The Hindu, March 3, 2007
By SACHIDANANDA MOHANTY
The Saraswati Samman recently awarded to Jagannath Prasad Das is a tribute to a multifaceted talent from modern Orissa.
ALTHOUGH many notable poetic voices have emerged in post-independent Orissa, Jagannath Prasad Das remains singular and unrivalled for his originality and sheer range of talents. A poet, painter, dramatist, actor, short-story writer, novelist, translator, critic of art literature and cinema, Das's illustrious career spans several decades. Known popularly as J.P., Das's life and works contain many paradoxes. Indeed, these seeming contradictions appear to lend significance and richness to his creative works. While many articulate their artistic credo, J.P. remains supremely reticent. While others covet post-retirement pastures, J.P. wonders why he did not resign from the I.A.S earlier. While his parents named him `Jagannath Prasad', the boon of Lord Jagannath, he remains a confirmed non-believer. And finally, while others consider one literary genre enough for a lifetime, J.P. handles multiple genres at the same time. Always witty and provocative in his utterances, J.P. once remarked: "All that I want to say, let me try to say in poetry."
The third child of middle class parents: Sridhar Das and Indu Devi, in 1936, Jagannath Prasad's early influence was his father, a respected writer and nationalist of Orissa. After Mission School and Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, J.P. took a Master's Degree in Political Science from Allahabad University and taught there briefly. He joined the I.A.S. in 1958.
J.P. began writing poetry early in his teens. In 1951, he brought out a collection entitled Stabak. His poems began to appear regularly in the leading Oriya journals such as Dagara, Jhankara and Asantakali. Joining the Students' Federation of India (SFI) he co-edited a journal, Agami, with Manoj Das.
J.P.'s experiences as an I.A.S. officer in Orissa, especially in Kalahandi district, shaped his thinking and left wing leanings. He wrote two short plays in 1960. In 1970 he held a solo exhibition of his paintings.
J.P.'s creativity continued unabated. In 1971, he published Pratham Purush, a collection of poems and, in 1972, he wrote "Suryasta Purbaru", a play. A Homi Bhaba Fellowship in 1979 enabled him to undertake research on the Pata paintings of Orissa, later published in 1982 as Puri Paintings. In 1980, fairly late in his career, he published his first short story "Shabdabhed". He left the I.A.S. in 1984 for full-time writing. In 1990, his short story "Interview" was made into a telefilm and in 1991 his collection of poems Ahanik received the Sahitya Akademi Award.
J.P.'s interest in Orissa's cultural history led him to publish in 1992 a historical novel called Desha Kala Patra. In 1993 two collections of children's verses, Alimalika and Alukuchi Malukuchi, were published. In 1996, he received the K.K. Birla Foundation Fellowship and in 1998 the Sarala Award for his Priya Vidushak. In 2000, he published Lovelines (poems) in translation, and Pukka Sahib, a collection of short stories. In 2001 he received the Nandikar Award for theatre and his play "Sundardas", based on the question of evangelisation and interfaith dialogue, appeared in 2002.
Orignal and innovative
In all the genres, J.P. displays originality and innovation in content and style. His works are intelligible and informed by contemporary resonances such as poverty, pestilence and bigotry, and echoes universal themes such as longing, unrequited love and the sense of loss. The prevailing note of cynicism is, however, tempered by a gentle irony and detachment. As a short story writer, he has been called "the quintessential raconteur with an instinctive mastery of the form". His research in Art History in the form of two volumes, Chitra Pothi, and Palm Leaf Miniatures (with Joanna Williams at the University of California at Berkeley) in 1991, has been described as path breaking. Similarly his Desha Kala Patra offers a counter discourse to that of the colonisers. Critic Jatindra K. Nayak aptly suggests that many poems in his collection Parikrama "focus on the business of writing poetry, on the ordeal of a poet trying to impose significant form on that `slip, slide and perish."
Das is an acclaimed translator too. His collection on the Oriya Women Poets entitled Under a Silent Sun (with Arlene Zide, 1992) and Gulzar's Autumn Moon have been well received in their English renderings. J.P. Das's creative life is marked by passion, perseverance, and spontaneity. His works and versatility are testimony to an exploratory view of life.
(Sachidananda Mohanty is Professor of English at the University of Hyderabad.)