It has often been commented that Jayanta Mahapatra stands tall, above the shoulders of others, as the father of Indian poetry, while some scholars have given him the honorary title of the grandfather of Indian poetry. Born in 1928 in Cuttack, India, Mahapatra is still alive and writing great poetry. He is a physicist, as well as a poet. Whichever way we perceive and approach the writings of Mahapatra, whether we see him as the father or as the grandfather of modern Indian poetics, either way his writing is imbibed with the spirit of Romanticism. Mahapatra’s Romanticism is on par with Whitman, Wordsworth, and Keats, but particularly Wordsworth. It is not surprising that a physicist should find the natural environment as cause for poetic investigation; for, science and art overlap more than most people believe. What perhaps is somewhat unexpected is that a physicist-turned-poet should not paint the world as modernly mechanistic, but rather come nearer to approach older forms of Romanticism. This is not to say that we do not find a strong sense of the deterministic in Mahapatra’s poetry; for, we do. Nature is a deterministic medium in Mahapatra’s poetry, but it is not a mechanistic medium. That sense of determinism, or of the inevitable, is never a straightforward denial of beauty, of the sublime, or of the spiritual; to the contrary, Mahapatra’s determinism is qualified by aesthetic admiration for the sublime as found in the natural world.
By Romanticism, I am applying a very specific meaning to the term. I am referring to the great tradition of work that stems from the 18th century and onward, that began in Europe and spread as a trans-Atlantic art form. Romanticism refers to the ability of the poet to seek through his or her inquiries of nature the reflexive meaning of the self, the consciousness, and the memory, in so far as all three of these components or elements of being are defined as constructed projections onto the world. Romanticism, unlike Enlightenment forms of thought, asks the artist and thinker to suspend rationality and return to the irrational characteristics of the mind. Irrationality as understood in Romanticism is not the lack of reason, but rather it is a way of measuring the emotional and psychological phases of self against reason. When reason dominates to the point that feelings are repressed, there is a need to reopen the psychical wounds of the emotions. Romantic poetry does just that—it explores psychical wounds but through the symbolic language of nature and through the projection of feelings, emotional states, and moods onto the natural world. Thus, by a Romantic use of nature images, motifs, and symbols, I do not mean that nature is always thought of as idyllic; rather, by Romanticism, I mean the psychological impressions that the poet forms when in solitary reflection on nature. These impressions can be positive, negative, and indicative of the sublime, of pleasure or of existential crisis and suffering.
Modern and contemporary reinterpretations of Romanticism quite often will reposition the idea of nature or the natural world in terms of the geographical, the regional, and the locale. Geography, region, and the locale are characteristics of place that are important to Mahapatra as a poet. Often a reader’s first entrance into Mahapatra’s language is through his ability to depict a scene (as a lyric moment, not as a narrative). The scenes that Mahapatra chooses to describe are always assuredly related to a specific locale. The initial way readers may experience Mahapatra’s Romanticism is through the relationship of the poet to his land, village life, and the countryside. Bijay Kumar Das in The Poetry of Jayanata Mahapatra writes about the symbolic function of place in Mahapatra’s poetry—“Thus, landscape has a great significance in Mahapatra’s poetry so far as it enables the poet to search for his own self in order to understand the world in its proper perspective” (15).
To use geography, region, territory, and landscape as a way of communication (and as a means to express the needs of the self) is a technique similar to Romanticism’s use of nature as a mimetic device for self-reflection. Das confirms the mimetic quality of geographical references in Mahapatra’s poetry when he describes how landscape is often used as a cathartic device. The critic Das does not perceive mimesis necessarily as a feature of Romanticism in Mahapatra’s writing; instead, Das sees the mimetic as part of Mahapatra’s realism. Das writes, “The landscape also helps the poet to alleviate his suffering” (5). Though Das does not use the term mimetic in this statement, nonetheless, what he describes is a mimetic function of art— suffering is purged by the artistic and aesthetic creation of the poetic self. This poetic self is validated and made imaginatively and psychologically real, through a projection of the self onto natural landscape. The use of landscape to help dispel suffering in Mahapatra’s poetry is analogous to Wordsworth’s use of nature to dispel suffering.
In spite of observing how Mahapatra uses landscape to shape a discussion of the poet’s inner self, Das’ appraisal of Mahapatra falls just shy of placing Mahapatra squarely within the tradition of Romantic poets. Instead of a Romantic, Das sees something more of the modern, albeit contemporary expression of spirit in Mahapatra’s verse; and, so, instead of positioning Mahapatra as a Romantic poet, Das decides to position Mahapatra as a realist. Das writes,
Sun and moon, dawn and dusk, day and night, heat and dust, mountains and sun, rivers and hills, sky and earth all are incorporated into the texture of his landscape poetry in his effort to depict the predicament of modern man in an irreligious milieu. He is not a romantic poet to sing songs in praise of the beauty of nature. He is a realist who sees life against the backdrop of landscape but does not run away. He sees life in life’s terms and, therefore, a calm serenity governs his landscape poems (15-16).
I would argue there are instances in which it seems that Mahapatra does broach the praise of nature, even if his praise is tinged with a condition of pessimism. Das’ point that Mahapatra’s poetry expresses the inner condition of an irreligious age is possibly open to some challenge. There is no reason to believe that there is not a spiritual dimension to be had in Mahapatra’s poetry; true, if we are looking for the spiritual to come up in traditional forms, we will walk away from Mahapatra believing his work is irreligious. Yet, if we redefine what the spiritual may mean in an era that questions traditional religious institutions and traditional religious rituals, we can begin to find examples of the spiritual in Mahapatra. The spiritual in Mahapatra is equivalent to nature itself, and his appreciation of it is not ritualistic or prone to one-sidedness. He does not believe that nature is only representative of what is good, but also of what can be harsh punishing. Arguably through his acceptance of the good but also the punitive aspects of the natural world, Mahapatra is able to build a Romantic position of the sublime, or awe of that which is transcendent within nature. As Rabindra Swain describes,
Indeed, he [Mahapatra] is a child of the earth and sea, sun and wind, of the tradition in which he is brought up. All of these taken together have richly shaped his Oriya sensibility. The various aspects of Orissa, its flora and fauna, its enchanting landscape vividly summed up in the image of ‘the indigo waters of the tropics’ and the ‘eternal half-light of rain’ which exist amid the squalor, poverty and drudgeries of daily life, its customs and festivals which have enriched his sensibility, find sensuous and detailed expression in an apostrophe, sweetly addressed as ‘my ancient love a hundred names’ (95).
To understand this point, consider the poem, “The Shadow of Day.” The poem moves through a series of images that represent the artifices of modern life, its technologies and its bureaucracies. Tangled up with each of these artifices are also small and neglected reminders of nature’s beauty—the bowl of fruit in the bowl, the drifting clouds, the day’s soft shadows. Mahapatra uses the poem, thematically, to question his own voice and the voice of others as having any authorial or final meaning for the modern world or even for daily life. Though the human constructions of language may miscarry, nature does not. And, so the poem offers up the gift to the reader of recognizing that there is something greater than what human reason can offer—there is nature, which though inherently irrational in the sense that it can be destructive without the destruction having human meaning, it is also rational in the sense of its ordered patterns. That the poet also attributes to “instinct” his urge to embrace the ‘other,’ to ‘put his arm around,’ someone close and dear, signifies that the poet is drawing a connection between the finer aspects of human nature with that of the natural world. The poem is about the modern failure of language, the ineffectiveness of language to communicate authentic presence, but also about the replacement of these modern letdowns with the return of the poet’s own private memory of nature. This return is embodied at the poems’ close where language gets metaphorically swallowed up by the “shadow of the day.”
The bright day winced at my step. Where was it I could go?
The doors were shut, the parties over, something hung over us
like a cloud that will not bring rain.
Embarrassed, I looked around for ripe fruit in the bowl.
It was an ordinary day: cut flowers in the vase,
the Leader on the television, the stained mirror
that seemed to forgive me evil, and
Sunday lotuses that betrayed the hour
when they began to bloom. And everyone calm,
following the old proverbs meekly into the world.
For an instant I wondered whether the ethereal
voices of flutes had died out,
whether I had any choice
when I put my arms around you,
almost by instinct; or only to conjure up
over and over again, the crust of days set aside
was one of only lying to oneself when one pretends
one was doing something one did not like?
What I find now is no more
a monstrous secret between us; they are asleep,
and I will repeat my words, getting them wrong again,
filling my tongue and mouth with the swift shadow of day.
An example of where Mahapatra is more openly critical toward nature would be the poem, “The Season of the Old Rain.” The poem begins by describing the rainy season of a village—as readers we are not specifically told where, which village. We have only a description of impressions, of scenery, to help us grope our way through a sensory-derived vision. As the discussion of the rainy season is given, the poem quickly brings up the subject of “decay and death.” The poem’s use of the flora allows the mind to secure itself against the metaphysical knowledge that there is “decay and death” in life, in the world, in nature itself. There is much attention to the details of landscape—the jasmine, the bamboo, backyards, bodies of water, the gray sky. Mahapatra projects his own realizations—“This is the time when the fruit of my life/seems humble and tender against the dark banyan”—as a way of constructing self-determinacy. This is revealed within the first ten lines of the poem. The first ten lines reveal a Wordsworthian sense of wholeness to be had in nature. As Aidan Day writes of Wordsworth, “Nature is important insofar as it manifests the same transcendental energy as informs the human mind and at the same time provides an objective, material barrier which allows the individual subject to recognize transcendence without being overwhelmed by it” (44). Additionally, just as we may witness a mood (or moods) in Wordsworth, so we encounter a mood in Mahapatra’s “The Season of the Old Rain.”
This is the season of the old rain,
always with much to answer before time is done
with decay and death and shutting our minds
to the jasmine's reason that keeps growing
in backyards on the edge of water. Here is the bamboo
dropping beads of twilight on earth's stricken floor;
bent and outstretched, gesturing gloomily into a gray sky.
This is the time when the fruit of my life
seems humble and tender against the dark banyan,
when the season comes alive with memories of earlier years.
In the next eleven lines of Mahapatra’s “The Season of Old Rain,” the poet speaks of the beauty of the rainy season, the beauty of natural elements, of the moon and water. As he describes the beauty of these natural elements, he is offering up to his readers a definition of the sublime. The poem also turns away from depicting a mere appreciation of nature to take up the unfortunate subject of death. Through the contemplation of the corollaries of life and death, Mahapatra seeks to penetrate through the illusions of modernity by allowing the senses to return to nature, to yield to the place in which there is knowledge of what is transient and what changes, as well as knowledge of what is eternal and immutable—youth fades into old age, life fades into its opposite, the sun fades into the moon. Mahapatra’s Romanticism may very well be tinged with eastern religions and its conception of maya. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, maya is a word that describes the physical world as caught in the perimeters of transience and of the impermanence of time. Maya is believed to be spun by the immortal ‘hands’ of Brahma. Thus, maya represents the illusions or tricks upon senses, of the mind’s play with phenomenal forms. Behind maya there exist the eternal forms that underlie spectacles and occurrences.
And when one's hand, suddenly lightened
from the weight of elusive beauty, is almost ready
to touch another's. One knows now
how the moon has tricked the mind, surrounded
by the loves one has slowly grown old with.
Traveler, where is it you belong?
Perhaps watching the old woman marooned on a treetop
hemmed in by a wild layer of water called death,
the unseen touches me with one of its
lonely wet winds, unearthing
a vein of life.
Here, there is a spiritual meaning to Mahapatra’s meditation upon nature. Mahapatra’s spiritual meaning is derived from Hinduism, while Wordsworth’s spirituality is informed by Christianity. Both Mahapatra and Wordsworth use nature symbolism in their poetry as a way of expressing personal forms of spirituality, though not necessarily piety. In the last section of Mahapatra’s “Season of Old Rain,” he meditates upon the meaning of the old woman that he observes. Memory is always comingled with strange forms of desire in Mahapatra’s verse. The form of desire depicted in the last twelve lines of “Season of Old Rain” indicates the need for the poet to confess his own apprehensions about what it means to age and what it means to observe the ruggedness of the rainy season, as the torrents of rain cut against humanity. The rain is old, as old ancient as human breath, as ancient as civilization itself, and even before. Thus, the emotions of the poet are projected onto both the image of the woman, as well as onto the elements of nature—onto the sun, the rain, and the fruit to be harvested.
Perhaps here in her eyes the rebellious season
held an answer to whatever I sought,
having walked up to the place that grew darker
against torn homes and flattened hearths
and where the sunset threw up its bloodied hands.
Once I remember I turned to death
As symbol of my age's memory, and the rain
was green on the grass that chose me my palimpsest
not to learn. And now, it carries one away,
the seen miracle in those eyes, closing and opening,
revealing neither sorrow nor hope nor loss
and cutting down the fruit of my silent season.
The critic Das writes, “Unlike Wordsworth, Mahapatra does not review nature uncritically” (16). I would suggest, however, that both Wordsworth and Mahapatra are critical of nature and do not accept nature without analysis. Perhaps what Das means by this is that Mahapatra examines nature for how it can be cruel toward humanity—the unkindness of nature is to be found in nature’s indifference toward us. The sun shines on the sinner and the saint alike; but likewise, the extremities of nature can cause harm to the good and the evil alike. In this way, nature transcends humanity. But we must also revisit this idea that Wordsworth and the Romantic tradition treats nature uncritically.
Wordsworth does not always sing the praises of nature just for the sake of compliment, and Wordsworth often takes a critical stance toward nature in his poems. The quintessential Romantic poem, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” is a lyrical meditation on nature and landscape, but the poem is hardly a simple one evoking mere admiration of nature. True, there is the ecstatic dimension of adulation of nature in “Tintern Abbey,” but there is also something far greater that is expressed, and that is the mood of the poet. If we revisit Wordsworth’s mood in “Tintern Abbey,” we find that it is somber, melancholic, in moments even depressive, and certainly it is “critical” of both humankind’s relationship to the natural environment and of nature itself.
Wordsworth begins “Tintern Abbey,” by recounting how time is spent, as he opens with ‘five summers.’ The poem speaks of a return—the return of the poet to the landscape, but also the poet’s own self-awareness that by coming back to the green groves he is able to partake in the larger cyclical dimensions of the seasons. The poet’s sense of self, the identity that he takes on when he is reconnected with the landscape of Tintern Abbey, and the poet’s consciousness as it deepens in contemplation of the landscape, is part of how the poet unites himself with the cycles of an eternally present time (as eternal time is measured by the seasons, five summers, five winters). As Wordsworth’s consciousness revels in the place of Tintern Abbey, so landscape becomes the occasion for the poet’s consciousness to turn toward the dismal, as well as toward an inner feeling of seclusion (represented by Wordsworth’s mentioning of the “Hermit’s cave”). While this is not the whole of “Tintern Abbey,” note that the following lines excerpted from it indicate how the lyrical meditation upon landscape becomes an ‘event’ for the poet’s consciousness to discover hidden aspects of self.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
In comparison to “Tintern Abbey,” Mahapatra’s poem, “An Evening by the River,” produces a similar Wordsworthian effect. In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth describes how stored away in his consciousness is a memory of the landscape, of the place, and that the memory is so powerful that it can be evoked, almost at will. The evocation becomes a set of images that in the absence of the real landscape serve to connect the poet to the psychological impressions of the actual place. We find this same technique in Mahapatra. In the second stanza of “An Evening by the River,” Mahapatra describes the effect of absence, of being away from a remembered place, upon the memory. We also come to see how the floodgates of imagined, recalled impressions can press upon the mind with great waves of intensity. In Mahapatra’s poem, we find the following words in the second stanza.
But what makes sense unless one lives in things
made by ourselves? In tales lost, in an absence,
in an awakening burnt to ashes
to face this image of my inner sense of defeat?
I recollect the sunlight rustling the leaves
of your eyes, and I stop and retreat underneath
with the moment so I don’t lose it.
When you come back tomorrow, I know, your smile,
like the blossoms of this wild creeper on the bank
will merely look about us, will reveal nothing.
And now beware, the words of this poem say,
of going with it into dream
or of making it seem like the last words of a prayer?
beware of the unreasonable wind inside
that tries to surpass this one which rises now
spiteful and mean, tying the birds
to the trees in the dark.
Sunlight, trees, birds, the movement through shadows of dark and light, move the poet to a spiritual acknowledgement that all of these elements, when recollected in the imagination of the poet’s own mind, act as a “prayer.” Here, we have at last the spiritual quality of Mahapatra’s Romanticism. The river banks may not recall the invention of the poet’s consciousness, his love for another, or his visitations and walks upon the river’ edge. The natural world is indifferent to his being. Yet, the poet comes an epiphany that it is in the self’s inventions, the stories the self creates for itself and for others that there is meaning to be had in the natural world. It is in the poet’s consciousness, in his use of memory and in what the Romantics called “the tranquility of recollection,” or in what Keats’ called “negative capability,” that a projected image of self onto nature gains its ultimate value.
Day, Aiden. Romanticism. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Mahapatra, Jayanta. . “An Evening by the River.” The Sewanee Review. 93.2 (1985): 190-1.
--“The Season of the Old Rain.” Ibid.
--“The Shadow of Day.” The Sewanee Review. 100.2 (1992): 273.