Conjoining Tradition and Modernity
Prafulla C. Kar
A FRAGILE WORLD by Bishnu Mohapatra Spot Creative Services, 2009, 109 pp., price not stated
December 2009, volume 33, No 12

A Fragile World, the English translation of Bishnu Mohapatra’s Oriya poems, published in 1997 under the title Pakhira Swabhabik Mrityu (‘The Natural Death of a Bird’) is the poet’s first collection. Like all first collections it expects to do something different from the ones that came before and to introduce a new poet promising to set a new trend in the genre of his writing. Has this collection succeeded in doing so? I have asked this question to myself several times before writing this review. I have gone through the original poems in Oriya and their English translation very carefully, but I enjoyed the original more than I did the translated version. I am coming back to Oriya poetry years after my estrangement from it when I left Orissa in 1982, and this return has provided me with an analeptical perspective, enabling me to rediscover the poetic cadences of Oriya language The English translation has tried to capture the spirit of Oriya poetry but no translation, however competent it might be, can ever succeed in conveying the quintessential linguistic energy hidden in the original words of a poet.

But A Fragile World has given us a chance to be introduced to the poetic world of Bishnu Mohapatra. Although, the ‘aura’ of the original, to use a term from Walter Benjamin in another context, is lost in translation, the poems through their ‘reproduction’ in another medium can now have a greater circulation. Therefore I congratulate the two translators for facilitating this transaction.

It is necessary to place these poems in the larger context of Oriya poetry, particularly in its so-called modernist phase so that one could see them as the product of a new ethos. A new poet always wants to be a ‘successor’ in the sense that his belated arrival on the scene has accorded him a certain advantage of hindsight. He can look back on the tradition he has inherited and rework within it not simply through a mode of its recuperation but through a process of its reinvention within its new context; he has also the freedom to disown the inheritance and begin something radically different from the ones he has left behind. In the case of the latter option, literary history has to be understood as a series of disjunctions. Western literary history could be understood in terms of such ruptures. In the West, literary fashions change very fast to cope with the rapid changes in that society, but in India slow transformation in society has resulted in a view of literary history as a continual process of creative appropriation of tradition modifying itself in its progressive engagement with time and history. The poems under review belong to the first category. They could be called ‘modernist’ poems but unlike the Oriya poems of ‘high modernism’ of the 1960s and 70s, which had modeled themselves on the poetry of European modernists of the 1920s, these poems by Mohapatra have created their own sense of modernity not by rejecting tradition but by modifying it so that the tradition could be part of the life-world of the culture it engages with. In these poems there is a happy conjunction of tradition with modernity.

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