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Devy in the details

Updated on: 14 April,2024 06:25 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sumedha Raikar Mhatre |

Celebrated linguist Dr Ganesh Devy is carving a Centre for Civilisation Studies in Mumbai—the latest in the series of institutions he has built, block by block, for the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures

Devy in the details

Dr Devy’s grassroots connection with indigenous people puts him in a league of his own. Pic/Anurag Ahire

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreThere are those who are consumed by the ordinary business of living, whose bandwidth is claimed by water cuts, flight delays, heat waves, and imminent elections. And then there are those who are driven by the business of life—a higher purpose that puts their lives into perspective. Celebrated linguist, social scientist, and Fulbright scholar, Dr Ganesh Devy belongs to the second category. 

At 74, the author of 90-odd books on indigenous languages and cultures is remarkably upbeat about the new Centre for Civilisation Studies he is shaping at Mumbai’s Somaiya Vidyavihar University.

The itinerant septuagenarian will now shuttle between his Dharwad home and the city to work towards creating a comprehensive narrative of all ancient and modern civilisations, spanning multiple periods and geographies. He will team up with researchers and scholars across continents; this study of civilisations will thus foreground collaboration and confluence, rather than the clash and conflict of cultures.

“We hope to create a knowledge base that will change the way civilisations are studied in disciplines such as anthropology, linguistics, cinema studies, urban studies and literature. We envisage 300-odd titles published in a dozen foreign and Indian languages in the course of a decade,” says Dr Devy, whose latest anthology The Indians: Histories of a Civilization (co-edited with Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar, published by Aleph Book Company) traces the origin and evolution of the  “Indian” people over a daunting 12,000 years. Like his other titles, The Indians..., too, stirred many discussions in universities and non-academic spaces, most recently in Mumbai’s own Kitab Khana.

There’s a back story to Dr Devy’s on-and-off residence in the maximum city. “Mumbai has a different vibe than Dharwad and Baroda, where I spent my busiest years. But I love coming back to it often, now more so after becoming the Centre for Civilisation Studies’ Director.” Travel has been an integral part of life for the Professor of Eminence and his wife Surekha, who was a Chemistry professor. In their collective pursuit of bhashas, the couple opted for voluntary retirements from their teaching careers at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. The polyglot is an untiring champion of the linguistic heritage of nomadic communities in India. Dr Devy is invested in every language—scripted or oral, widely spoken or endangered,  scheduled or unscheduled (as per the Government of India), the fisherfolk’s maritime English or Sikkim’s extinct Majhi dialect! 

Dr Devy maintains Mumbai is the ideal city in India—the only one of its kind—to serve as the setting for a multilingual and multidisciplinary project like the one at the Somaiya Vidyavihar University, which needs a diverse team. “It is a truly modern city,” he says, “which has the resident talent [and foreign language speakers] for the study of varied cultures. It is a city of imagination, which inherits values from figures like Narsinh Mehta, Saint Tukaram and Mahatma Phule. Since its Presidency era, its citizenry has been shaped in an extraordinary furnace of thought.” 

The linguist values Mumbai as a coastal city which “goes beyond the divides of language, religion, ethnicity, and gender, unlike other landlocked and pilgrim cities.” Recently, he expressed gratitude towards one of the city’s key philanthropic organisations, Tata Trusts. He presented 30 state-specific volumes of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (Orient BlackSwan) to the trust, which endowed the survey with R80 lakh in 2014, when the first volume, titled The Being of Bhasha, was published. A decade later, the last volume—centred on Karnataka—has been released.

“I felt it was my duty to gift the trust the set of books, which chronicle extant and dying languages of indigenous people, minorities and the marginalised.” PLSI maps the effects of large-scale urban migration and decline of agriculture on regional dialects and colloquial usages; it is a gigantic, nationwide project putting 780-odd Indian tongues on the world language map.

Behind Dr Devy’s appreciation for the Tata Trusts is a special reason: In 2005, the Central government appointed him  to a committee tasked with visualising a New Linguistic Survey of India—a mission under government patronage. By 2008, the Central Institute of Indian Languages expressed its inability to be the nodal body for carrying out the survey. There also emerged a lack of harmony between the Home and Education Ministries over the subject of funding. Eventually, the linguist determined that the project deserved to be shouldered by the public, under PLSI. Dr Devy roped in 3,500 volunteers, language lovers, folklorists, translators, individual donors and the Tata Trusts, combing the length and breadth of the country to complete the survey with the help of faceless but passionate Indians. 

“Now that each state’s linguistic makeup is captured in English and Hindi [and in some cases, regional languages, too], I have a deep sense of satisfaction in having  fulfilled my obligation to Indian language diversity,” says Dr Devy, whose only regret is that many language enthusiasts are no longer around to witness the collective, wondrous output.

After retiring as Professor of English, MSU, Baroda, in 1996, Dr Devy created institutions—entirely people-driven—like the Bhasha Research Centre, Adivasi Academy, Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Action Group, all for the furtherance of the language cause. His grassroots connection with indigenous people puts him in a league of his own. The academic continues to nourish an extensive Shillim-to-Shillong network of bhasha advocates, who in turn contribute towards Dr Devy’s endeavours.  “Languages are made by people, and they are kept alive, or allowed to die, by people. Governments do not have much of a role to play in the process,” he says.

Highly cognizant of the upcoming years when languages will be impacted by the use of technology, Dr Devy sees it as one of many shifts in the “mediums” used for “representing” languages. “Writing itself is a representation, an image, of a language. Like other radical shifts in the past—the use of paper and printing—the digital conversion of language has made it move faster between one space to another. But it has also made language expressions extremely short-lived,” says the English-Marathi-Gujarati writer, who recognises Artificial Intelligence as a major challenge. 

“AI has posed a great challenge to the neurological dynamics of Natural Languages. Due to the  encounter between AI and NLs, wide-spread dyslexia is likely to be a common epidemic in the near future,” the scholar says, referring to a time when machines will mimic human communication; gadgets will drive the written and spoken word; smartphones will take on daily chores; and “humans may go out of language”.

As AI sets new rules for language comprehension, Dr Devy is concerned about a gamut of issues—the future of 7,000 global languages, the subsequent collapse of the traditional family structure and its impact on demography, not just in India but across the world. Issues such as caste reservation politics in Maharashtra, or the upcoming Lok Sabha Elections—even the demand for classical status for Marathi—do not occupy his mind as much as those to do with the future of languages, which he calls “bigger worries”.

Born in Bhor (Pune) to a Gujarati family, raised in Kolhapur, educated abroad, married to a Kannadiga, having worked in Baroda, and now nestled in Dharwad, Dr Devy belongs to many mother tongues and states. “I love Marathi’s power of expression, but won’t lobby for a classical label. Marathi is a breathing, heaving, living language—the third most-spoken one in India. It is used in new tech domains, it has a presence on social media. It is definitely not dying,” he says. To him, the classical category is best defined by Latin, Greek and Sanskrit in India. “Classical shouldn’t be a fashionable tag, merely because Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada are declared classical, and the status begets certain benefits.” Any language will live, he concludes, as long as people use it for the business of life and living.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text.  You can reach her at

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