Library of India

Here’s a literary quiz: What’s common to Ladakhi, Kurukh, Halbi and Saurashtra?

Will the works of the Sahitya Akademi award-winners for ‘unrecognised’ languages survive or be washed away?

Like other aspects of public life in India, the language question, too, is as riven with hierarchy as it is by hankering for some or other kind of official recognition.

The divisions are complex, but, very very broadly, on the one side are two official languages of the Union – English and Hindi – using up a great deal of the available oxygen, and on the other side, all the other languages of the Union. If we try listing them by number of speakers, we might begin with, say, Bengali and Marathi, languages with millions of speakers, thousands of books in every conceivable genre and robust traditions of publishing that go back a few hundred years.

And end, perhaps, with one like Koro of Arunachal Pradesh, mother tongue to a few hundred people, Koro is one of the many “unrecognised” Indian languages which are at the bottom of the hierarchy. and seem relevant outside their immediate habitat only as objects of enquiry of linguists who are constantly afraid their subjects will transition from “endangered” to “dead” in their lifetimes.

The sum total of Indian languages can be filtered through other binaries of course: classical (currently numbering six: Sanskrit, Tamil, Odia, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam) versus non-classical; oral versus scriptal; scheduled (the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution recognises 22 languages, which do not include English); versus non-scheduled, and so on. Elsewhere we’ve discussed the joys of India’s polyglot identity and how state education boards are trying to follow the letter of the Constitution in extending primary education in various languages spoken by small groups.

The Sahitya Akademi, too, has made significant movements towards greater inclusivity. While the Sahitya Akademi award is given to writers working in 24 languages (the 22 Schedule Eight languages plus English and Rajasthani), in 1996 they introduced the Bhasha Samman specifically to honour contributions made to non-Scheduled languages, especially those without any formal structures of power backing them. (These are also given to writers for their contributions to classical and medieval literatures, another less prominent field of enquiry.)

At the Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters 2017, the Bhasha Samman – a copper plaque, a citation and a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh – was awarded to six pioneers and language activists who have been working tirelessly, and often thanklessly, in their respective languages, as well as to scholars noted for their contributions to classical and medieval literatures. A quick look at the six winners for the non-Scheduled languages.

Thupstan Paldan and Lozang Jamspal, Ladakhi

According to the 2001 Census, 1 per cent of the population of Jammu and Kashmir speaks Ladakhi, and while a significant body of philosophical knowledge is embedded in the language, it has been marginalised within the state, where linguistic battles are chiefly four-cornered: Urdu versus Kashmiri versus Hindi versus Dogri (all Schedule 8 languages). The award to Ladakhi thus goes some distance in correcting old imbalances.

One of the awardees is the 76-year-old Thupstan Paldan, who has received formal monastic training from Tibet and Sri Lanka, and is not only a social activist but also an ecological warrior. Thupstan Paldan’s most notable books are Chhags Rabs Nat don Kun Tsang (History of Ladakh Monasteries), the play Tagspa Bum Lde, about the King of Ladakh, Ladakha Luyangs (Modern Songs), Tsom Dungs Norbui Doshal, (a collection of short stories), Ladakhi sky riskyes sRog Chhags (The Wildlife of Ladakh), and several monographs on the fresco painting of the monasteries of Ladakh.

The other awardee is the noted academic Lozang Jamspal, currently the director of the Tibetan Classics Translators Guild of New York and the founder of the Monastic School of Tibetan Studies and Ladakhratnashridipika in Ladakh. The octogenarian scholar and litterateur has Acharya and Shastri degrees from Benares, the Rigschen degree from the Monastic University of Tashi Lhunpo in Tibet, and a doctorate from Columbia University.

In his long and illustrious career, Jamspal has edited, translated and authored a prodigious number of works, in addition to academic papers. He has edited Tibetan Visheshashtava and Abhidhanavistara-visvalocana of Sridharasena, translated One Hundred Spiritual Instructions to the Dingri People, Pratityasamudpada-dayakarikavya-vyakyanam of Nagarjuna, and The Treasury of Good Sayings by Sakya Pandita. His best known original works are the Classical Ladakhi readers, Bod yig gyi slob dpe khag dang po and Bod yig sbyong tshul gyi rim pa.

Nirmal Minz, Kurukh

The Kurukh language, also called Oraon, is spoken in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Bhasha Samman awardee for 2015, 90-year-old Nirmal Minz, celebrated language activist, social anthropologist and theologian, has spent decades trying to mainstream teaching and learning in Kurukh, while advocating the larger questions of linguistic inclusion. Minz is a founder member of Grossner College, Ranchi, which pioneered pedagogical methods in Kurukh and other indigenous languages, and the author of Jharia Pandi and Innelanta Pairi Urubni (both in Kurukh), Kurukh Grammar, Adivasi Problems and their Permanent Solutions, The Tribal Awakening and Hindu-Christian Dialogue. He has also won numerous honours and encomiums for his stellar contributions to tribal languages and literatures.

Sri Harihar Vaishnav, Halbi

Spoken in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, Halbi (or Halabi) has adopted the Odia or Devanagari scripts for use. This year’s awardee, Sri Harihar Vaishnav, a native of Dantewada, spent all his life working in and around the forests of Bastar. Writing both in Hindi and in Halbi, he has done a great deal to preserve the knowledge embedded in Halbi oral traditions in his books, the most notable of which are Bastar ki Maukhik Kathayen, Raja aur Bel Kanya, Bastar ka Lok Sahitya, Bastar ki Giti Kathayen, Bastar ke Dhankul Geet, all collections of folk tales, Chalo Chalen Bastar (a book for children), Mohbhang (a collection of short stories), Bastar ki Adivasi evam Lok Hastshilp Parampara (a treatise on tribal handicraft traditions), Dhatushilpi Dr. Jayadev Baghel: Ek Shikhar Yatra (a biography) and the Hindi translations of Gurumay Kelmani’s Halbi work Lachhmi Jagar and Sonsingh Pujari’s Halbi work Andhakar ka Desh.

TR Damodaran and TS Saroja Sundararajan, Saurashtra

Providing a fascinating insight into the gloriously mixed-up nature of India, Saurashtra, in this context, refers to a minority language, a relative of Gujarati’s, spoken chiefly in Tamil Nadu, around Madurai, but also in other parts of south India, and is a relative of Gujarati. The Bhasha Samman award for 2015 was jointly accorded to two scholars: eminent Sankritist and linguist, TR Damodaran, and poet and educationist TS Saroja Sundararajan.

Damodaran, the author of the unique Tamil-English-Saurashtra dictionary, in addition to several original works written in Saurashtra, was also instrumental in establishing a Saurashtra Heritage Chair at Saurashtra University in Rajkot. Sundararajan, a native of Madurai and a schoolteacher for all her working life, holds the distinction of writing poetry in three languages: Tamil, Hindi and Saurashtra. She is also a recipient of the Saurashtra Bhushan and Saurashtra Meera Awards.

The way forward

There can be no doubt that honouring tireless champions of “unrecognised” languages is essential. And yet, in the immense cauldron of language, politics and the market for books in India, what it represents is an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work of committed individuals whose own grandchildren, perhaps, have embraced the more glamorous alternatives available in the marketplace.

For their work to be counted for anything, and for the languages they served to be heard outside homes and village squares and reach metropolitan capitals, redolent with heteroglossia, is a long shot. For that to happen, we will need an army of publishers and translators – even academics. But to what end? From obscurity to curiosity – the prospects of unrecognised languages in our multilingual country – are not exactly glittering.

In the late 1950s, the great Hindi writer Baba Nagarjuna had written an eloquent adieu to Maithili, in Maithili, while reflecting on his own decision to give in to the temptations of Hindi, which had at its disposal a far far greater readership:

“Ahibaatak paatil phodi-phaadi
Parijan purjan ke chhodi chhadi
Ham jaye rahalchhi aan thaan
Ma Mithilyee antim pranaam.”

(Breaking all auspicious ties, disowning the place where dear ones lie, I am bound for another destination. Ma Mithila, accept my last salutation.)

Therefore, all laudable initiatives aside, I can’t be quite convinced of the larger amplification of these awards.

But then again, who knows?

Baba Nagarjuna, for all his last salutations, did return to write in Maithili every now and then.

Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and one nearly abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra from JNU. She worked on developing a new language policy for the country. She tweets here.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.