To mark Mother Language Day (February 21) in 2020, we wrote about the significance of mother tongues in allowing us to access our pasts and our identities:

“One’s mother tongue is really one’s oral inheritance – a collective repository of our cultural memories: Stories, songs, legends, lore and sayings – an ever-growing, ever-mutating mass of shared knowledge that exists only in minds, memories and words – in our language. The existence and transmission of this knowledge is fragile – and depends on the ability of different generations to have conversations with each other. Taking away language is to take away memory, to take away identity, to take away continuity.

Many subnational movements have made and continue to make language their rallying point. The Dravidian movement, the Assam Agitation and the Gorkhaland movement have all had a central focus on language – not only on language as an emblem of culture and identity, but on language as culture and language as identity.

When we get cut off from our mother tongues, it also cuts us off from these memories and histories which give us a sense of place in this world. And then we must find entirely new ways of making sense of ourselves. Is it this kind of deracination that cuts us off from our immediate pasts only to leave us hankering for a distant classical golden past, maybe because there is no other sort of past that we can access?”

Constitutional recognition for the Rajasthani language continues to remain elusive. In the absence of this, the language has remained largely outside institutions. Even as we await this recognition, we have set up the Rajasthani Bhasha Academy as an attempt to formalise Rajasthani language learning and make it accessible to those who have not learnt it as their mother tongue.

Since announcing the inception of the Academy, we have encountered many questions. One track of questioning asks whether Rajasthani is at all a “language” distinct from Hindi, as opposed to being a dialect. This former argument is a relic of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan movement where, in an attempt to create Hindi as the lingua franca of a new India, vast numbers of regional languages began to be perceived as dialects of Hindi.

The second track of questioning points out that there is no one Rajasthani language – there are many tongues spoken within Rajasthan and each is a distinct language in its own right. Hence there is the risk of a dominant form of Rajasthani ending up calling itself the only legitimate form – a consequence of standardisation processes seen with so many other modern Indian languages. This track definitely warrants careful self-examination and self-introspection.

Our attempt is to predicate this examination and introspection not only on linguistic and historical facts, but also on an understanding of Rajasthan as a modern administrative and cultural unit.

Linguistic ancestry and traditions

In terms of historical development, linguistic structure and literary traditions. there is little to back the argument that Rajasthani is a dialect of Hindi.

The various forms of the languages spoken in Rajasthan have a common ancestry that is distinct from what are referred to as the “Western Hindi dialects”, such as Brajbhasha. Linguist Luigi Pio Tessitori has postulated the existence of a missing link between Apabhramsha and the neo Indo-Aryan (or modern Indian) languages such as Gujarati, Marwari, Brajbhasha and so on. This pertains to the era between roughly the 13th century and the 15th-16th centuries, when Apabhramsha increasingly began to show the linguistic elements of the languages that were to become Gujarati and Rajasthani.

The language that fills the gap between Apabhramsha and neo Indo-Aryan languages languages in north India is what Tessitori calls “Old Western Rajasthani”, also known as “Old Gujarati” / “Maru-Gurjari”. The divergence between Rajasthani and Gujarati began in the 15th century.

While Udyotan Suri remarked on the distinct language of the people of the desert back in the 8th century, it is not until the 18th century that the construction of a distinct linguistic self emerges. Up until this, even as there is a great flowering of literary output in the various courts of the state, this continues to take place in a milieu which is conscious of its multilinguistic nature.

Achaldas Khichi ri Vachanika and the Visaldev Ras, composed in the 15th century, and Chand Rao Jaitisi Rau and the Veli Krishna Rukmini ri, composed in the 16th century, are among the prominent examples of major works composed in the Marwari/Dingal register. The court of Marwar began to produce a vast and rich body of literature from the 17th century onwards. The Diwan of the state, Mumhata Nainsi, produced his Mumhata Nainsi ri Khyat and Marwar ra Pargana ri Vigat in the Marwari/Dingal register, even as the king, Maharaja Jaswant Singh was a renowned poet composing in Brajbhasha.

There was a clear distinction between the different languages being used. However, the self-identification throughout this period of those using Marwari/Dingal continued to be of a “bhasha”, indicating the use of a language that was not Sanskrit or Prakrit. This was the standard practice throughout much of north India during this time.

It was in the 18th century that the first use of “Marwari’ as nomenclature was found. The Pingal Shiromani (a treatise on the theory of Marwari poetics) believed to have been written in the late-sixteenth century, but actually dated to the eighteenth-century based on the poets it mentions, opens with:

“अथः पिंगळ सिरोमणि मारवाड़ी भाषा लिख्यते”
“Thus, Pingal Shiromani is written in the Marwari Bhasha.”

By the 19th century, Charans, the bardic caste of Rajasthan, were using a similar register through much of the state. Terms like Marubhasha/Marubhum bhasha or Dingal were first used for a longstanding Marwari literary tradition. Not only in Marwar, these terms were also used by poets in other major courts – Kisna Arha from the court at Udaipur (the capital of Mewar) and Suryamall Misan from the court at Bundi both identify their respective languages as Marwari or Dingal.

This nomenclature is not unusual in the 19th century. Brajbhasha, for example did not remain confined to the Braj region, but was widely used as a literary language from Rajasthan as far as in Assam and Bengal and the Maratha court of Shivaji. The Charans and Jains were placing themselves in contrast to the register being used by the Brahmins and the Bhats who were primarily using Brajbhasha (or a form of Brajbhasha influenced by Marwari, referred to as Pingal).

Hence, not only was there a broad self-conception of a common linguistic identity by the literary elite of the state, but there was also a clear sense of demarcation from the other dominant register of Brajbhasha.

The diversity of spoken tongues

The development of courtly registers can often be on a completely different trajectory from the languages spoken by common people.

Sedentary, agrarian societies are inherently different from pastoral and mercantile societies which have constantly been on the move for many centuries. The latter don’t have the broad linguistic uniformity which many of the former do. Rajasthan has a vast diversity in its spoken tongues – with local and hyperlocal variations, and with different castes based in the same region often speaking very differently.

Any act of enumeration or categorisation in such a scenario cannot be a passive one. Instead, almost like in the quantum mechanical universe, it ends up changing the reality it intends to enumerate and categorise. The censuses over the years were such an exercise, and they brought to the fore the inherent conundrum in trying to talk of broad linguistic identities in a land as diverse as Rajasthan.

It was Grierson who first used the word “Rajasthani” to refer to the languages spoken in Rajasthan in the Linguistic Survey of India, published in 1908:

“Rajasthani means literally the language of Rajasthan….The name as connoting a language has been invented for the purposes of this survey in order to distinguish it from Western Hindi on the one hand and from Gujarati on the other.”

He mentions the common people of the state simply referring to their “dialects”, with identity predicated broadly on geographic region or caste. He lists out six such dialects.

In the 1951 Census, there are 18 dialects recorded as being spoken in Rajasthan. In 1961 the number jumps to 72 dialects spoken in Rajasthan – including “Agarwali” spoken by 15 people, “Alwari”, spoken by 18 people…The number of dialects continues to vary wildly, with the latest census in 2011 enumerating six dialects of Rajasthan in the the state. There is clearly little to identify or separate the dialects themselves, with a widely varying self-identification of one’s boli along caste and geographic lines still being found.

The idea of the distinct forms/dialects of Rajasthani then itself appears to be an outcome of the Censuses carried out by the Colonial State.

To those who talk of the different forms of Rajasthani, saying that each of its forms is actually a language in its own right, and hence that there can be no one Rajasthani language, even the idea of five, seven or 72 different forms is itself reductive. A more accurate picture would then be of a language which changes every twelve miles, a continuum of gradually changing tongues. This hyperlocal reality has always been known to the common people of Rajasthan and one popular adage captures it thus:

बारा कोसां बोली पलटै, बन फल पलटै पाक्याँ।
बीस पचीसाँ साजन पलटै, लखण न पलटै लाखाँ।।

The boli changes every twelve miles, fruits of the forest change when they ripen.
One’s man changes after five hundred miles, but even a lakh miles can’t change one’s traits.

Rajasthani after independence

In the century since Grierson used the term “Rajasthani”, there has been a broad consolidation of linguistic identity within the region, in keeping with its emergence as an administrative unit. The Sahitya Akademi recognised Rajasthani as a language in 1974. This recognition has helped the sustenance of a literary circuit in the state, however meagre. Vijaydan Detha was the first recipient of this award and this, perhaps, helped in his work achieving recognition and acclaim.

Several initiatives have taken place since then. The Rajasthani-Hindi Sabadkos, a mammoth 12-volume thesaurus compiled by Sitaram Lalas surveys Rajasthani across dialects and periods and includes oral and written forms. There are university departments which offer degree courses in Rajasthani literature. Institutions of modernity – schools, publishing, the judiciary, etc – are needed because they can guarantee continuity in a way that orality no longer can.

There has been a movement to secure Constitutional recognition for Rajasthan since at least the 1950s, which culminated in the Vidhan Sabha passing a resolution demanding this recognition for Rajasthani from the Centre in 2003. This need has been written about extensively.

It is widely understood by almost everyone involved with Rajasthani literature, with teaching and in the larger demand for recognition of language status for Rajasthani, that it is an umbrella term. In fact, the term Rajasthani began to be used to demand recognition for the language, as opposed to the earlier and widespread use of the term Marwari (because of its historic use as a literary register throughout much of the state) precisely to indicate this inclusivity.

Does Rajasthan need a language identity?

A valid question is : is there a need for a unificatory exercise to ask for recognition of, or to create, formalised language-learning programmes? Why try to foist an overarching Rajasthani identity on the tongues spoken in the state, and thus reduce regional and local forms into “dialects”? Why not simply demand recognition for each form of the tongue as a separate language?

Unification and standardisation are both a demand and consequence of the encounter of languages with institutions like schools and publishing. Most languages whose identity we seem to have no doubts about today are the outcomes of such processes of standardisation which wiped out variations and undermined dialects. Marathi and Bengali in the 19th century and Hindi, from the late 19th century onwards, come to mind quite prominently.

However a unificatory exercise need not inherently be an exercise in standardisation. When the Brahmin elites in 19th century Pune or Kolkata were defining what spoken and written forms were to have legitimacy, this exercise worked along gradients of power, including those defined by caste and class. The fear that Rajasthani will involve the hegemonic influence of Marwari, the dominant literary register for a few centuries now, is not unfounded. However, we can avoid taking this trajectory and the steps taken by the movement so far have consciously attempted to do this.

The recognition of Rajasthani as an umbrella category is simply a demand that is likelier to be met given that there are only 22 languages recognised from across the country, than to ask for recognition of a number of separate languages from the state (more so, considering that the dialect classifications are themselves fuzzy and contested).

Moreover, this umbrella category is, in many ways, a natural one. There has been a sense of linguistic oneness in Rajasthan – both in courtly as well as spoken contexts, and this predates modern times. The forms spoken are closely related. Moreover, most speakers of the language will vouch for the broad inter-intelligibility of the various forms.

The Rajasthani Bhasha Academy

This academy aims to make the language accessible to those who have not learnt it as a mother tongue. Creating a curriculum throws up the obvious question of which form of Rajasthani will be taught, and whether this involves the creation of a new hegemony.

It begins with introducing the learner to what the language sounds like in its many forms, for so much of the variety appears in spoken contexts. Thereafter, rather than invest in the creation of a “standard Rajasthani”, a first course in Rajasthani has been established with the use of the Marwari dialect. Not only is it the most widely spoken form , it has also been the literary register in much of Rajasthan for a few centuries.

This does not innately undermine the cause of other forms spoken in Rajasthan – on the contrary, access to one dialect definitely allows for easy movement into the others. It is simply one path of entry into a rich linguistic and cultural world, and definitely not the only one. There is no doubt that there will be need for much introspection and reform as the Academy begins to run this first-of-its-kind course.

The authors are part of a team which is working to create a structured Rajasthani learning course under the Rajasthani Bhasha Academy. Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit teaches in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Vishes Kothari is working on Rajasthani to English translations of Vijaydan Detha’s works.