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Jayanta Mahapatra is a poet of remarkable power and vision and is a near contemporary of established Indian English poets like Nissim Ezekiel and A K Ramanujan. Dawn at Puri by Mahapatra is the most conspicuous, the most realistic and perhaps the most interesting. The landscape, the cultural history and background, the social life and the rites and rituals of the people of Odisha constitute the most significant theme of his poetry.

Dawn at Puri is vivid in imagery and spontaneous in diction. Though the poet willfully rejects the conventional guidelines, still he is successful in making the poem a well-organized specimen of art. His Odia origin is in the poem’s blood and his sense of Indianness is the spine of the verse. He presents his social concern about poverty, hunger, and the rigid customs of Indian society in the poem. At the same time, it touches on some philosophical aspects and a sense of the sublime at the end of the poem.

The poetic persona in the poem Dawn at Puri shares what he sees at dawn on the Puri beach. He sees numerous crows gathering here and there on the beach. Apart from the crows, he observes a human skull lying there. The skull reminds the poet of hunger and poverty prevalent in his state Odisha. Then the poet shifts his view to the ‘Great Temple’ of Jagannath. Pious old widows who are ‘past the centres (50 years) of their lives’, are waiting to enter the temple. The passive look in the widows’ eyes catches the attention of the poet. The poetic persona finds a similarity between their eyes and the eyes of the fishes which are caught at dawn by the fishermen.

Mahapatra again looks at the seashore. This time he observes some shells in the ‘frail early light’ of dawn. Again the similarity strikes the poet. He finds the image of the widows reflecting in those motionless shells. Suddenly the poet’s gaze is attracted by the ‘smoky blaze’ coming out of cremation on the beach. The smell of the smoke makes the poet’s ageing mother aware of her mortality. In the last stanza, the poet refers to her mother’s wish. She wants to be cremated at her native place which is undoubtedly the town of Puri.

Jayanta Mahapatra

In the first two stanzas of Dawn at Puri, Jayanta Mahapatra presents two images to the readers. The former tells the readers about the ambience of Puri sea beach at dawn. The latter reminds us of the pilgrims gathering around the Jagannath Temple. Apart from the broad images depicted in the poem, there are some minor images; One such image is of the human skull. The poet mentions this in the poem to make the readers aware of the problem of hunger and poverty prevalent in rural India. In the second stanza of the poem, Mahapatra presents the imagery of the widows waiting to enter the “Great Temple” of Lord Jagannath. At this stage of their lives, only faith and devotion to the almighty can only keep their spirit of living alive.

In the next section, Jayanta Mahapatra brings the image of the fishes caught by a net into the light. It is one of the familiar images of the people who have already visited Puri. The poet compares the eyes of those fishes showing the last hope of life and liberty, to the eyes of the widows. Their condition is similar to those fishes; both caught by the net of life and struggling. The poet uses the image of the “shells” to compare the lonely and hopeless state of the widows. Like the shells leaning against each other on the shore, the widows also gather at the temple and sit there in the manner of the shells. According to the poet they have ‘crouched faces without names’. There is no need to differentiate them by their names. Their condition makes them an entity of loneliness and hopelessness. In this way, the poet tries to depict their short but simple annals of life.

In the last section of the poem, Mahapatra depicts the last stage of life by producing the image of the ‘sullen solitary pyre’. The smell of the pyre makes the poet’s mother aware of her mortality. Her attitude towards death is significant. Instead of fearing her approaching death, she welcomes it. She wishes to die in her native land with which her bond is deep and unbroken.

Through the poem, the poet questions the point of traditions, which are deeply rooted in Indian life. In particular, this poem is dealing with the rituals and traditions to do with death, which gives the poem quite a sad and sombre tone. The reader experiences this straight away in the first stanza, as the narrator is describing walking along a beach, where the dead are burnt. This is hinted at by the fact that there is a ‘skull’. Also, the narrator points out that there are ‘endless crow noises’, which underlines the theme of death, given that crows are attracted by the remains of dead animals and people. However, there is one word that stands out as odd: “holy.” Nothing the poet has described so far would suggest there is anything ‘holy’ or special about the place, as the place is merely described as dead and sad. This ironic use of the word ‘holy’ therefore shows us that the poet is questioning the traditions surrounding funerals and religion. It is further backed up by referring to the temple in the third stanza as ‘the Great Temple’, which further questions traditions through the ironic use of the word ‘Great’.

The irony of this imagist poem is noteworthy. The writer is not paying a tribute to the town of Puri or the priest of the temple or even to the crowds who have gathered at the temple door. But he is mocking all the sites of the town because he aims to point out the sordid or seamy aspects of a town which is believed to be one of the most sacred in India and which is particularly famous for its temple dedicated to Lord Jagannath.

Jayanta Mahapatra’s technique is that of fusion and there is a constant interaction between objective and subjective worlds and the epic and lyric impulses. He gives a new thrust to the modernist movement in Indian English Poetry whose ground rules are concrete experience, the secular and rational stance and the imagistic technique. His work and vision combine what is best in the romantic and mystic tradition of Tagore and Aurobindo and the modern tradition of Ezekiel, Ramanujan and Parthasarathy.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.