Upendra Bhanja : the emperor of Odia Poetry

April is a wake up call for laid back poets as the ‘National Poetry Writing Month’ virus goes global. According to some poets, poetry writing is not like erecting a building. For building construction you have a plan and then there is a time schedule based on which you work everyday whether you have inspiration or not. No doubt for poetry also you need preparation. Then this preparation has to wait till the inspiration dawns to produce the best kind of poetry. In other words best poetry dawns as a grace.

In stead of writing poetry, the reason I am writing about poets is that not having any preparation for poetry during the last couple of months I can hardly expect for grace to dawn. Secondly, I owe a tribute to each of the poets who have inspired me not only for writing poetry but also to come out of the dark clouds by remembering their lines.

Upendra Bhanja was one such poet in whose case dedicated preparation met with tremendous grace to make him the emperor of Odia Poetry.

I start this series with Kavi Samrat Upendra Bhanja for a couple of reasons. The first day of April is Odisha day. So, April is the month when we revisit our native roots. This is particularly important for a person like me who has stayed out of Odisha for the last thirty years.

I hail from a village whose sub-divisional headquarters is Bhanjanagar. The town is named after the poet because he was born in this locality sometime around 1675 AD. The oldest high school and the college of the town are named after him. I studied in that school which used to be a premier government high school of the district in those days. We used to be active participants of the cultural events of the town dominated by Bhanja Literature.

We would hardly understand many of the poems. Unlike English, Odia language hasn’t gone through major changes in form since then. But classical literature of any language distinguishes itself by heavy use of literary words as against words of daily conversation. Another reason we did not understand was that the poems were in ‘rasas’ not suitable for children. Some of the popular epic poems talked of higher spiritual ideals to awaken Bhakti Rasa while at another place it would be full of Sringara Rasa. In spite of our vague comprehension what attracted us was the seer melody of the composition.

That is the reason his poetry has universal appeal in spite of not being understood easily at many places. As a tribute to his popularity a famous odia poet has said that:

His poems are not only sung by the intellectuals to establish their points in debates, but also by the wayfarer in a jolly mood, the farmer while harvesting his yield, and women in interior chambers.

Kavi Samrat Upendra Bhanja was not merely an emperor by title. He was a wannabe king in real life too. Basic information about him can be obtained from his wikipedia page.

The version of Ramayana he wrote is titled ‘Baidehisha Bilasha’. Each line of this epic starts with the alphabet Ba. Each chapter follows a particular odia classical music structure known as chhanda. Examples of all the chhandas known in those days are found in the epic. The epic also uses all the nine rasas as enunciated by Bharat in his Natya Sastra.

The original Ramayana written by Valmiki is predominantly of Karunya Rasa. Bhakti Rasa dominates the Ramayana of Tulsi Das. But, Baidehisha Bilasha seems to be a balanced mixture of all the nine rasas.

Even though there are hundreds of versions of Ramayana, the titles in all cases contain the word ‘Ramayana’ which literally means ‘the journey of Rama’. However ‘Baidehisha Bilasha’ literally means the enjoyments of the consort of Sita which alludes to the Leela (playfulness) nature of the avatars of Lord Vishnu.

While the description of the crossing of the Ganges by Viswamitra, Rama, and Laksman may kindle bhakti rasa, the description of prenuptial preparation of Sita may arouse Sringara Rasa. The chapters I am referring to are contained in the following two videos. Even though you may not understand Odia, hope you will enjoy the musical quality of the lyrics.

In the episode of Surpanakha there is Sringara Rasa when she first invites Rama to marry her. But then, there are traces of dark humour when Rama advises her to approach Lakshman since Rama had taken the vow of ‘one wife only’. (In the age of Ramayana men taking multiple wives was not uncommon.) In this chapter the clever word play of the poet is revealed by the fact that the same message seems favourable to both Surpanakha and Lakshmana.

Babu naka siri dana yogya josha ku

Bihara kana(na)kara alingana ku.

Surpanakha thinks Rama is asking Lakshmana to bestow the pleasure of heaven on her. But Lakshman gets the message that this lady deserves her nose to be cut off to disgrace her. (The sanskrit word naka also means heaven). Such clever word plays make his work almost impossible to translate without killing the soul.

The first odia dictionary was also compiled by Upendra Bhanja. It is unfortunate that out of the fifty odd books said to have been written by him, more than half of his works are lost.

His dexterity in the use of chhanda and alankara to produce mesmerizing songs and vivid imagery and his clever word play remain unsurpassed in odia literature.

13 thoughts on “Upendra Bhanja : the emperor of Odia Poetry

  1. Bang! I have been asking precisely this to the students from Odisha. For some unknown reason either they are ignorant about Odia literature or prefer not to talk about it. The result is that non-Odia people are almost unfamiliar with the literature and also culture of Odisha. This is unfortunate because Odisha has an extremely rich cultural heritage. It has so much to offer besides Konark, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Sitakanth Mohapatra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree with you. This is a sorry state of affairs that the awareness among younger generation about their native culture and language is decreasing day by day. This must be the state of affairs for many regional languages in India. Maybe, somewhere we failed to create that awareness among the younger generations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. To write a whole epic, with every line starting with a ‘b’ and still not compromising the “rasas” is definitely amazing. Loved this post, I hope you continue the series and highlight the lesser known poets from India. I believe the Indo-Iranian languages provide a vocabulary rich for poetic writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Upendra Bhanja was an amazing poet.
      The Indo iranian languages have a beauty of their own. The cross culture interactions that happened in India has added to its plurality and enriched Indian culture and languages.
      Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Many thanks, However I am
    experiencing issues with your RSS. I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to subscribe to it.
    Is there anyone else having the same RSS problems?
    Anyone that knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Durga after a long time I found you on the literature canvas. Thank lot for your rediscover Bhanja. Hear I am adding a little more to of the poet that in his literature, aaja dekhilire nabin bayasi Bala…….. In this poem the last word is the beauty of the women can be serve that person who have served Lord Shiva for more than one lakh time with finishes lakh birth in Ganga River it so spiritual and respect to the women……

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There are many lost poets in the maze of dying tongues most of which as deeply rich as the modern lingo is beggarly. What does the recent generations gloating on rap and hackneyed sentences know of chhandas and shringar rasa? Thanks for showcasing a gem from the local past.

    Liked by 1 person

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