Sachidananda Mohanty The Critic as the Mentor - Mayadhar Mansingh and Bidyut Prabha (1)Dedicated to the memory of Bidyut Prabha Devi, Panchanan Mohanty, Mayadhar and Hemalata Mansingh
What the Mayadhar Mansingh – Bidyut Prabha association foregrounds is a set of issues central to contemporary critical thinking: the complex role of education for literary creativity, the role of male patronage in the shaping of female literary imagination, and finally, the working of aesthetic and ideological factors in the formation of literary communities. My aim here is not to undertake an “influence study”, comparative in character between Mansingh and Bidyut Phrabha’s poetry, underlining parallel concerns (and there are many), the inevitable differences in approach, and the indebtedness she shows to a senior poet and literature’s influence in terms of idiom, diction and style. This is generally a traditional and expected fare in centennial occasions, and quite legitimate too. But it seems to me that by so doing, we shall be missing the true significance of literary events and personalities, and the complex and ambivalent manner in which they leave a lasting legacy behind them. We must at the outset offer a few caveats. Mansingh’s influence upon Bidyut Prabha, as a writer, although substantial, was not the only one. Nor was it the final or the most decisive one.
There were other significant male literary role models in Bidyut Prabha’s life such as her father: the writer compiler N.C.Das, a relative and short-lived poet Gagan Bihari Mohanty, well established poets and critics like Radha Mohan Gadnayak, Kunja Bihari Das and Krushnachandra Kar, associates like Brajanath Rath and Jadunath Das Mahapatra and later in life, writers and fellow spiritualists such as Mohapatra Nilamani Sahu, Chittaranjan Das, K.C.Pati, Ramakrishna Das and others. Similarly, outstanding women writers both dead and alive such as Kuntala Kumari and Sarala Devi too played their part.
However, a close study of Bidyut Prabha’s life and career shows that Mansingh’s role was unique. In talking about Bidyut Prabha, he raised important questions about the formation of the female poetic self in the regional context and played a vital role in the early shaping of her career. In turn, we find that the younger poet’s respect for Mansingh was deep, consistent and abiding till the end of her life. It bordered on reverence and adulation. His early realization of her promise and his life satisfaction in seeing her swift achievements, his appreciation of her domestic and educational constraints, and his lifelong regret that she could not blossom fully as a poet due to her being denied higher education, are incredibly insightful to his critical assessment and acumen.
I shall attempt to show, basing myself on select literary correspondence hitherto unpublished, as well as some of the archival material that I have collected, that the Mansingh – Bidyut Prabha episode is a significant chapter in Orissa literary history. It illuminates greatly our understanding of the quest of a woman’s literary self in a largely patriarchal order. In being denied higher education by her conservative father, Bidyut Prabha might have missed a vital exposure to trends and experiments in poetry and literature of the larger English-speaking world. But she shows paradoxically and steadfastly throughout her career, as evidenced by the notes and correspondence she has left behind, that one could be self taught and gain entry into multiple traditions of a hybrid kind, which are not automatically granted to the products of higher education. In any case, as Mansingh declares in his History of Oriya Literature that has gone into several reprints, that in the hand of an artist, all exposure into alien traditions need not translate automatically into a native voice.
Regardless of one’s views about Mansingh’s assessment of Oriya modernists like Guruprasad Mohanty, Bhanuji Rao or Binode Nayak,2 it has to be admitted that the question of the influence in the shaping of new voices and genres that Mansingh raised is far from being a settled one. It has to be stated that Mansingh, the critic, was well versed in western literatures, literary canon making, and experiments such as those by T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound, just as he was widely familiar with the literary scene in Bengal and other provinces as well. His travel to England and his correspondence with academics in the former USSR3 would show that he was not a nativist of an exclusive or chauvinist kind and did not rule out influences from outside in the working of the indigenous literary mind. Mansingh’s correspondence with Bidyut Prabha spans practically her entire career.