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Operation Language Rescue

Ganesh Devy is not just another literary scholar and cultural activist. The Chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, is now in Mumbai for an extensive talk on oral history and traditions, and holds Indian languages close to his heart. Devy left his academic position (till 1996, he taught English literature at the MS University of Baroda) to take up conservation of threatened languages in India. Among the several institutions he has founded, since then are the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre, Budhan Theatre and the Adivasi Academy. He has put to script (for the first time) 11 languages existing in oral traditions, published literature in 26 languages, helped educating 20,000 children from indigenous communities and has established economic empowerment activities in 2,200 villages in tribal districts of Gujarat. The Guide caught up with Devy on the eve of his talk. Excerpts from the interview:


Ancient scriptures being re-written at a workshop. representation Pics/AFP

What is the core focus of your ongoing lecture series at Jnanapravaha?
I plan to discuss the tradition of epic poetry in India and how the epic form has fascinated the Indian imagination. Some of the works of literature, that I will discuss will include Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, the Mahabharata of the Bhil tribals in Rajasthan and the Mahabharata of Vyasa in the mainstream.

How important was the oral tradition in the spread of epic poetry; how much of it spread due to the written and oral form, respectively?
Most Indian epics have been mainly oral. The Mahabharata, as we know it, has been entirely oral in origin and spread. The Ramayana is considered to be an epic ‘composed’ by a single author. However, its dissemination has been entirely oral until the 20th century. In any case, our epics were composed centuries before the use of paper became common, during the 13th century and later, when printing arrived in India in the 18th century. Therefore, the Indian epic tradition has been predominantly oral in nature even if we are used to thinking of them today as ‘books’.

What drew you towards the study of threatened languages?
I was drawn to the fact that more than 1,500 of India’s languages had been classified as Non-Scheduled Languages. This was reason enough for me to feel attracted to the study of these languages. In 1971, the Census authorities decided not to disclose the statistics related to the languages spoken by less than 10,000 speakers. This was another reason.  Besides, in recent years, the idea of development accepted by the nation is directly linked with the disappearance of many languages. All this made me think that if we did not study these languages now, there will be no chance of anyone being able to even think of these languages. Revitalising them is my aim, not mere documentation.

What is the present state of languages and culture of tribals across the country?
What can be the condition of a continent (or of a culture) being rapidly submerged under an ever-spreading ocean (of an idea of development)? There are some rescue operations on, but not enough.

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