India; Rescuing Cultures of India, From A to Z

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Nov 11 13:54:15 UTC 2008

 November 11, 2008
Rescuing Cultures of India, From A to Z


TEJGADH, India — In an academy deep in the agrarian countryside of
western India, five students were writing briskly in ruled notebooks.
They were in their early 20s and newly enrolled, but there was no
discounting the gravity of their assignment: When they are finished,
the world will have five more documented languages. One word at a
time, they are producing dictionaries of languages with which they
grew up, but which scarcely exist in the rest of the world. These are
oral languages, whose sounds have perhaps never before been reproduced
in ink.

"If we make this, those who come after us will profit from it," said
Kantilal Mahala, 21, taking a brief respite from his work on the
Kunkna language. "In my village, people who move ahead speak only
Gujarati. They feel ashamed of our language." vIt is not only obscure
languages that these students are trying to chronicle and preserve,
but also cuisines, sartorial habits and other significant elements of
rural culture. Like drivers heading downtown at rush hour, the
students see everyone else going the other way. A swelling class of
Indian aspirants from small towns and villages like Tejgadh sees urban
life and the English language as pathways to affluence, security and

Had it not been for Ganesh Devy, a former professor of English
literature who founded the academy more than a decade ago, the young
people in this rural community might have gone down that path. He
created the school, known as the Adivasi Academy, with a burning
question on his mind: Why do we wait for cultures to die to
memorialize them?

"There is a continent of culture getting submerged, and that's why I
wanted to take the plunge," Mr. Devy said. With financing from the
Ford Foundation and other philanthropic groups, the Adivasi Academy
tries to preserve a culture by steeping a new generation of villagers
in their own quickly disappearing traditions. Tejgadh is home to one
branch of India's vast population of adivasis, or "original people."
Sometimes compared to Native Americans and Australia's Aborigines, the
adivasis are highly fragmented, with nearly as many languages and
cultures as there are clans. But there are common threads.

The clans traditionally inhabited hilly or forested areas, where they
lived nomadically, hunting and foraging. They are known for a respect
for nature, for their bonesetters and shamans, for their worship of
elephants and trees instead of abstract gods, for a love of art and
for a lack of interest in material accumulation.

Tejgadh is home to the Rathwa clan, famed for wall paintings. When a
person falls ill, the Rathwas often invite a painter to come along
with a shaman. As the painter decorates the walls, the shaman enters a
trance and guides his brush strokes.

In recent years some people in Tejgadh have become professional
artists, one example of a deeper transformation. Modernity has been
creeping in to the villages, and young people have been pouring out.
But they are unprepared. They grew up speaking a language no one
recognizes beyond their village, and they are inexpert in Gujarati,
Hindi and English, the languages of urban employment. In the cities,
they find it difficult to escape the most menial jobs.

Mr. Devy wanted to combat this gravitational force. Could adivasis be
persuaded to study their culture rather than shed it, and to stay in
the villages rather than flee?

In the academy's museum, adivasi culture is depicted as if it no
longer existed. The exhibits feature kitchen implements, jars of
adivasi foods, hand-tossed pottery, jugs for homemade liquor. If the
idea were to explain adivasis to outsiders, the museum might be in New
Delhi. But the goal, instead, is to impress upon adivasis that their
culture is worthy of preservation.

"If a community has a strong sense of identity and a sense of pride in
that identity, it wants to survive and thrive," Mr. Devy said. "The
new economy is important. The old culture is equally important."

The students making dictionaries were working in the academy's
principal course, called tribal studies. Students are generally taught
in both Gujarati and Hindi, given the absence of books in their own

Vikesh Rathwa, 27, graduated two years ago and, like most of the
academy's alumni, he chose to stay in the villages and work for
Bhasha, the academy's parent organization.

"Before, I thought I would get a B.A. and M.A. and make a film," he said.

Immersion in his heritage changed his mind.

"Coming here made me see my household life in a new way," he said.
Now, he is writing a book on adivasi art and science. "We need to walk
in step with our traditions," he said, quickly adding, "and with
technology, too."

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