Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry

Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry

Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry : Mahapatra is a celebrated poet in post-independence Indian English poetry. Summing up the Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry K. N. Daruwalla writes: “Tradition, a mythic consciousness and the Orissa landscape play a large part in his poetry. There is an abundance of local detail in his poetry. Shrines, temples, women prostrating themselves ‘to the day’s last sun’, homebound cattle and rickshaw pullers abound. And whores Mahapatra has a constellation of poems on them….The local touches form an essential part of a wider and more complex poetic fabric.”

Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry

Mahapatra is an original poet. He was not influenced by any poet and he has not read much poetry. He frankly, admits: “You can see, I haven’t read much poetry in my life. As a matter of fact, I haven’t read any poetry until I started writing myself. No, not even poets like Whitman or Tagore. I was trained to be a physicist. But I have veered away from physics in a way.” 

Mahapatra’s poetry is remarkable for depth of feelings and true poetic imagination which embraces a wide variety of themes-Orissa landscape representing India’s cultural and religious past running, into present, rootlessness and emptiness in modern existence, love and sex and relationships, and superb poetic craftsmanship. As an Indian English poet his position is unique and unsurpassable. Let’s read about the main Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry.

The Following Characteristics of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Poetry:

Indian Sensibility:

Mahapatra’s poetic sensibility is typically Indian. He is intensely aware of his environment and vividly portrays the variegated Orissa landscape throbbing with religious fervour. Orissa landscape with Puri and Konark looming large—has a dominant presence in his poetry, as the Waverlez has in the novels of Scott or the Lake District in Wordsworth’s poetry or Wessex in Hardy’s novels.

The physical landscape represents the deeper levels of Indian consciousness and psyche which have been shaped by age old cultural and religious forces coming down to the present from the hoary days of the Vedas.

He writes about the Orissa landscape with the minute knowledge and sureness of an insider. The real landscape becomes symbolic, a suggestive image in his poetry. In Dawn at Puri Mahapatra depicts with a touch of subtle irony and pathos the incongruities in the religious landscape of India:

“White-clad widowed women
past the centres of their lives
are waiting to enter the great temple
Their austere eyes
stare like those caught in a net
Hanging by the dawn’s shining strands of faith.” 

Religion can give no solace to the poor and the destitute. Listening to the Prayer suggests the all pervading feeling of pain in the chimes of ringing temple bells:

“Stone cuts deep touched by the pain of countless people
Across the temple square the wind
that settles on my shoulders
has nowhere to go
neither a silence
nor an answer.” 

In Indian Summer Poem Mahapatra reveals true Indian sensibility through auditory and visual images. In Taste for Tomorrow, a cameo on Puri, the holy coastal town, in highly symbolical. It contains two dominant symbols—the street which “rolls out like a giant tongue” and

“a huge holy tower
swaying in the wind of great reasons.”  

The Faith, which depicts the religious fervour in the temple town of Puri, is a subtle ironical comment on the sick civilization of ours. It is a structurally well knit poem divided into three stanzas which are dominated by a cripple, a priest, and the speaker respectively. Religion can give no solace, no comfort:

“In these indistinguishable mornings
like pale-yellow hospital linen,
a legless cripple
clutters up the wide temple street
the quite early light crouched in his palms.” 

Dawn at Puri, Taste for Tomorrow, Slum, Evening Landscape by the River, Events, Orissa Landscapes, and Evening in an Orissa Village are poems which deal chiefly with the Orissa landscape. Dawn at Puri is a vivid and realistic description of the temple town of Puri with its endless crow noises, a skull lying on holy sands, white clad widowed women waiting to enter the great temple. Taste for Tomorrow is also a vivid pictorial account of Puri with its crows, lepers, rituals and pilgrims thronging the temple door:

“At Puri, the crows
The one wide street,
lolls out like a giant tongue
Five faceless lepers move aside
as a priest passed by.
And at the street’s end
the crowds thronging the temple door
a huge holy flower
Swaying in the wind of great reasons.” 

Orissa Landscapes is a picturesque record of the variegated landscape of Orissa with all its filth and squalor—”sour smell of faces, crushed grasses and wet earth.”, a temple with “nervous, phantam lines” of devout pilgrims, the sickly and polluted atmosphere consisting of “the filarial water, amoebic dysentery, bodies ribbed and packed with hunger.” The Orissa Poems and Evening in An Orissa VillageThe CowsThoughts of the Future and many other poems are noteworthy for unfolding the various aspects of Orissa before the readers.

Contemporary Socio-Political Reality:

In some of his famous poems Mahapatra also deals with contemporary socio-political reality in India. He once remarked. “One just cannot sit back and shut his eyes and write in his escape module.” An Old Country and The Tattooed Taste are a bitter sarcastic comment on the hollowness of modern existence:

“The astral chariot shines in the neons
of empty faced women, climbing;
Children slumped open, loitering past
where they were born,
staring out of their fairy-tale windows
Where the wizened wind, sweeping in
spins high hopes so the ground in silence.” (The Tattooed Taste)  

It exposes the economic disparity and the utter apathy of the politicians to public welfare. Mahapatra’s sensibility to contemporary reality gets sharpened in Performance, Levels, The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of A Republic, 1975, and Assassin, published in his slim volume A Father’s Hours. In his famous poem The Secret of Heroism Mahapatra brings to light the lamentable state of India-India that lives under the massive burden of her ancient glory and heritage:

“Perhaps all of India is not awake at this hour
Submerged in her immensity,
I know I cannot get away
Live a patient crocodile
She leaves her prey to rot into softness
fastened beneath the roots of some bold banyan
of our heritage that overhangs the river.” 

Prostitution and sexual exploitation results from economic disparity and gross social injustice. The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street is a precise, realistic and highly communicative account of the evil of prostitution. The poem begins with the instruction of the protagonist how to find a whorehouse in a Calcutta street and ends with the prostitute asking him to leave her for she is in a hurry to receive new customers. Love yields place to commerce and the message becomes quite clear. Hunger is more poignant, more moving. The extreme poverty of the fisherman-father compels him to let his fifteen year old daughter to resort to prostitution for earnings.

“I heard him say: my daughter, she is just turned fifteen
Feel her, here, there. Be back soon, your bus
leaves at nine. The sky fell on me, and a father’s
exhausted wile. Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering turning inside.” 

Human Relationship:

Mahapatra also explores with robust tenderness the intricacies of human relationship, especially those of lovers. R. Parthasarathy remarks: “Love offers a sort of relief from the uncertainties one has come to expect of life, probed rigorously, for instance, in Lost and The Logic. There is an intense, dramatic quality about A Missing Person.” A woman finds fulfilment of life, the perfect celebration of her life in love. Without it she is a missing person:

“In the darkened room
a woman
cannot find her reflection in the mirror
waiting as usual
at the edge of sleep
In her hands she folds
the oil lamp
whose drunken yellow flames
know where her lonely body lies.” 

The Logic describes consummation of love. The beloved tells the lover to relax thinking of the enjoyment in love. She is so hypnotised by her lover that even harsh treatment from him does not hurt her any more:

“Thus scalp hurts not from the steep drag
of your hands but from my own practised drivel.” 

Lost is more about sex than about love. The beloved attracts the lover:

“I watch your body ease off the seasons
Stretched out on the stone of my breath
Going nowhere
My hands move on.” 

To Mahapatra sexual fulfilment is the goal of lovers.

Alienation and Isolation:

Mahapatra’s poetry is related with the existential dilemma of the modern man. He is intensely aware of the alienation and isolation of the modern man, who is coiled in the net of injustice and exploitation. Mahapatra is aware of the unbearable pain and indefinable existential anguish of the modern man, who finds himself in a state of alienation and isolation. His breath turns into iron choking him in the process. The yearning for light results only in further darkness and frustration:

“Darkness from shadows under the roof and loaf
from the fish’s belly white against the hardness
of water, from the salt in the blood
which carries the body forward like love.” 

Mahapatra’s Poetic Art:

Mahapatra’s poems demonstrate remarkable concern for both structure and linguistic versatility. His symbols and images are evocative and suggestive, and they reflect his love for the Orissa landscape with all the myths and rituals associated with it. He himself writes: “These poems are just attempts of mine to hold a handful of earth to my face and let it speak….Perhaps this signifies a return to my roots so that they reveal who I am.” Mahapatra again remarks.

“To Orissa, to this land in which my roots lie and lies my past and in which lies my beginning and my end, where the mind weeps over the grief of river Daya and where the waves of the Bay of Bengal fail to reach out today to the twilight soul of Konark, I acknowledge my debt and my relationship.” V.A. Shahne observes that the “main focus of his poetic creativity seems to be centred on the naked earth and the mythological, symbolistic or aesthetic structures firmly rooted in the naked earth of which Orissa and India form a significant part.”

Mahapatra is a skillful practitioner of the montage technique, and his images are evocative and haunting, precise and accurate:

“the acid sound of a distant temple bell
the wet silent night of a crow that
hangs the first sun.” [Dawn] 

“I watch a cow pause, urinate
a softly spoken sound out of the past.” [The Ruins] 

“White-eyed weeds
drowse in worm, weary ponds.”  (Orissa Landscape)

The following lines from the second section of Relationship are suggestive of an inward, deeper thrust into the limits of an inherited psychic landscape:

“Orion crawls like a spider in the sky
while the swords of forgotten kings
rust slowly in the museum of our guilt
while the carved rock loses its sight.”  

Mahapatra’s poetry is restrained and balanced. There are no verbal excesses, no redundant expressions, for example:

“the startled spirit
the wild white thing
which rode away
across the warm speechless river
into the darkness of moods.” (The Making of My Poem] 

“I know of the vast obstinate distance
in which my heart makes its home;
and still I cannot grasp what thin
distance is.” (Time Drawing In) 

Mahapatra’s poetry represents the Indian sensibility right from the hoary past to our own age. In The Dispossessed Nests he deals more effectively with subjects like Punjab turmoil and the Bhopal tragedy. Summing up Mahapatra’s lasting contribution to Indian English poetry Devinder Mohan writes. “Considering the works through the progressive intentionality of poetic language, rather than the chronology of publications of his poetry, there is a marked intensity and range of themes (temple, whorehouses, nature and love) which diffuse into the poet’s consciousness of the dying process in history.

The process refers specifically to the shattered myth of Hindu India, although it does not earn continuity or a development of thought from his mind’s hiding places to a generative redemption both of his own and of the reader. But this is not Mahapatra’s shortcoming: this is his sense of belonging to the modern condition of human loss.

In this context, he is the most intense of Indian poets writing in English and perhaps at par with those European poets writing in English and perhaps at par with those European poets who are obsessed with modernistic impulse for man’s finitude: his physiology, economics, and culture. His poetic focus transforms what is regional in culture, myth, and thought, to a universal human predicament. His poems, Hunger, Myth, India, and The Accusation are flawless examples.”

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