IT is at times amusing to discover the correctness of the adage, ‘Appearances can be deceptive’. Catching up with Jnanpith laureate Sitakant Mahapatra, chairman of the National Book Trust of India, was one such instance. The medium height, bespectacled leading light of Oriya literature could have been easily mistaken for the man next door. But once he began speaking, the poet unfolded surprises one after another as we took a walk together down memory lane.
Dr Mahapatra confesses candidly that he’s overshadowed by his own achievements in literature—”I am known more as a writer than as a bureaucrat” is how he puts it. This is only the first in a series of surprises. It seems uncanny, but the IAS topper of 1961 has held various prestigious posts at both state and Central level, including that of secretary of the Planning Commission.
That’s not all. Dr Mahapatra became a civil servant by default. “After topping the intermediate examinations, I was all set to go to IIT Kharagpur to become an engineer. But fear of homesickness prevented me from going there,” he chuckles.
However, unlike many others, giving up the IIT option was easy for him as he had already got admission in the arts stream at the famous Raven Shaw College of Cuttack. After completing his Master’s degreefrom Allahabad University in 1959, he took to teaching for two years at Utkal University. The rest is history.
Nevertheless, the history of his poetry dates back to his childhood. “I had poetic inclinations fairly early in my life,” he reminisces. “One of the major influences came from my father who was a teacher and well-versed in Sanskrit and ancient Oriya literature,” recalls Dr Mahapatra. Moreover, being the eldest child in the family, it was his duty to read a chapter of the Oriya Bhagwat Gita every evening during prayers. “Initially, even though I didn’t even understand what I was reading, I enjoyed the flow of the words,” says he.
This, coupled with a village environment where oral poetry was at its strongest, made it inevitable that poetry would take deep root in him.
Starting from editing poems contributed by other students for a handwritten magazine during his high school days to being the editor of the university journal at Allahabad University, Dr Mahapatra was never ever too far away from writing. But it was during his university days that he actually started writing prose and poetry both in English and Oriya. “But later, I realised that a poet can express himself only in the language in which he dreams. That’s why I gave up writing in English,” he recollects.
Although he knew that his audience would be restricted by his choice, he believed in his dreams. And they were realised in 1963, when his first book of poems in Oriya, Dipti O Dyuti was published. Since then, in 37 years of writing, he has written about 350 poems in Oriya and about 30 publications in English on literature and culture. Awards such as the Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith came by along the way.
Continuing his spree of surprises, the soft-spoken poet says, “I have also authored two books on social anthropology published by the Oxford University Press.” Both books handled an ambivalent relationship between the old ritual based society and state sponsored development, and dwelt on why developmental programmes in tribal areas failed despite state efforts, he explains. Though his social anthropologist facet remains out of public domain, he continues to maintain a close tie with the tribals. Fluent in Santal, he has been following the oral poetry of the tribals, having collected, translated and edited nine anthologies. “Very soon, UNESCO will be publishing a book called They Sing Life: Oral Poetry Of Primitive Tribes Of India,” Dr Mahapatra informs us.
For a poet who writes only when a theme has grown fully into him, Dr Mahapatra says it needs time to complete a poem. “Even if the theme is there, one should be good enough to express it in the form of words, for which craftmanship is required,” he says. As for poets who influenced him, Dr Mahapatra says two Oriya poets, Jagannath
Das of the 16th century and Bhima Bhoi of the 19th century, are his favourite poets.
On the verge of celebrating his 65th birthday, Dr Mahapatra says in a lighter vein, “Right now, I am not qualified to be called a senior. Once I am qualified for that, I am looking forward to the concessions (flight, rail and accommodation charges) given to senior citizens.” Although he regrets that his career as a bureaucrat cut into the time he got to spend on his poetry, he is confident that even after 65, his pen won’t stop writing and many more poems will follow.