The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the period between 2022 and 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, to “draw global attention to the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilize stakeholders and resources for their preservation, revitalization, and promotion.” (UNESCO, 2022)
“The Government of India is yet to make any programmatic decisions in this regard. Sadly, this has been the trend since the independence of neglect of Adivasi languages,” says Vahru Sonavne, a Bhil Adivasi activist.
Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), a Bhil Adivasi mass organisation in the Alirajpur district, has been active for four decades in rejuvenating the traditional richness of the culture of the Bhils and has now launched an internet radio and video channel called Bheel Voice in association with the Arizona State University of the United States of America.
The development of a community is not possible without their being able to articulate their problems. This is where the vast majority of Bhils have been hamstrung by the lack of a literate language and a codified culture.
Even though this has had its advantages in terms of keeping the Adivasis free from various social problems, given today's complex systems of commerce, industry and governance this has meant that the Bhils' aspirations have been consistently marginalised for the fulfillment of the desires of the more articulate sections of society.
“Our culture, customs, and worldview are expressed in our language. Our valuable knowledge can be preserved only if our language is preserved. When a language is not preserved then it dies and with it dies the culture and livelihoods associated with it. The human values associated with this culture are also devastated along with the language,” says Sonavne.
“Presently the debate surrounding the idea of development and its implementation is taking place in languages that are alien to the Bhils and so they are not contributing to it. Indeed, the Bhili dialects do not have the wherewithal to address these ideas at all. The KMCS has tried to correct this lacuna and literally give the Bhils a say in the affairs of the region and the nation by facilitating the creation of a rich new written language and literature and promoting its traditional music and dance,” says Rahul Banerjee, a social activist and development researcher working with Bhils.
“The experience of using the traditional myths and tunes in conveying modern developmental and cultural messages has shown that they are extremely effective for this purpose. Apart from this, the history of Bhil Adivasi rebellion against oppression right from the British times too is very inspiring and has been relied upon by the KMCS to enthuse the Bhil youth,” says Banerjee. So far this kind of innovation has been done in a haphazard manner by various social and political developmental organisations in the western Madhya Pradesh region.
“The KMCS motivated many other Adivasi mass organisations of the region to initiate the celebration of the anniversaries of Adivasi martyrs and helped in publishing many works in Hindi on Adivasi history and culture and it has become clear that transcription of the whole of the folklore would also allow a systematic study of it and thus offer many more opportunities for innovation,” says Raytibai, a teacher at the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala.
The folklore is amenable to creative interpretation and copious material in support of the theory and practice of alternative, communitarian and sustainable development can be culled from it. The KMCS also initiated in the 1990s the process of recognition of the great Tantia Bhil, who was martyred by the British, as a freedom fighter which has now gained legitimacy and official recognition.
There is, for example, the creation myth sung in the villages near the River Narmada which detail how God was suddenly beset with the idea to build the universe and he looked towards Relu Kabadi the woodsman to go into the jungle and fetch him wood. Thus starts the whole story of how slowly all the animals and plants are created and finally the rivers Narmada and Tapti.
These rivers finally meet up with the ocean Dudu Hamad in marriage and in the process of their journey all the various villages, hills, and valleys are created. The whole song gives a sense of the vastness of nature and the strength of natural processes and inculcates respect in the listener for these.
“This is in direct contrast to the hubris of modern man who has tried to subordinate nature to his own ends and given rise to the serious environmental problems that face him today. The Adivasis have been sufferers of this process. Thus, popularising their creation myth and emphasising that their worldview is much more “rational” in the present context of serious ecological degradation will considerably increase their self-esteem,” says Banerjee.
Similarly, there is another story in one of the epic songs about a woman who has to answer for having questioned the authority of her husband. She is brought before the panchayat which is the traditional all-male dispute resolution forum. There the panches decree that she be punished for her disobedience and ordered that her tongue be cut off and given to the husband to swallow. The tongue then gets stuck in the throat of the husband where it has remained ever since.
This story has been picked up to depict the extent to which the Bhil society is patriarchally oppressive of women. At the same time, the fact that the tongue has got stuck in the husband’s throat offers the chance to the woman to recover it and so establish her right to speak out for her needs. This is the motif that has been used to organise the Bhil women to fight against diverse patriarchies inside the home and outside.
Literature, especially religious literature of an allegorical character has tremendous power to motivate people to act to change their socioeconomic condition. Unfortunately for Adivasis in the central Indian region in general and the Bhils in particular there has not been any significant effort to transcribe and use their rich oral literature except those of the KMCS.
Now the efforts of the KMCS have got a big boost as Professor Uttaran Dutta of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication of the Arizona State University, USA, has associated with this effort. Professor Dutta has helped in setting up a modern recording studio at the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala, a residential school for Adivasi children run by KMCS in Kakrana village on the banks of the Narmada River in the Alirajpur district, where lectures and musical performances are recorded and then uploaded onto the internet radio and YouTube channels.
The studio has been built in the traditional architectural style of the Bhil Adivasis. Shankar Tadwal, secretary of the KMCS said, “The performances and the production are done by the Bhil Adivasis from across the four western Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh and the studio also serves as a training facility for the young boys and girls of the school who are becoming proficient in media production”.
The YouTube channel has already garnered thousands of views in the month since its inauguration on July 1, 2022, and this will increase over time as the cultural rejuvenation process gains in strength.
In this upload, on Bheel Voice the veteran Bhil Adivasi Activist Vahru Sonavne speaks about the importance of the preservation of indigenous languages.