Saving one of Mumbai's oldest languages

Jul 15, 2012, 10:50 IST | Soma Das

The Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP) is presently working on the first-ever dictionary of the East Indian language. This pictorial project, which should be ready by May 2013, focuses on Mumbai's original inhabitants, their culture and heritage

In May 2011, the East Indian village or Gaothan of Mobai in Manori set up Mobai Bhavan, a temporary museum that documented their culture and life within the community. Conceptualised by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP), the initiative is now being carried forward through a range of activities — a revamped, permanent East Indian museum, which should be ready in the next three months, special East Indian stores in each gaothan (there are around 120 gaothans across Mumbai), and the first-ever English and Marathi dictionary documenting the language.

Calling it the East Indian Dictionary Project, project manager Gleason Barretto says, “Though we were the original inhabitants of Mumbai, there is a fundamental lack of awareness about our 500 year-old community. Most community members themselves are not fluent in the language and it is only spoken in a few villages. If it continues this way, within two decades, the language won’t exist anymore. My own kids don’t know much about it as they converse in English.”

Being a dialect of Marathi, the East Indian language is considered by historians to be similar to the archaic language used in the Dynaneshwari sacred text. It doesn’t have a known script, though there’s a debate that it was probably Morbi. Currently, it is considered to be the fastest dwindling language in Mumbai.

To create the dictionary, there will be six teams consisting of two to four members who will focus on various themes such as weddings, celebrations, grammar, general words, religion and caste, occupation and business, food and drink, household and kitchen. For research, they will visit elders from the community and document the terminology.

After the dictionary gets released by May 2013, a soft copy will be available on their website. Barretto adds that the dictionary’s aim is to fetch recognition for the community. “There is no reference point for youngsters and this compilation of words will help create awareness about the language even beyond the East Indian community. It will hopefully get the language recognised by the government,” he explains.

Nearly four months ago, MGP members met Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, expressing their concerns over the lack of awareness about the community. “We cannot point a finger at anyone, it is our mistake that we haven’t promoted our culture. Through our activities we hope to create a long-term impact. At the same time, we realise that we are taking small steps and contributing only at a grassroots level. So, we have planned only until the publishing of the first edition,” shares Barretto.

He admits that the goal is to reach out and ensure that the middle and lower middle classes have access to the dictionary. Towards that end, they hope to price it moderately and sell it through their stores, during their festivals and annual community events.

“Language goes hand in hand with culture, so by documenting the language we are also recording our traditions and customs for posterity. This dictionary will offer a glimpse of the several cultures that influenced the East Indian community, including the Portuguese and the British,” he believes.

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