Some time back, I ran a Twitter poll for two days through an account @OdiaCulture, fairly well engaged with Odia tweeple who are active promoting Odisha and Odia on social media.
The poll asked a simple question.
Who is the greatest Odia of all time?
There were four choices given: Samrat Kharavela, Jayadeva, Utkalamani Pandit Gopabandhu Das and Biju Patnaik. Why these four? Because after considering all aspects, I came with five names, the fifth being that of Madhu Babu (Utkal Gouraba Madhusudan Das). But since Twitter allows only four options, I had to drop one. But why did I drop Madhu Babu? Based on what I was trying to find (more of that later in this piece), the more distinct their areas of contribution and time periods, the better it was for my purpose. Utkalamani and Madhu Babu were not as distinct from each other as they were from the rest. Why I chose to keep Utkalamani and not Madhu Babu is a question I can answer through some arguments, but let us, for the time being, keep it as a pure toss-up. Maybe, if you were at my place, you would have chosen to include Madhu Babu over Gopabandhu. For the purpose of my study, that would not have made too much of a difference. I asked respondents to write other options through replies and not surprisingly, all the votes that came through reply option were for Madhu Babu.
As expected, a few questioned the logic of trying to compare them—all greats in their own rights, contributed in different ways, and were separated from each other in time by long periods, centuries actually. Kharavela belonged to 2nd/1st century BC, while Biju Babu died less than 20 years back.
Let us start with the basic—what was the need of comparison?
Do you think the poll was really meant to find out the greatest Odia of all times—through 40 odd expected responses (yes; that was the target)?
Of course, it is silly to even expect that. The real reason was not evaluating those great people but to gauge how today’s generation—especially those who are on Twitter and are proud of their Odia heritage—thinks. There too, the idea was not evaluate—there is no right or wrong answer—but to gauge what is important to them.
To expand, what exactly matters to those who are proud of their Odia heritage—as that is the primary reach of the handle.
Let me explain.
If we go by the literal meaning of the question, it can be restated as follows.
Who is the greatest person of all times who happens to be an Odia?
The second part (underlined) is just a factual condition here. Their being ‘Odia’ is just a filter.
The question can also be put like this.
Who out of these four is the greatest?
Ideally, answer to this question should not be different, if the respondent s an Odia or not.
Now, let us look at the survey results.
Who”s the greatest Odia of all times? For other choices, please reply
— Odia Culture (@OdiaCulture) March 29, 2016
Utkalamani Gopabandhu was an emphatic top choice, followed by Kharavela and Biju Patnaik tied at a distant second position; with Jayadeva coming a poor fourth.
Now, imagine this question being asked to non-Odias. Do you think, they would answer it the same way?
From Tamil Nadu to Punjab; Maharashtra to Kashmir, Jayadeva and his Gita Govinda are fairly well known. Whether it is Mohiniattam or Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi or even Yakshagana, Gita Govinda has found its way into their repertoire. Commentary on Gita Govinda has been written by Kashmiri scholars. Jayadeva is the only poet from Eastern India whose verses are included in Guru Granth Sahib.
Which other Odia is revered so much across the length and breadth of this country? Yet, it is true that when it comes to doing anything “for Odisha or Odia”, Jayadeva has little contribution.
First, he was a poet; and most (not all) poets do not make a direct impact on people’s everyday living. Two, unlike say Bhanja or Radhanath, he wrote primarily in Sanskrit and not in Odia. Yes, his contribution to Odissi music is immense. But little did he know that it would one day be called Odissi music.
It is just that he happened to be born in Odisha.
On the other hand, Kharavela made half of India part of Kalinga; that is a matter of pride for all of us. Biju Patnaik is the only Odia leader who could stand up to national leaders and talk of Odia pride. Utkalaamani was a social reformer, a social worker, an educationist and contributed significantly to Odisha state and language movement.
In other words, they have contributed significantly to “Odia and Odisha”.
The nationalist Odias community has, in its mind, interpreted the question as this:
Who, out of the following, has contributed maximum towards the cause of Odisha and Odia?
In other words, to be considered a true Odia, the expectation is that you must do something explicitly for the cause of Odisha and Odia; at least be identified with any aspect of it. So, a Jayanta Mohapatra could be considered less Odia than say, Sitakanta Mahapatra.
As they say, Swadeshe pujyate raja vidwan sarvantra pujyate, so nicely translated by Kabi Jadumani as
Raja sina puja pae apana deshare
Kabi puja pauthae desha videshare
Kharavela and Biju Babu were explicitly rulers. Gopabandhu, though not a ruler, was a political figure and over the years, has become a symbol of pride for Odisha, much the same way as Gandhi. So, whether you are a Leftist or Rightist or regionalist or (yes) a separatist, you swear by his name. That could also possibly happen with Kharavela but the awareness about him is extremely low. For some reason, historians including Odia historians, have ignored his legacy. He ruled half of India, did a lot of development/welfare work for his subjects, was a great patron of dance and music and was a truly secular ruler, who despite being a Jain respected Brahmins and Buddhists. What else do you need to be called ‘great’? But that is a different story, for another day.
Coming back to the poll, is it bad? Is it good?
Actually, neither. People in most regions (Assam could be an exception) would probably vote in similar fashion. So, there’s nothing surprising about it—especially at a time, when the issue of identity—national, regional, religious—has become so important for people.
There’s one more possibility, however theoretical it may look. It is not about identity and doing something for Odisha/Odia. Maybe, people genuinely feel that statecraft and social service are far more important aspects of society than than literature and art. Quite possible, even though it is the land of excellence in art.