Reproducing a magnum opus

Monumental BOOK: Mishra maintains total fidelity to the original.

Monumental BOOK: Mishra maintains total fidelity to the original.   | Photo Credit: Photo: H. Balakrishnan


A freewheeling chat with Mahendra Mishra, who is reproducing the Oriya work Purnachandra Bhashakosha.

SOMETIME in 1991, IIM graduate Govindarajan asked college-going Pinaki Rath, "What does this uncle of yours do?" Pat came the reply, "He has two businesses — one that makes good money but has no prestige and the other that has lots of prestige but no money." While the "good money" business continues to feed his large extended family, 72-year-old Mahendra Mishra's "no money" business is publishing.

Ambitious project

He has now embarked on the most ambitious project in his life. He is reproducing, with absolute fidelity to the original, one of the most magnificent works in Oriya, Purnachandra Bhashakosha. This "treasure of language" is a seven-volume magnum opus with 1,85,000 words in 9450 pages and 71 photographs. Gopal Chandra Praharaj started the original in 1913. The preliminary draft was ready by 1931, when the first volume was brought out. Subsequent volumes appeared periodically and the last was released in 1940, five years before Praharaj passed away. This monumental encyclopedia is considered to be the only one of its kind. The first volume of Mahendra Mishra's reprint is expected to see the light of day this month — exactly 75 years after the original. Fittingly, the release of the reprint is scheduled for Teachers' Day on September 5. Mishra is a maverick, maybe the only one of his kind. If any work of some merit comes his way and the author asks him to publish, he says "why not?" and sits down with the manuscript for corrections, editing and proof-reading — all by himself. The man is himself a veritable encyclopaedia of facts and figures on Oriya literature, fine arts and history. And he has a formidable collection of material to prove what he says. A few years ago when the Indian media reported that a recent celebrity was the first Indian to be featured on the cover of TIME magazine, he fumed at the inaccuracy. He went into his library and brought out an old copy of TIME. Its cover had the picture of Parveen Babi. The issue was dated July 19, 1976. His passion for publishing meaningful work is not recent. Way back in 1969, when Anant Pai started his Amar Chitra Katha series, Mahendra Mishra was the first to replicate that pioneering work in a little-known language like Oriya. A total of 28 titles were released under his Lark Books. Not counting such work, till date, own publications of Lark Books exceed 500 original titles in Oriya, English and Bengali.

Futuristic enterprise

Some people have a penchant for the `felt need' of an emerging society. But often, they are before their time. In 1980s, when the thrust for education was tilting more towards science, Mahendra Mishra thought of popularising science among school children with a set of simple books on 16 subjects ranging from air to atom. Though there was no definite sponsor for this work, he went about his mission and had the easy-to-understand pictorial books published. Printed not in India, but in Singapore! He did not stop with Oriya, but published these in Bengali and Tamil too. This futuristic enterprise proved to be a sieve for his finances. Many of these booklets packed in compact slipcases became a feast for termites. The rest were swamped by the super-cyclone of 1999. Lot of prestige indeed, but `no money'. Recounting the life and work of Gopal Chandra Praharaj, Mishra says that the successful lawyer from Cuttack was inspired by his teacher in Ravenshaw High School, Cuttack, a Britisher called Henderson. Henderson asked him to do something for his own language, Oriya. The State of Orissa was not formed till 1936. When Praharaj started work on the Bhashakosha, and for a major part of its making, the Oriya-speaking population was dispersed over several provinces and princely States. Praharaj toured the entire present-day Orissa and outlying areas with Oriya-speaking population by rail, bicycle, boat and bullock-cart. He collected and noted nuances of their dialects, including words borrowed from other languages like Persian, English and Telugu. The places he toured are to be found in today's Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, besides Orissa. By the time Gopal Chandra Praharaj finished in 1940, the flourishing lawyer was a pauper. But contrary to his fears, all seven volumes were published before he died five years later. This could be done due to the large-heartedness of the rich and poor among Oriyas who wanted the work to be completed. Foremost among them was the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj who contributed liberally for the project. In gratitude, as per his wish, "Purnnachandra" was prefixed to the Bhashakosha, in memory of the Maharaja's late brother.


The fact that the entire original set of seven volumes was retrieved from obscurity is a minor miracle. The full set was priced at Rs. 115. Seventy-five years later, this same treasure of Oriya language is made available at Rs. 3,500 a set, or Rs. 600 a volume as a pre-publication offer. Heritage-minded Oriyas in the diaspora can ensure that his role as a "golden retriever" is justified. Their response alone will vindicate his confidence, or show that this too will turn out to be a "no money" venture of a man with a vision and love for his language. E-mail: >

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