Wealth of wisdom – tribal literature

If the visibility of tribal languages has remained somewhat poor, those languages need not be blamed for want of creativity. The responsibility rests with the received idea that literature, in order to be literature, has to be written and printed as well. Tribal literary traditions have been oral in nature. After the print technology started impacting Indian languages during the 19th century, the fate of the oral became precarious. A gross cultural neglect had to be faced by the languages which remained outside the print technology.

The reorganisation of Indian States after Independence was along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts came to be counted for. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own States. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had stock of wisdom carried forward orally, were not fortunate enough to get educational institutions for themselves. It is in this context of gross neglect that one has to understand the creativity in India’s tribal languages.

Story of perseverance

The history of tribals during the last 60 years is filled with stories of forced displacement, land alienation and increasing marginalisation, eruption of violence and the counter-violence by the State. Going by any parameters of development, the tribals always figure at the tail end. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic has been even worse. Considering the immense odds against which tribals have been fighting, it is nothing short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the amazing linguistic diversity of India.

The number of languages in which Indian tribal communities have been expressing themselves is amazingly large. Though there are usual problems associated with marking the mother tongue in a multilingual society, the successive Census figures indicate that there exist nearly 90 languages with speech communities of ten thousand or more. When one speaks of Indian tribal literature, one is necessarily speaking of all these.

Humbling experience

Some 20 years ago, I decided to approach the languages such as Kukna, Bhili, Gondi, Mizo, Garo, Santhali, Kinnauri, Garhwali, Dehwali, Warli, Pawri and so on, expecting to find at the most a few hundred songs and stories in them. Having documented over a ten thousand printed pages of these, publishing a dozen magazines and 50-odd books containing tribal imaginative expression, I am a much humbled man. If a systematic publication programme were created to document tribal literature in India, easily several hundred titles can be launched just containing the oral traditions in them. The story does not end there.

Tribals have taken to writing. Many tribal languages have now their own scripts or have taken recourse to the State scripts. Some four decades ago, when Dalit literature started drawing the nation’s attention, it was usual to think of even the tribal writers among them as part of the Dalit movement. In Marathi, for instance, Atmaram Rathod, Laxman Mane, Laxman Gaikwad, all from nomadic tribal communities, were hailed as Dalit writers. At that time, the northeast was no more than a rumour for the rest of India. One was perhaps aware of the monumental collections presented by Verrier Elwin, but there was no inkling of the tribal creativity. It is only during the last 20 years that the various tribal voices and works have started making their presence felt. Thus, Kochereti from Kerala and Alma Kabutri from the north surprised the readers almost the same time when L. Khiangte’s anthology of Mizo Literature and Govind Chatak’s anthology of Garhwali literature appeared in English and Hindi translation, respectively, making it possible for me to bring out Painted Words, a national anthology of tribal literature.

The last two decades have demonstrated that tribal literature is no longer nearly the folk songs and folk tales. It now encompasses other complex genres such as the novel and drama. Daxin Bajarange’s Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad has been producing stunningly refreshing plays, modern in form and contemporary in content. Little magazines such as Chattisgarhi Lokakshar and Dhol have started appearing which provide space for tribal poets and writers. Literary conferences providing a platform for tribal writers are being frequently held at Ranchi in Jharkhand and Dandi in Gujarat. In January this year, a global conference under the title ‘Chotro’, devoted to tribal literature and culture, was held at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts at Delhi.

There is now a greater understanding among tribal activists all over the country that tribal identity and culture cannot be preserved unless the tribal languages and literature are fore-grounded. Over the last four decades, a mainstream writer like Mahasweta Devi has been writing on behalf of the tribals. That situation has changed now. The voice of the tribals themselves is now beginning to be heard.

- G.N. DEVY (The Hindu)

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