Jayanta Mahapatra, The Politics Of His Poetry

On August 8, Jayanta Mahapatra was sitting pretty on his hospital bed and happily released his last poetry book in Odia titled ‘Jhanji- the Sunstroke’. On the evening of August 27, he was gone forever. He was 95.

In between his last book and death, there remained a long history of path-breaking poetry and an innocent question — who was the real Jayanta Mahapatra?

The world knows him as one of the master craftsmen of Indo-English poetry, but all his life he wanted to be an Odia poet. He was an Odia-speaking English poet and, incidentally, blended his mother tongue with English, a language of former colonial rulers.

Jayanta Mahapatra published his first Odia poetry collection ‘Bali’ (the sacrifice) in 1993. When his first Odia poetry collection was published, he was known as a pioneering voice in Indian English poetry with more than a dozen titles to his credit, most of them published by elite publishers of the world.

He was the first Indian poet writing in English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi award.

Despite his majestic presence in the high pedestal of English poetry, why had he chosen Odia as his poetic expression? It is important to know why he was so desperate to express himself in his mother tongue and what inspired him to publish his first poetry collection in Odia at the ripe age of 64.

All his life, Jayanta Mahapatra identified himself as an Odia poet writing in English and writing in Odia ultimately fulfilled his dream to be an Odia writer. He was very much aware of his limitations in Odia vocabulary and created a craft of his own within that limitation. His comfort zone was basically his own life and perhaps he was the only Odia poet who had written maximum number of autobiographical poems, both in Odia and English. In that context, his last poetry collection is explicitly personal and talks more about the anger, anguish, pain, frustration and aspiration of his personal self. Surprisingly, Jayanta Mahapatra chose politics to be the driving force of poems in his last poetry collection which he avoided earlier. In his earlier poems politics was always used as an ‘undertone’.

Neruda in his poem “poetry” categorically said – “poetry gives glass quality to glass/blood quality to blood / and life to life itself”.

It was Jayanta Mahapatra’s life as a man and citizen that is reflected in his poems. There are a few poems in this collection which talks more about his political reactions. In his long poetic career, he used to avoid politics as theme or motivational spirit of the poetry. His last collection is an exception and his political stand as a democratic free citizen erupted as a new poetic craft in ‘Jhanji’.

In 2015, he returned the civilian honour ‘Padma Shri’ by government of India as a token of protest against growing intolerance and communal hatred in the country. As a result of his non-violent protest, he was bulldozed by the supporters of ruling class with hate mails, threatening calls and brutally trolled in social media. The reaction of political class confirmed the very idea of social intolerance and that shattered Jayanta Mahapatra as a poet and as a man. His last poetry collection is a fitting reflection of the political turmoil faced by the country and by a helpless senior citizen.

Before his death. he sang the bravest song of human liberation, social justice and empathetic humanity in his poetry. The soft and kind Jayanta Mahapatra rearranged his poetic sensibilities as a firebrand poet of protest. In a brilliant line he wrote – “poetry gives me the mental strength to bear the burden of political assault and insult.”

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