No one who studies the history of the movement leading to the unification of Oriya-speaking tracts into a separate province can ignore the pivotal role played in it by Nilamani Vidyaratna. He may not be a household name like his famous contemporary Madhusudan Das. However, his role in shaping the destiny of modern Orissa is no less significant.
Nilamani was born on 14th December 1867 in village Brajabeharipur near Banki in Cuttack district. His father’s name was Shouricharan Mishra and his mother’s name Rohini Devi. He established himself as a scholar in the field of Sanskrit and Oriya literatures. In 1887, he took over as the editor of the literary magazine, Sambalpur Hitaishini, published by the Raja of Bamanda, Sir Basudev Sudhal Dev. For long sixteen years, this magazine, under the able leadership of Nilamani, promoted the cause of Oriya literature and culture and nurtured a generation of Oriya writers. Nilamani also edited a magazine called Indradhanu, which published polemical articles attacking certain trends fostered by the poet Radhanath Ray and his followers.
In 1895, Sir Basudev Subdhal Dev conferred on him the prestigious title ‘Vidyaratna’ in recognition of his contribution to knowledge. Nilamani was also made an honorary member of the State Council of the kingdom of Bamanda.
At the time, Sambalpur formed a part of Madhya Pradesh (Central Provinces) and Hindi used to be the official language in this area. Nilamani campaigned relentlessly against this in the pages of Hitaishini. This campaign was largely responsible for the Government’s decision to replace Hindi with Oriya as the official language in Sabalpur in 1903.
Nilamani had to leave Bamanda in 1902 on account of differences of opinion with the Raja on some issues. The same year, he came to Ganjam and took over as editor, Prajabandhu, a magazine published by the Raja of Khalikote, Harihar Mardaraj. It was here that Nilamani, with the support of the Raja, organized ‘Utkal Sabha’ (later know as Madras Odia Association), in Berhampur to which he invited two great Oriya nationalists, Madhusudan Das and Biswanath Kar. This conference laid the foundation of Utkal Sammilani, which spearheaded the movement for the unification of Oriya-speaking tracts into a separate province.
Like his other distinguished contemporaries, Nilamani found in the literary magazine a powerful instrument through which Oriya could be awakened to the possibilities held out by the modern world. After leaving Khallikote, he edited Guna Darpan, which was published by the Raja of Badakhemandi, Anangabhima Dev. While in Badakhemandi, he also brought out a monthly magazine called Utkal Madhupa, in which one could see the beginning of the effort, which culminated in the compilation of encyclopaedias in Oriya years later. Without doubt, Nilamani was a man of vision, who worked tirelessly to usher in an age of enlightenment in what was at the time a poor, backward province. In his last years, he became the editor of the prestigious Oriya weekly, Utkala Dipika, but gave up this job shortly afterwards when he had differences of opinion with the other members of its Board of Directors. He tried to set up a press and bring out a magazine on his own. But this dream remained unfulfilled as death overtook him on 26th July 1924.
It is time we undertook a proper assessment of this great architect of modern Orissa. Such an assessment would constitute a fitting tribute to an exceptionally gifted and committed person like Pandit Nilamani Vidyaratna.