Mapped: 780 Indian spoken languages archived in giant people’s survey

India-Culture/Art/Books/People 

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By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Language is the verbal expression of a nation’s culture and history. In a country of 1.2 billion people, culture draws its eclectic strength from the hundreds of tongues spoken by the people, their distinctive lifestyles, anthropological roots and expressions of creativity.

The linguistic heritage of India that dates back to as early as 5,000 years – to the Indus Valley Civilisation — has negotiated a troubled history down the millennia with the extinction of several linguistic heritages, fusions, corruptions of root languages along the borders where people have overlapped and merged into different communities, imposition of alien languages from outside the country and creation of hybrid tongues. As a result, the language is India is in a state of perennial flux.

A mammoth project to map the language diversity of the country – the People’s Linguistic Survey of India —has just completed compiling the genesis, roots, classical evolution and the colloquial manifestation of 780 languages spoken across 23 states and Union Territories of the country after dissemination and collation of data from the grassroots for four years.

Assembled in 52 volumes, the printed archives are being published by Orient Black Swan. The cache will be in print by 2014.

Led by the Bhasa Research and Publication Institute in collaboration with in collaboration with the Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Ustad Allauddin Khan Academy of Dhrupad Music and Nav Siddharth Arts Group, the survey team of 3,000 researchers dedicated their endeavour (52 manuscripts) to Mahatma Gandhi and to the nation in a consecration ceremony at the Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi on September 5 to generate awareness about the project.

The survey team led by professor and noted linguist G.N. Devy and scholar-bureaucrat Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty bargained land for a cultural diversity park on the premises of the Indira Gandhi where 780 trees will be planted in honour of the languages survey. The number of trees will go up as more languages are included in the fold of the lingua map.

The survey at a cost of approximately Rs 2 crore (with support from the JRD Tata Trust) was essentially a voluntary exercise by workers – as contribution to the country’s cultural regeneration, professor G.N. Devy, the powerhouse of the project,  said.    

The dedication ceremony was accompanied by two-day open session on the exercise and the future course of action — to context the languages of India in their habitats with an ethno-cultural and an eco-cultural mapping (that will include 800 survey booklets about ethnic and nomadic groups in their natural habitats along coasts, forests and hills) of the country in the next phase. The booklets will be compiled by members of the community (for distribution among themselves).  

In course of the two-day ceremony, addressed by scholars and researchers including Union culture minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch- who called upon the team to embark on a culinary mapping of the country on the basis of its linguistic diversities — the first five volumes of the language encyclopedias were unveiled by publisher Orient Black Swan.

The publications released included The Languages of Uttarakhand, The Languages of Maharashtra, The Languages of Assam and The Sign languages. The states were mapped in all its linguistic variations – including the major, minor and unheard-of derivative languages spoken by the people.        

The most significant among the publications released was an introduction to the survey, “The Being of Bhasa: The General Introduction to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (by G.N. Devy) that explained the objective and the significance of the exercise to preserve spoken languages of India in written formats and in the process document the communities who use it in the greater picture of a culture-community revitalisation.

Languages in India can be classified into two broad categories – mother tongues and languages that have evolved from the mother tongues. Besides, there are three roots language –the Indo-Aryan tongues (with Sanskrit as the central tongue), Dravidian language clusters and the Indo-Persian language — that forms the classical scaffolding of India’s linguistic heritage.               

Indian government estimates available cite that according to the 2001 census, 29 languages have more than a million native speakers each, 60 languages have more than 100,000 speakers and another 122 have more than 10,000 users. The government has granted official status to 22 languages under the eighth schedule of the Constitution.

The Indian Census of 1961 had identified 1,652 languages spoken in the country.      

The premise that several of these languages, not officially nurtured, are disappearing from the country’s lingua roster is the basis of the survey. The rate of extinction is very high, warns the chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, Kalyan K. Chakravarty, who has been assisting G.N. Devy to preserve indigenous language, cultures and arts in the country for the last 20 years.      

“The biggest challenge has been to give legitimacy to spoken languages in writing. We did not try to codify the language – just document the language as it stands in its immediate environment. It is a kind of preliminary exercise to slow down the process of endangerment of languages. We cannot arrest the extinction,” Chakravarty told this writer. 

One of the linguistic dilemmas that the survey has tried to address is the “disdain for languages across speakers’ communities”. “We are trying to deal with the contemporary mindset (especially among the youth) that your language does not matter to me and vice versa. One of the messages that we are trying to get across with the survey is that our languages are the producers of intellectual seeds and language of development rooted in national and human consciousness.

“We are trying to develop several bridge elements between the different languages. The Grierson’s Survey (1898- 1928) had not studied the fusions in mother language and their linguistic habitats. We have tried to understand the hybrid fusion in languages rather them listing them,” Chakravarty said. The Grierson’s Survey had collated information about 354 native Indian languages.

The survey, participatory in nature involved the common man, speakers and scholars. “We tried to explore every facet of the language and its related cultures- whether it was the proverbs, idioms, epigrams and ritualistic and ceremonial bridges between the language and the traditional knowledge systems,” Chakravarty pointed out.

Giving the communities recognition for their languages gives them the opportunity to grow in the era of globalization that is killing diversity in dialects.    

Furnishing statistics, professor Devy, the chair of the Vadodara-based Bhasa Research and Publication Institute, said 85 per cent of languages in India are oral and 96 per cent of the people speak on 4 per cent of the languages. “You will lose your identities as you lose your languages – you will get homogenized as the culture leaves. This disbalance is accepted as inevitable but it calls for life-enhancing strategies,” Devy said enumerating the triggers that spurred the exercise.

He cited the “principle of cultural and environmental determination which looks at the country as open land for development” in the perspective of the need to “break through the silence of the people to look at development with the revitalization of communities sharing resources from outside and inside the government”. He said the “current rate of extinction of species and cultures was 40,000 times than what was previously recorded”. “If species extinction is to be arrested, languages will have to be conserved”, Devy said. “Languages cannot exist in vacuum”.

Art and Language  

The three-day symposium of People’s Language Survey Sept 5-7 was complemented by an exposition of ethnic and ancient arts, “Abhivyakti: Multi-Art and Eco-Cultural Mapping of India” that displayed traditional and contemporary masks, photographs of ethnicities and nearly 100 reprints of ancient Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Persian manuscripts from the Jahangirnama, Akbarnama  Shahnama, Shiv Lila Amrit and Krishna Lila at the Lalit Kala Akademi-the country’s highest node of visual arts. The exhibits were sourced from IGNCA, Indira Gandhi Manav Sangrahalaya and Sangeet Natak Akademi. Six audio-video shows of cultural performances by lesser-known communities in far flung areas compiled by the Sangeet Natak Akademi established the broad linkages between languages, communities, arts and performance traditions.              

 “The language of culture is also the language of development. Visual arts are central to the language of culture, which is vital to the national human resource management strategies. We have not been able to respect the locational cultural problems – that the ethno-cultural and arts solutions for Lahaul and Spiti are not the same as those of Bengal or Kerala. Each community has to be studied locally,” chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty told this writer.

The argument gathers storm: Arts cannot exist in isolation of local or national culture. Art cannot be treated as exclusive exhibits on the national stage for aesthetic delight – and business proposition. It is a part of the holistic communal culture, vital to existence. The Lalit Kala Akademi, in collaboration with related institutions will launch a visual survey of all the “community art” and publish exhibitions in books as an action instrument for “Living Museum Movement” later this year. The new museum movement that has been striving to create people’s archives outside the institutional spaces is rooted in the notion that the “habitat is the king” and bodies like the Lalit Kala Akademi only serves as a catalyst to allow the communities to assemble and practice their art.

“We will expand our workshops on the comparative history of arts movement. Art has to be seen as art for life,” Chakravarty said.

       

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