Ramakant Rath is a name to be reckoned with in the field of contemporary Indian Poetry. He is a legend in his lifetime. A poet of eminence, former Chief Secretary, former President of Central Sahitya Akademi, and the winner of several national awards including Padma Bhusan, he is still active in his poetic journey at the age of 88. As an administrator, he had the reputation of being a very tough bureaucrat. When he was the Chief Secretary during late Biju Patnaik as Chief Minister, even the Cabinet Ministers were craving for his advice on crucial issues. During the Chief Ministership of late Nandini Satpathy, he was her Private Secretary and with her confidence in him, he had a lot of clout in the state administration.
But as a poet, he is far from the corridors of power and lobbying for himself. He bloomed to be a poet from his student days at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack and attracted the attention of poetry lovers and critics. Being an extraordinarily brilliant student he had sufficient exposure to western literature and the works of poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. At the same time, he was greatly influenced by the spiritual and metaphysical poetic traditions of ancient and medieval Odia literature. Within a very short time, he carved a niche for himself.
His poems revolve around love and death, the melancholy and futility of present-day life. His poetry collection Saptam Rutu (the Seventh Season) speaks of the inevitability of death. The death consciousness of man in the post world war period was a major theme in western poetry and he was influenced by this to some extent although he discovered a better narrative in the life of Kansa of Indian mythology who was haunted by death day and night in a most pitiable condition. However, he is famous for his long epic poem Sriradha which earned him Saraswati Samman and got translated into so many languages. It’s considered a modern classic. Here Sriradha of the Vaishnavite traditions takes the image of a contemporary woman crushed between her passionate longing and love for the lover and the mundane existence of life.
I had a fair acquaintance with his poems since my school days when he was being published regularly in the mainstream literary journals as a major poet of the time. It was an evening in Delhi perhaps in October 1983 when I met him face to face for the first time at the residence of late Bighnaraj Patel, an IAS officer of Odisha who was then Secretary, UPSC. He was then about to return to the state on completion of his central deputation.
During those days Sriradha was being published piecemeal in various magazines and he asked me about my views on it. Without realizing how serious he was about his poems I casually replied that it was dragging at some points. This made him visibly upset and I had to regret such remarks. Subsequently, Sriradha came out to be his magnum opus and when he bagged Saraswati Samman for it he was felicitated by many organizations in the state. In one such event organized by the PG Department of Odia in Utkal University, I had the honor to share ideas with him and there I publicly apologized for my remarks years back.
There are very few critics of his poetry. Once the then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik in a public meeting commented that he could never understand the writings of his Chief Secretary although it fetched him national awards. As a poet, he is definitely difficult for the common readers but he has excelled in his poetry craft to the amusement of serious readers and critics. His reputation as a master poet has overshadowed his ability in writing prose. His prefaces for his poetry collections belong to a class itself. His short stories are equally very powerful and keep the readers engaged. He is not a powerful public speaker but he always comes prepared and speaks to the point in a very crisp manner. He never forgets to take small notes for his speech and maintains discipline in time.
Although I was never very close to him at a personal level I had high regard for him as a person and also as a poet. He is a simple and soft-hearted person who had encountered many personal tragedies in life. Even though he was a retired Chief Secretary I had seen him umpteen times in the market with bags carrying fish and vegetables for the family. In 1995 I got selected for a fellowship in literature by the Department of Culture, Government of India and he was the first person to break the news when we visited his house to greet him on the occasion of Holi. Probably he was one of the final jury members.
Years ago in the year 1998, he lost one of his younger brothers and he had to travel to Puri in a van for the last rites. That day I saw him in a state of utmost shock and sorrow for losing his own brother. I could imagine the depth of anguish and loss writ large on his pale face.
Today he is considered as the pinnacle of Indian poetry and Odisha has reason to be proud of him. His success as a poet and his contributions to literature shall always inspire the successive generations of poets of the country.
(Mr. Pradeep Biswal is a bilingual poet writing both in Odia and English. His poems are widely anthologized. He is also an editor and translator of repute. A retired IAS Officer, Mr. Biswal presently holds the position of Member, Odisha Real Estate Regulatory Authority and stays with his family at Bhubaneswar. Views are Personal)
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