In Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

I reached his place at 7:30 pm. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we proceeded for the interview. It was an informal and unstructured interview, the transcript of which is as follows:

Padma Mohapatra: Starting with a rather general question, what is the relation or difference between your speaking voice and the written voice?

Jayanta Mahapatra: I would like to be the ‘I’ or the main protagonist in my poems. So I don’t find any differences between my speaking voice and my written voice.

Padma Mohapatra: What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

Jayanta Mahapatra: I always had this inherent interest in literature. I was a Professor in Physics by avocation, but in due course of time, I leaned towards literature and poetry. I began writing poetry very late, published much later. My love for literature did not sprout out all of a sudden but it was in me from the very beginning. I began writing poetry when my feelings had matured enough to blossom.

Padma Mohapatra: Sir, all of your poems reflect different shades of life: Life in its grace and disgrace. What is ‘life’ to you?

Jayanta Mahapatra: Padma, we are living in very difficult times, if you look around you, you won’t find the joy that was there which people felt, say fifty years ago. Some things have changed drastically and life has become more and more uncertain and unpredictable. You look at your friends, you see many of your friends are without jobs, they are also not very well with their family, with their parents, with their wives, with their husbands, things like that are happening. So there is this element of uncertainty that has come about in our relationships with the people around us. So, life is very unpredictable nowadays, there is a chaos that reigns supreme in human life and we live in that sort of chaos, and our poetry is bound to that chaos. If I write a certain poem, sometimes you won’t be able to understand the poem because it comes from that chaos, thus becoming very difficult to judge. So that’s how it is.

Padma Mohapatra: So, that means ‘Life is about surpassing mortality and mortal boundaries’, this idea seemed to have reflected in many of your poems. Like, when I read your poems, the idea of transcending mortal boundaries, exploring the unseen and the unexperienced was prevalent. So, what’s your view on this?

Jayanta Mahapatra: You know, sciences have taught me certain basic facts. In the universe we live in, there’s a certain amount of energy. Like in this room, we have a certain amount of energy. Suppose I die today; will my breath completely vanish? No, the breath will remain in the room carrying a certain amount of energy, so the energy will still be there. It may not be a living entity but that amount of energy would still be there. So, there is something beyond mortality. We can’t say that everything ends with the death of an individual.

Padma Mohapatra: Thank you so much.

When I read your poems in the ‘Hesitant Light’, there were many references to your past. Is the constant reference to your past a vital element in shaping your poetry?

Jayanta Mahapatra: Yes, if I didn’t have my past, then I wouldn’t have been writing the sort of poetry I’m writing at the present time. Understood? That’s it. So the past is very important for me. The past also takes care of my history, therefore my history is also as important to me as my past.

And also there’s something else that matters to me in the writing of poetry and that is my culture, my tradition. I’m an Odiya, my Odiya tradition is embedded in me and that also helps me in writing poetry. Culture or tradition and history are the two arms of my poetry. Those two arms help me in the writing of my poetry. Thus, they are one of the very important elements of my poetry.

Padma Mohapatra: I just got reminded of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’, where he has emphasized the idea that tradition and culture are indispensable and should be inherently employed in one’s creative endeavor, and the artist should also remain attached to his roots and must not discard his own cultural background.

Jayanta Mahapatra: You know, most of my poems, when I began writing poetry till my fading days, they begin with the dust of Odisha, the dust of Cuttack, the dust of these streets, the dust of Sarojini’s family. All of these matter to me, I’m rooted in the locality, and depicting the local is a significant case in my poetry. And if I could depict and bring out the cultural essence of the local in my poetry, or if I have ever made incursions into the universal from my local, then I’ve tried to etch something or have been relatively sound in my poetry, or else, my local will remain as a local.

Padma Mohapatra: Moving on to the next question: Can you delineate on the relation between body and soul as depicted in your poems, with reference to the quote you chose to begin your book ‘Hesitant Light’?

Jayanta Mahapatra: Yes, I’ve started with Walt Whitman’s lines from A Song for Occupation. Walt Whitman is a great poet, I admire him. I would like to refer to Whitman’s statements in poetry, like when he says, I’m not in my self only, I contain multitudes. The self is connected to every other individual being. So, the body and soul go together all the time. You cannot isolate or separate them from each other.

Padma Mohapatra: Thank you so much. Fading our interview session, I would like to ask you, in your poems in ‘Hesitant Light’, there is much reference to masks, actors, and roles “to let go of masks” or “children drop down their roles”, etc.; can you kindly delineate the purpose of such repetitive usages. Does it in anyway emphasize the view that humans are simply conditioned beings?

Jayanta Mahapatra: The significance is that in our day to day lives; for example, Here I’m not the Jayanta Mahapatra, that Jayanta Mahapatra who talks to Sarojini. We are different, right? So maybe either one of us must be wearing such masks, so these masks are always there. In one form or the other, we may not know, but inadvertently we are using these masks to continue or to engage in our relationships with others. There are also different social roles that we take up and as Shakespeare had reflected: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”.

Padma Mohapatra: Thank you so much for your precious time and your patience to bear and answer my questions. I feel honoured to get this chance of interviewing you and knowing about the various views and perceptions you hold and employ in your poetry.

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