This article will attempt to underline some of the most discernible trends in Odia Literature in the recent past.
I shall exclude the famous writers, those visible in lit-fests and symposia across the country and those available in English and Hindi translations: Writers like Pratibha Ray, Jayanta Mohapatra, Sitakanta Mohapatra, Manoj Das, Ramakanta Rath, Soubhagya Kumar Mishra, Prativa Satapathy are widely known to the non-Odia audience.
A great many of the Odia writers have not been adequately translated into English or Hindi, the two major link languages for the non-Odia readership; this anomaly needs urgent attention of the authorities concerned. Translation as a literary activity has not garnered enough institutionalized support, and is often left to the responsibility of the individual authors. Further, the scenario is still dominated by Bengali to Odia (and not from Odia to other languages). Brahmarakshas, a play by Hrusikesh Panda, enjoys a rare distinction of getting rendered into English, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, and Marathi by Sahitya Akademi in its series of Modern Indian Classics.
But translated or not, these writers continue to act as pioneers .They have been prolific, and they continue to write. Nostalgia largely dominates their writings, and nostalgia touches even the most nascent chord, irrespective of the genre: fiction, poetry, prose. Writers like Soubhagya Mishra and Radha Binod Nayak have been taking up more pressing and immediate thematic concerns: symptoms of open-economy and the consequent neo-colonial exploitation of the country (and hence the state), corroding also into its superstructure. Radha Binod has the added advantage of his inimitable language, idiom, and humor in treatment of his subject.
But an interesting paradigm shift with all these writers has been the transformation in the idiom and style, which looks natural. The strict, intricate and abstract structural fabrics of the beginning in their career has mellowed down to an idiom of sublimity. Perhaps only Manoj Das has retained the enigmatic style indicative of esotericism that propelled him to fame early in his career, and Prativa Ray has continued with her earthiness in approach.
Bharatavarsha (my country) by Sitakanta Mohapatra (2006) is a bright example of these twin symptoms of sublimation of the writers' early style and their obsession with nostalgia at the twilight of their career. A long verse narrative in nine titled sections, the text among other structural experiments, carries invocations to the past poets of Odia literary tradition, their poetics, cultural and arts practices, and myths and anecdotes from scriptures. At an extended level, the text revels in exotic layers of metaphors depicting India, from its inception through eons of rites of passage to timelessness.
Abani Pradhan carries forward this genre of sublime poetry of complex imagery, alongside poets like Srihari Dhal, Prabasini Mahakud, Ranjita Nayak – the poets who believe in the intransience of poetry, immune to banal lexical-structural maneuvering of the creator. Pradhan's Bhala Sabda (the exact word), as an extreme example, critiques the process of writing poetry, where spontaneity and the primordial remain the ultimate muse of the poet though this genre of poetry never ignores sundry realities of life, both literary and existential. Chirashree's exotic poetry celebrates femininity, of the Indian aesthetic tradition – echoing Assamese women poets blessed by the overwhelming natural splendor of their landmass, yet by feminist poets, e.g. Aparna Mohanty and the ilk. Gayatribala Panda, a young poet who began with simple unaffected poetry finds herself trapped in this conflict of spontaneity vs intellect: 'My latest poetry series Bagha (tiger) is a wrestle between my poet's conscience and my sense of existential propriety. There is a tiger in each of us, and perhaps, [primordially too]. A tiger is never material of myth, as poetry tells us' she says.
Perhaps the trend (of nostalgia) is only a recast over time of an essential creative design. In fiction as well as poetry the major representative trend sustaining through successive generation(s) has been the attempt to mold the past into current times. Particularly in terms of characters from epics, and occasionally the events: Sri Krishna, Sita, Kaikeyi, Manthara, Ahalya, Draupadi, Karna… and from recorded history, the Buddha, Ashoka, Odia king Kharavela, Kanishka, Chanakya... The literariness of the phenomenon owes to Rath's Sri Radha, the epic rendition of a woman in unconditional love, written and published in the early eighties. In most of these cases, however, the writers only re-narrate the characters or events of the past, without transcending to a contemporary metaphor despite the claim. The narration, couched in banality and the commonplace, in stark contrast with Rath's brilliance, degenerates in most cases to hackneyed stereotypes. Further, the writers lack in issues of research and originality while retelling old stories or handling characters from the past. Even the hyped work like Yajnaseni seems to have courted the trap as well as the consequent inadequacies. In the novel Draupadi 'sacrifices' her desire to marry Lord Krishna, and agrees to marry Arjuna on Krishna's advice for the 'greater cause of society and mankind', and thereby forfeits any scope for a grievance. The basic premise in the text is contradicted. How does the author justify her literary purpose in telling the story of Draupadi in allegiance to the feminist discourse?
There are important exceptions where writers do not boast of a superior creativity, and narrate reality closer to their worlds. Ishtarupa (the form of the adored one) by Yashodhara Mishra, is the portrait of a brilliant and eccentric academic by a daughter struggling to stitch together the last pages of her late father's life in Odisha, on a trip captured through accounts of his close associates. The novel (2006) moves like a journey firsthand down the memory lane of the protagonist-daughter, as a child and through her growing up in London where she lived with her British mother, brother and Odia father, till the parents separated and the father returned to his native home in Odisha. Yashodhara's fiction is material for nuances of human relationships, from the perspectives of characters who are stand-alone feminists. And that, entwined with her fine aesthetic sensibility, a rare command over idiom and craftsmanship, exposure, also accounts for her expertise in developing believably a character in contrast to the narrations of her contemporaries. So the reader is not treated to a piece of romanticized nostalgia – he/she meets the 'father' who develops in meticulous details, faithfulness to realism and fine aesthetic sensibility of the novelist. The locale, a western Odishan landmass too comes alive amid its societal practices, lending the author credibility about her literary world and conviction.
The neo-feminist ideology, away from sloganeering and clichés covering women's issues, has been carried forward by Chirashree Indrasingh. Chirashree's writings characterize a carefully structured authorial distantiation and authorial honesty, taking it to metaphors of universal predicaments. This is in sharp contrast with her contemporaries who attempt delineating maudlin personal worlds of romanticized relationships and everyday family events (son-daughter-husband-in-between extra marital relationships.) summarily.
Supriya Mullick's short stories stand at the other end of this spectrum. Devoid of even a trace of eccriture feminine she perhaps clings to the last remnants of social realism, a trend that defined modern Odia fiction in its inception. Girish Sahoo, Pradip Dashand Rajanikanta Mohanty too endorse this genre, with short narratives of village life in current times, ensconced mostly in hopelessness: absence of agro activities, increasing poverty, acute deprivation, decadence, youth losing to morbid alcoholism and propensity for crimes and suicides. This sub-world of fiction stifles, yet the realities it portrays are credible, sustained by the writers' ease in an unpretentious idiom and structural nuances.
Ashis Gadanayak continues with his image of the angry writer, against all the above mentioned evils, coupled with a cold, dysfunctional system, but narrating them from a distance. Therefore his protagonists take solace in their sense of futility in prostitutes, fantasies, verbal expletives, obscenities, alcohol, retrogression to childhood memories and romancing village lives that do not really exist anymore. Ashis's writings complement the angry, anti-establishment fiction of 'ideas' Radha Binod, portrays the unemployed frustrated youth disillusioned at the failed independence of the country, which had brought him fame in the eighties. Hiranmayee Mishra writes about the sundry socio-economic symptoms of our time and complex human emotions and is distinct from her contemporaries in her ambitious approach and greater exposure to reality.
Sadananda Tripathy, a senior writer, is faithful to his world of realism. With an innate knack for detail, Sadananda has been writing short stories and novels consistently, and picks up with subtle humor his small town characters and events from his immediate surrounding echoing the creative trait of R.K. Narayan. Basudev Sunani writes about the underprivileged forest communities and classes at the margins of society and he calls them 'dalits', though Odia literature has not adequate presence of authentically labeled 'Dalit Literature.' Basudev basically writes about poverty and exploitation of the dispossessed, and uses the appropriate idiom for his narration, including slangs, but his vision of reality is often selective and premeditated: a ruler is always exploitative, a ruled is always naïve. Bharat Majhi should be Sunani's counterpart in poetry, though Majhi stays away from courting a judgment.
Shantanu Acharya's autobiography Mo Jibana: Anya Eka Upanyasa, (my life: another novel by me) should compensate for the meager bulk of non-fiction in Odia. The text details the author's personal life's journey of about 80 years as a truthful, fearless, rational academic and writer exploring into the nuances of physical sciences, metaphysics and theology. The autobiography covers Odisha' journey from 1950 to 2010; her heroes find special spaces in the book. The book is particularly merited as a guide also to Acharya's creative voyage in his classic novels (Nara Kinnara, Tinoti Raatira Sakaala…) – pioneering milestones in Indian fiction world – the way Living to Tell the Tell guides the reader appreciate Marquez's creation of his novels. Credited as the first Indian novelist to weave magic realism into his works, Shantanu Acharya outgrows his contemporaries in his enormous knowledge of the subject he handles and in terms of the structural novelties.
Garba Karibara Katha (Let's be Proud) a novel about 700 pages by Hrusikesh Panda, 2011, and running into reprints, documents the maritime glory of Odisha. In a massive linear canvas (with a prologue retracing twenty-five hundred years ago, the time of Adi Shankaracharya's consecration of Puri as the Rig Veda peetham, and an epilogue spanning the current years of land usurpation by steel majors, Hrusikesh conceives Shibaprasad, the archetypal Odia seafarer-chieftain, and his sixteen succeeding generations and their everyday lives and trade in south-east and far-east countries. Shibaprasad epitomizes the virtues that had led the ancient Kalinga seafarer and other ordinary citizens like him to build a rich and powerful state though valor, perseverance, honesty of character, justness, skill and expertise in ship-making and sea travel, meteorology, astronomy, high morality and fairness in administration.
A work with strong and powerful women cast as well, the novel camouflages the author's literary quest for the basic question : why and how did Kalinga, the richest and most powerful state in the Indian sub-continent till the seventeenth century, become poor and consequently, decadent? Basing his work on original research, through overseas trips, records and documents at ports and museums, histories, maps, myths, legends and local stories and riddles the writer concludes: 'The winner writes history and shows the won in a negative, demeaning light…', and in a way critiques validity of canonized history – a concern echoed by Richard Flanagan in The Narrow Road to the deep North about the Japanese. The work records the defeat of arrogant colonial presuppositions through legends, myths, scriptures, local histories and folklore.
In the shadow of Sri Radha initiating writers into characters and events from past, GKK has been enticing novelists into issues of history and racial origin; fiction writers are now relocating their worlds to the humble hamlets they were born in, or the antiquity of the little rivers that flowed through them which may have joined some sea-bound water courses somewhere far-off.