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Sitakant Mahapatra: Poetry as an intimate, magical experience. Photo: Hariharan Balakrishnan
Sitakant Mahapatra: Poetry as an intimate, magical experience. Photo: Hariharan Balakrishnan

HARIHARAN BALAKRISHNAN

Unless a poet is rooted in his own milieu, he can't speak to any reader, feels the Oriya poet, Sitakant Mahapatra.

WHEN you talk to the man, a certain innocence stares back at you. You don't realise it is someone who never came second in anything he did. At school, he was the State topper. At each University — Utkal, Allahabad and Cambridge — he repeated the feat. Among entrants into the IAS in 1961, Sitakant Mahapatra was once again numero uno. He did his doctorate in social anthropology and was President of UNESCO's World Decade for Cultural Development. Author of countless books of verse, he was awarded the Jnanpith and the Padma Bhushan. But laurels rest lightly on his shoulders. In conversation, he chooses his words with the precision of a surgeon choosing his instrument.

Many talents

Asked about the many hats he has worn, he says, "Administration was a career, it was my breadwinner. Social anthropology was another area of professional interest, of as much significance as poetry. I have translated and edited nine anthologies of the oral poetry of tribes. The latest is a UNESCO publication called They Sing Life. I have also published three academic volumes about traditional tribal society's transformation due to the modernising influences of development. I have documented the mural paintings and iconograms of four major tribes. By learning Santhali, which is akin to the language of three or four other tribes, I could converse with all these tribes." His scholastic works are in English, but he refuses to write poetry in any language other than his mother tongue Oriya. "I have always said, and believe, that poetry cannot be written in anything other than one's dream language, and that for me is Oriya. Poetry is something so intense and emotive that the magical experience can be felt and expressed only in a language that is most intimate to you." This poet, who has been translated into Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic and all the major languages of the West, considers himself extremely lucky in the matter of translations. "Some of the finest translators, themselves poets, have translated my work. Jayanta Mahapatra has translated a complete anthology, as has Bibhu Padhi. Bikram Das, who translated Gopinath Mohanty's Paraja, also translated many of my poems into English. Some of my work was translated directly from Oriya to foreign languages. Others were translated via English. I have my reservations about such re-translations. But my consolation is that the translators are major poets themselves. I got the feeling from some reviews that these translations were done with sensitivity and love for the original milieu and context."

Recurring theme

Death is a recurring theme with this sensitive poet who seems to have had some mystic experiences. "Death is certainly one of the major experiences and areas of my poetic landscape. It comes in various forms, as various crises. It comes in the form of the enemy. I have written a poem by that name. That was about the passing of my father who was in hospital for months. All of us were very alert and guarding against the enemy. When it finally came, it was like flute-music on a summer evening. In "My Garden", death comes on a bicycle, enquires about me, chit-chats with me and departs. After this, I find that the trees and flowers are no longer the same. In yet another instance, I see him as my twin brother. We grew up together and as an elder brother Death is always at my bedside, a constant guide to me. Death holds no terror, and is a friend. It is a reality. In a sense, the entire process of living is a preparation for accompanying this friend at some point in time."

Important influence

Sitakant Mahapatra grew up on the banks of the Chitrotpala, a tributary of the great Mahanadi. He would go back to that river again and again — while at Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, and much later in life. "The cultural landscape in which I grew up and the language of the rural surroundings are a part of me. If I close my eyes, I can now be standing on a boat, seeing the flowers and smelling the aroma of the village. I have travelled all over the world, but have always carried my village with me." Yet, his verses touch a chord in readers in remote parts of the globe. How? "Perhaps there are some universal verities that every poet has to handle. All intimate poetry becomes, to an extent, universal. It is not possible or desirable, for any poet of significance to forget his milieu, the local culture or the intimacy of his linguistic apparatus. Only then can he speak out to a reader, anywhere. Perhaps, my translators have been able to reach out to the readers in those languages. Poetry has that possibility, such energy."

Alive and well

Today, at 68, this soft-spoken poet-scholar sees a bright future for poetry, in spite of the challenges of modern times and changing mores. "I have noticed enormous passion for poetry among the younger generation. This is not reflected only in poetry readings but also in the large number of literary journals and poems published. I see very positive signs — especially in rural areas from where I get cards and letters from unknown people and the youth. What saddens me is the urban scene where the educated elite seem to be drifting away from the main currents of their own literature. But on the whole, the picture is bright. Of course, demolitions are taking place, new structures coming up. This has happened at all times. It is the inexorable law of social dynamics. But poetry is very much alive in our society".


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