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Collection Of A Multi-Faceted Raconteur

Updated: October 8, 2011 11:32 am

JP Das is an eminent poet, playwright, fiction writer and critic. His books, originally written in Oriya, have been widely translated into English, Hindi and other Indian languages. This book contains a unique representative selection from the works of JP Das, who has now secured his placed among the leading writers and art historians of the country. The book provides in English the best of his work in different genres: poetry, short and long fiction, drama, writing on Orissan art and culture, etc.

Often characterised by a strong sense of social engagement, and combining meticulous research with an innovative approach to form, these texts run the gamut from the literary to the academic, from historical fiction to poetry, from short explorations of fleeting moments to extended reflections on literature and its function. The book is divided into eight sections, each devoted to a particular form. In the first section, twenty-eight poems are presented in chronological order, beginning with “Mask”, which established a theme that recurs throughout the poetry of JP Das. The thematic evolution in this section—from a personal quest to larger questions relating to the nature of truth, power, and politics—gives a sense of the wide range of occasions for poetry to be found in the poet’s work.

There are eleven short stories in section two. The stories touch on a variety of topics, from the demands, rewards, and at times unexpected power of poetry, to more directly social issues, such as caste, arranged marriages, ageing and communal violence. All are treated with a certain degree of irony, many with humour, and at times the tone becomes more openly satirical. Three plays make up the third section. The play “Sundardas” dramatises the question of the nature of truth, through the historical religious figure of Sundardas and his relations with both Hindus of different castes and the recently arrived Christian missionaries. Drawing on real-life characters and practices, the play is a meditation on questions of identity and tolerance, and on the role of religion and of religious institutions in society.

The next section comprises the nonsense verse. The humorous tone of the poems, their ludic nature and formal qualities will appeal to readers of all ages. The fifth section contains three essays. The essay on Fakirmohan Senapati shows how the history of Odisha in the nineteenth century played an important role both in the life of Fakirmohan—he was actively involved in many of the important issues of his times—and in his writings: through the shift in his use of language, from more Sanskritized Odia to a form of language that was more locally based and colloquial, and through his willingness to bring the different social groups—not only the British, but also Odias themselves—under critical scrutiny.

The next section provides excerpts from two works on the art of Odisha, presenting yet another side of the author’s varied interests. The text, “Palm-leaf Art”, is more technical in nature, demonstrating another facet of the author’s personality: precise attention to detail. The section that follows contains two speeches and two interviews. The final section contains selections from the translations into English by JP—from Odiya, Bangla, Urdu and French. The book endeavours to convince readers of the value, importance and diversity of JP Das.

By Ashok Kumar

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