In a narrow stretch of land between the Chilika Lake and the Bay of Bengal lies an obscure hamlet called Nandala. Its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, especially as one stands on the sand dunes close to the village. The golden beaches of the sea join the forests of casuarinas and wild cashew which border it. Within the village are verdant paddy fields and ponds full of lilies. And on the west lies the beautiful Chilika, an expanse of liquid sapphire on which nestle millions of migratory birds from places as far away as Siberia.
It was in this village that Mayadhar Mansingh was born, a hundred years ago. He was, as he was to confess, a ‘nursing of nature’. His poetry reflects the translucent beauty of the Chilika Lake and the colours, sounds and fragrances of his village. Mayadhar Mansingh left the village at an early age, but the village never left him. It was his sanctuary, his inspiration; the source of his aesthetics and his values.
In later life, he remembered with joy the experience of witnessing the colourful jatras and kirtans held in the village and the pride he felt in leading the procession of swords in this Khandayat village on the day of Dussehra. His ancestors were Paikas, the peasant soldiers of Orissa who had rebelled against the British in 1818. Dr. Mansingh’s sense of independence and dignity, so powerfully reflected in his writings, was a part of this heritage.
The little boy from Nandala was orphaned at the age of four and, facing the world alone, poured out his soul in his writings. Mayadhar Mansingh, the poet and Mayadhar Mansingh, my father.
The greatest gift I have received in my life is the privilege of being Mayadhar Mansingh’s son. Thank you for giving me this opportunity of joining you in offering a handful of flowers in his memory.
The first thought which comes to my mind when I recall my father was his obsession with the world of letters. He defined his space as a writer and happily spent the longest hours of the day in his study-cum-bedroom, surrounded by his immense collection of books. And he was never far from his pen and paper. He would share his time between sitting and standing at his desk, all the time writing on reams and reams of foolscap paper. His thoughts and the flow of his pen never seemed to dry.
Another powerful memory is that of his compassionate and generous person. Any account of suffering would bring streams of tears to his eyes. I gave up my childhood hobby of angling after he explained to me how cruel it was to the fish. His chronic state of poverty never stood in the way of his charity. Even the rickshawalahs in Cuttack knew that. He was their favourite customer, because he was the only person who gave them more money than they expected.
Dr. Mansingh was not a typical father. He did not share the homework of his children. He neither supervised their daily activities nor did he plan their careers. These mundane chores were left to my mother. He remained, nevertheless, the most powerful influence on his children, without any attempt at coercion, compulsion or admonition. We were all aware of his expectations and strived to live up to them.
Many years after his death, we discovered among his papers a manuscript entitled “My Last Will and Testament”. It was his last desire, he had stated, to see his children “deeply patriotic towards both Orissa’s and India’s interests”; and for them to establish a reputation for “fair play, justice and truthfulness”. He hoped that his children would always guard “the family’s reputation for culture, education and basic human virtues”. These were the values he lived by, and trusted that his children would imbibe them.
Orphaned at the age of four and harassed by poverty, he struggled through school and college with the help of scholarship and tuitions. An early marriage gave him the responsibility of supporting a young wife and five children. He returned from England with a doctorate in English Literature – the first doctorate earned in the State of Orissa. But, his habit of speaking his mind and his belief in the values of “fair play, justice and truthfulness” frequently brought him into conflict with authorities.
For close to a decade he was almost a destitute, moving from place to place as a temporary school teacher. Ironically, even though he had established himself as a leading literary figure in Orissa, the Utkal University considered him unfit to teach Oriya literature in the Colleges!
Dr. Mansingh’s appointment as the Principal of the Gangadhar Meher College in Sambalpur brought for the first time a sense of stability in his life. After Sambalpur, however, he went through another phase of hurt and harassment, right up to his retirement.
In describing some of the adversities in his life, I may have perhaps given you an impression of Dr. Mansingh being a character in a Greek tragedy, a hapless victim of a cruel fate. This is far from the truth. He was neither hapless, nor a victim. He had no illusions that his life as a poet would be a bed of roses. The very first poem “Taruna Kabira Asha” in his first published book, Dhoopa begins with the poet weaving his romantic dreams and aspirations.
His life was based on two realities. One, that he was a poet and that was his chosen calling in life; and two, that he would express his views without fear or favour, and no authority on earth could deny him this fundamental right.
Face to face with an Education Minister who was determined to show him who was the boss, Dr. Mansingh said, “Even though I am a government servant, it is my bright right to express my views independently….. There is no individual on earth who can buy my loyalty. It is the bright right of a writer to praise anything that is worth praising and to criticize anything that deserves to be condemned”. As on many previous occasions in his life, Dr. Mansingh received his punishment for what was seen as a defiance of authority.
But Dr. Mansingh was not a victim. He was prepared to take the consequences because he had the courage of his convictions. The logo on his books was a pen crossed with a sword. Dr. Mansingh was a warrior armed with a pen. To bend before the authorities and surrender his weapon was contrary to his fiercely independent spirit.
If Dr. Mansingh was proud to be Indian, he was passionate about being an Oriya. He felt this ardour for the rich heritage of Orissa in every drop of blood in his veins; a heritage derived from its glorious past, its unique blend of Aryan, Dravidian and Tribal cultures, its maritime and martial traditions, its magnificent temples and its vibrant living arts. He was deeply affected by the contrast between Orissa’s golden past and its present state of destitution.
In his poem Mahanadire Jyotsna Bihar, familiar to all school children of Orissa, he laments the passing of the grand, old order:
“Leaving behind only a prestigious past,
A cruel mockery of the despondent present.”
In Mumursu Konarka he exclaims:
“Alas, beauteous Konarka,
You are slowly dying
Day to day in indifferent silence.”
Dr. Mansingh, in collaboration with his close friend. Dr. Charles Fabri, led the efforts to revive Odissi dance and project it outside Orissa. Despite these efforts, Orissa remained the ‘terra incognita’ on the cultural atlas of India. This led to his obsession with a project which he described as his three cherished dreams: a set of three books in English which would explain the totality of Orissa’s diverse culture. He had the satisfaction of seeing his dreams fulfilled before he died in 1973.
The first of these books was the History of Oriya Literature published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1962. I am most grateful to Sahitya Akademi, and all those who worked behind the scenes, for the reprint of this book – exactly as Dr. Mansingh had written it – and for its release on the occasion of his centenary.
The second book, entitled “History of the Art of Orissa” written by Dr. Charles Fabri, was posthumously published in 1974. The trilogy was completed with Dr. Mansingh’s own Saga of the Land of Lord Jagannath – possibly his last book.
Kalidasa, in his Raghuvamsa, has eulogized God as a poet. It was appropriate because creativity and immortality are common to God and the poet. The poet’s soaring spirit is not bound to the earth by time and space. Mayadhar Mansingh’s poem “Mahapathara Jatri” from the collection Sindhu O Bindu summarises this spirit.
(From the speech delivered at Central Sahitya Akademi – Utkal University National Seminar on Mayadhar Mansingh and the Beginning of Modernity in Indian Literature, 22-23 Sep, 2005 at Bhubaneswar)