The Poetry of Land, Language and Rituals: Celebrated Indian poet – Jayanta Mahapatra

This is a column by Vinita Agrawal.

Born in Cuttack, Eastern India in 1928, Jayanta Mahapatra worked as a professor of Physics and started writing poetry when he was in his forties. He has written 28 volumes of poetry so far. His latest book title, Hesitant Light was published as recently as October 2016, proving that at 88, the ink in his pen is still going strong.

Twenty of his books are in English and seven in his native language, Oriya. Some of his poetry titles include Relationship, Rain of Rites, Bare Face, and Land and Shadow Space.

He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2009 by the President of India – the fourth highest civilian award in the nation and a Sahitya Akademi award in 1981- the highest award for Literature in the country for his long poem Relationship. He has also received the Jacob Glatstein award, conferred by Poetry magazine, Chicago; the Allen Tate Poetry Prize for 2009 from The Sewanee Review, the SAARC Literary Award, New Delhi, 2009 and he was recommended for the Nobel prize in literature in 1994. The latest in his tally of awards is the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred to him in January 2017 at the iconic Jaipur Literary Festival.

Besides poetry, he has experimented with myriad forms of prose. His published books include Green Gardener, an anthology of short stories, and Door Of Paper: Essay and Memoirs. Now 88, he lives in the same 80 year old house in which he has resided most of his life, often settling into an armchair on the veranda that faces his little courtyard with its myriad trees, watching the Sun birds and Taylor birds hopping in the branches of the guava tree.

His poetry is renowned for being silent, subtle and intense and distinctly rooted in the land. In which he grew up. Critics say that he has ‘purified the dialect of a tribe’, to which he responds ‘I cannot write beyond what I do not know, beyond what I have not lived:

“And the town of Cuttack where I was born,

Its lanes scarred by ruts from whose clay

The goddesses take their sacred shapes.”

When, after fifty years of his country’s independence, he met an old woman in the remote mountain region of Orissa, and she confessed that she hadn’t had rice for a month he had to release that anguish in a poem. The struggle, pain and injustice of life makes him restless and somewhere that is reflected in his poetry.

One of his poetry collection titled, Land, is rooted in geography. It deals with its illnesses, terrors, glories and sacredness. Most of all it deals with its burden of history. In that sense, it is a signature book on the soil that fills a poet’s heart indicating that one’s heritage cannot be disowned.

Many of Mahapatra ‘s poems are on loneliness, alienation and emptiness. He accrues these emotions to the relationship he had with his mother – it was strained, at best, repugnant at worst. She didn’t understand him. She was suspicious of him. She took away his precious personal diaries when he was a teenager. That wounded him deeply.

Subsequently, he ran away from home to Mumbai. His father came looking for him and took him back home otherwise his life story would have been vastly different from what it is now. Bits of that traumatic childhood persist in his poems.

Perhaps we can never escape the impact of the things, people and events that shape us. Jayanta Mahapatra ‘s poetry is worth reading for the pure essence of sensitivity, for its tonal value and for the essential truths it contains about life. Truths that are universally relatable.

In God’s Night

In God’s night you do not know

what comes next.

Past the window scurry the leaves of summer,

born of the awesome wind.

They drag me to a freedom that turns from me,

standing blank and undone with pain.

Back in the heart of the country,

a dark wind is bent on pushing things around.

I cannot explain this burdensome silence,

the heady, infectious smell of blood,

the cry of the years in the night.

Tonight, the shadow of my brother follows me,

bearing blood on its hooves.

My mother turns pale and crass.

In the dark someone called God

runs his vain fingers

over the treasures in his planet:

relics that could still behave like men.

Jayanta Mahapatra


vinitaagrawalprofilephotoAuthor of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in significant national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks in several international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co-judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest, 2015. 

First poem quoted was Relationship, a book length, long poem.

The second poem, In God’s Night, was published in The Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1991, Vol. XIII, No. 2. 

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