack was the only printing press in Orissa. The missionaries ran a school at Balasore, but only the Bible was taught there. No Hindu student went there for fear of ‘losing caste’ by reading printed books” (Story of My Life, p.10).

After this, he became headmaster of Christian Mission School where he got in touch with the Collector of Balasore, John Bims. Fakir taught him Odia.

During his tenure as headmaster in the Balasore Mission School, Fakir Mohan and five other friends including the poet Radhanath Ray founded an association for the development of Oriya literature and in 1868, with Fakir Mohan’s initiative, a printing press named P.M.Senapati & Co Utkal Press was set up at Balasore.

His organised defence of the distinct status of Odia language antagonised him to the Bengalis. As he recalls in his autobiography, “As a result of my public lectures, writing in the periodicals and my open criticism of these developments I became an arch enemy of the Bengali establishment. I aroused in them so much hatred that they would not mention me by name; instead they would refer to me as bastard ringleader” (Story of my Life, p.38). As a result of the tireless efforts of Fakir Mohan, the British government, on the recommendation of the Commissioner T E Ravenshaw, had to rescind its decision to withdraw Odia language from the schools.

With the introduction of Odia medium in the schools, there arose an urgent need for Oriya textbooks. Earlier, the missionaries had got a few Bengali textbooks translated into Odia. Fakir Mohan himself wrote a few school textbooks in Odia including a book on arithmetic, another on Odia grammar and two volumes on Indian history that were published by the Balasore Utkal Press in 1869-1870.

The most creative and eventful phase of Fakir Mohan’s life began after he settled down at Cuttack in 1896. He wrote most of his last poems during 1896-1905, published a translation of the Upanishads and ‘Rebati’, the first story in Odia language. He wrote two of his four novels- ‘Cha Mana Atha Guntha’ and ‘Lachama’ during this period.

In1905, Fakir Mohan returned to his native house at Mallikaspur of Balasore and lived there for the rest of his life. He set up a beautiful garden there and called it Shantikanan. During this last phase of his life, he wrote most of his short stories, the last two of his four novels, ‘Mamu’ and ‘Prayaschita’, and a long poem entitled ‘Boudhavatara’. He completed writing his autobiography, ‘Atma Jivan Charita’, in 1918 and it was published posthumously in 1927. This is not only the first Odia autobiography, but also a faithful document of the social and cultural ethos of his time.

Sadly, this man, known as the father of modern Odia literature has been neglected both by his people and the state. Nothing has been done to keep his memory alive. Looking back, it seems he had a premonition that he would be forgotten, perhaps that is why he built an idol of his own at Mallikashapur village square when he was still alive.

Writers today rue the fact that the man who changed the course of Odia literature has faded from our memory. Unlike Prem Chand and Rabindranath Tagore, his works have neither been promoted nor translated into English.

Calling for the preservation of his works, educationist Abhiram Biswal had said on Fakir Mohan’s 176th birth anniversary, “ He was a multi-tasker. Fakir Mohan worked as a child labourer. He ventured into wood and paper business. He worked in press and also as an editor. He was a teacher and served as a diwan. He had experience and expertise in many fields, those reflected in his writings. That’s why preservation of his writings is all-so important.”


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