Jayanta Mahapatra (1928-2023) was an Indian English poet. He was the first poet from India to win an English poetry Sahitya Akademi award. He was regarded as one of the three poets, alongside A. K. Ramanujan and R. Parthasarathy, who established the foundations for Indian English poetry. The poetry of Jayant Mahapatra is renowned for its vivid imagination, fine artistry, and capacity to convey the core of human experiences. In 2023, Mahapatra passed away due to pneumonia.
Jayanta Mahapatra was born on Monday, 22 October 1928 (age 94 years; at the time of death) in Cuttack, Odisha. His zodiac sign is Libra. Mahapatra went to Stewart School in Cuttack, Odisha. During childhood, Mahpatra had a tough time due to a negligent father and his mother who threw all his diaries away which he used to write during his difficult time in school. During School, Maths and Physics were his favourite subjects which led him to pursue Physics as a career. Mahapatra ran away from his house twice as a teenager because his mother was very strict and did not allow him to have any freedom but was later bought back by his father. He pursued a master’s in Science in Physics at Patna University, Bihar in 1949-50. Mahapatra belonged to a middle-class Odia Christian family who lived among the Hindus where he was mocked at school by his peers which led him to seek escapism in fiction and poetry. His work reflects all the pain and hardship he went through during his childhood. In an interview talking about his childhood, Mahaptra said,
I have never been able to feel the usual affinity with my mother. I often longed for someone in whom I could confide like a sister or a cousin of my age, but I didn’t have any”
Parents & Siblings
Jayanta Mahapatra’s father, Lemuel Mahapatra, was a school inspector, and his mother, Sudhansa Mahapatra, was a homemaker.
Wife & Children
He married Jyotsana Mahapathra who was a literature student and motivated Mahapatra to write poetry. He is survived by a son.
He began his teaching career as a lecturer in physics in 1949 and taught at various government colleges in Odisha including Gangadhar Meher College, Sambalpur, B.J.B College, Bhubaneswar, Fakir Mohan College, Balasore and Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. He superannuated at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack (now Ravenshaw University) and retired from his government job as a Reader in Physics in 1986.
Before writing poetry, Mahapatra wrote novels, fiction, and stories. At the age of 22, he sent his work to the Illustrated Weekly of India, which was rejected. After that, he continued with his career in teaching and also started photography.
Poetry in English
Mahapatra started writing poetry quite late in his life as compared to other writers and poets. After 17 years of being rejected by Illustrated Weekly of India, Mahapatra again gave writing a try and wrote poems, which were highly recognised were published in many renowned journals across the globe including Chicago Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry, Sewanee Review, Critical Quarterly, Times Library Supplement, Meanjin Quarterly, and Malahat Review. Mahapatra’s first poetry collection, “Close the Sky, Ten by Ten,” was published in 1971 and received critical acclaim. This collection was dedicated to his father. Later, he published many poetry collections, including “Bare Face,” “Temple,” “A Rain of Rites,” “Selected Poems,” and “Random Descent.” He was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at Iowa, which brought him international exposure.
Some of his famous works include Close the Sky Ten by Ten, Calcutta: Dialogue Publications (1971), Svayamvara and Other Poems (1971), and A Father’s Hours, Delhi: United Writers (1976). Mahapatra also wrote many poems in Odia language including Bali (The Victim) (1993), Baya Raja (The Mad Emperor) (1997), and Jadiba Gapatie (Even If It’s A Story) (2008).
- In 1981, he won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his poetry book “Relationships.”
- In 2009, he won Padma Shree for his contribution to literature.
- In 2017, he won the Kanhaiya Lal Sethia Award for Poetry at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
- In 2013, he won the RL Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry in Hyderabad.
- In 1975, he won the Jacob Glatstein Memorial Award for Poetry in Chicago.
- In 1970, he won a Second Prize at the International Who’s Who in Poetry in London.
- In 1976, he received the Visiting Writer Award at the International Writing Program in Iowa City.
- In 1978, he received the Cultural Award for Visitor in Australia.
- In 1980, the Japan Foundation honoured him with a Visitor’s Award in Japan.
- In 2009, he received the SAARC Literary Award in New Delhi.
On 27 August 2023, Jayanta Mahapatra died of pneumonia at SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack, Odisha. His last rites were performed with full state honours and as per his wishes he mentioned in his will titled ‘My last wishes’. Although he followed Christianity, he wished his body should be cremated in the electric crematorium and not be buried
- Writer: T. S. Eliot
- Contemporary Poet: A. K. Ramanujan
- Travel Destination: Sun Temple, Konark
- He wrote his autobiography “Bhor Motira Kanaphoola” in the Odia language which has been serialized by a magazine.
- In 2015, he returned his Padma Shri as a mark of protest against the “growing intolerance” in the country.
- In an interview, talking about why he started writing poetry very late in life he claimed that it was his wife who led him to start writing and said he said,
I did not know anything about writing or poetry because I was a Physics student. In fact, it was my wife who was an English literature student. Since I was educated in English, I gathered courage to write in the language because I could use the words properly. I wrote a lot, published around the world a lot but I did not know how I did that.”