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Posted at: May 6, 2018, 1:35 AM; last updated: May 6, 2018, 2:44 AM (IST)

When a language faces extinction

As the mother tongue of a community fades, it takes away with it an entire culture, a way of living and its people's unique identity. Out of 42 endangered Indian dialects, four are from Himachal Pradesh — Sirmauri, Baghati, Hinduri and Pangwali

Eesha Duggal

In February 2010, Bua Sr of the Andaman Islands took to her grave Bo, an ancient tribal language spoken in the Andaman Islands. She was the last person to speak Bo, which was among the 10 great Andamanese languages thought to be as old as the pre-Neolithic human settlement of South-East Asia.

It is said every 14 days, a language dies. Like Bo, thousands of world languages are hanging by a thread or worst still, have already disappeared into thin air. A loss of a language to a culture is like loss of a mother, that’s why a Census Directorate report and a list prepared by Unesco recently calling 42 Indian languages and dialects endangered is so worrying for the country.

Of these, four dialects — Sirmauri, Baghati, Hinduri and Pangwali — are from Himachal Pradesh. The report has evoked a mix of shock and surprise, but above all, it has alerted the authorities to buckle down.

The crusaders

In Himachal, the dialect changes every few miles. Though the official language is Hindi, there are more than 30 dialects spoken in the state. Among the four dialects in crisis, Sirmauri is spoken in Sirmaur, Pangwali in the Pangi valley of Chamba, Hinduri in Nalagarh and Baghati in Solan. Each one is heading towards the uncertain because of varied reasons.

Vidyanand Sarek is a popular Pahari litterateur and folk artiste from Rajgarh, Sirmaur. Though he agrees that there has been some decrease in the number of Sirmauri speaker, he says the surveys conducted at their own level indicate that Sirmauri is still spoken in the region by a large number of people. “Sirmauri is the first language of not just the people of Sirmaur, but it is also spoken in some parts of Uttarakhand,” adds Sarek.

The 78-year-old expert has dedicated his life to the cause of Sirmauri culture. In January, he received a national award from President Ram Nath Kovind for his contribution to folk culture.

Sarek has been an important figure in the promotion of the dialect for decades. Besides translating over 20 poems of Rabindranath Tagore and Ramayana in Sirmauri, he has written many books and several thousand folk songs. With his undying inclination towards folk culture, he has played a critical role in the preservation of two dance forms — Bharaltu and Singhtu.

Even as his prowess in Sirmauri folk dances, music and literature has earned him a name at the national level, his contribution to the Sirmauri art and culture is what he will be remembered for the generations to come.

Besides Sarek, more than 10 NGOs are working for the preservation of Sirmauri. Prominent among them are the Chudeshwar Loknritya Mandal, Rajgarh, and Sadhna Kala Manch, Sirmaur district.

Commit to paper

Any dialect would die if it is not preserved in the form of a written word. In the study and conservation of Baghati, work of late Dr Ishwari Dutt Sharma will remain an important document. An acharya of grammar at Government Sanskrit College, Solan, Sharma did his PhD in Baghati from Panjab University in 1979. His thesis ‘The lexical study of Baghati’ is not only a rare document, but it is also said to be the first doctorate study in the dialect. He was also the co-author of a Pahari dictionary compiled by the Himachal Government. His son, Vimal Sharma, technical director at National Informatics Centre, Shimla, says his father's rare work in Baghati should be taken care of by the authorities for future references. “One department alone cannot save our dialects. Besides the language and culture department, tourism and education departments must join hands and find ways to promote the state dialects,” says Vimal.

Preserving the mother tongue of the Pangwals is Tubari, a monthly Pangwali magazine being published in the remote and rugged Pangi valley for seven years. It also has an online portal, which publishes works of Pangwali writers and poets while also promoting the folk music of the region.

Why are dialects dying?

One of the many reasons why a dialect dies is simply because people stop speaking it.

KR Bharti, who was the SDM, Pangi, from 1986 to 1989, says, “Pangi is a very small place and sparsely populated. As per the 2011 census, the population was about 17,500, so as such the language is spoken by very few people. Now, even that small population has started moving out. People from Pangi are getting settled in Chamba, Kullu or Jammu for job prospects or other reasons. Their children grow up and adapt the language of those areas.”

English has become the lingua franca in all private schools across the state. “How will our native languages survive when our dining table conversations are in English and not our local dialects?”

Another reason for the dying dialects is immigration from other places, like in the case of the Solan and Nalagarh regions where Baghati and Hinduri are spoken, respectively. Solan is the fastest growing city of HP and is witnessing settlement of people from neighbouring states. Nalagarh, being an industrial area, has also been a magnet for people from all over the country. “The population of these regions has become bilingual. This hotchpotch of languages has led to a tremendous cultural transformation,” says Bharti.

Government efforts

The State Language, Art and Culture Department has taken cognisance of the fact that some Himachali dialects are under threat and need urgent attention.

Rupali Thakur, Director, State Language, Art and Culture Departmen, says the Unesco report is a matter of concern for the state and its culture. She says as a quick response, the department organised a 'Pahari Saptah' from March 19 to 24 this year, the focus of which was the endangered dialects of Himachal. "Participants from all four regions, where these dialects are spoken, presented research papers and discussions were held on the need for having a common script. The suggestions given during the event will be compiled in a report and sent to the Government of India. We need to have a statutory body and a scheme for the prevention of dialects,” she says.

Vinod Bhardwaj, senior editor of Giriraj Weekly, a newspaper of the Himachal Government, says the paper has been publishing works of Pahari writers for many years. Himbharti, another publication, has also been instrumental in promoting Pahari writers.

Anil Harta, language officer at Nahan, Sirmaur, says the State Language and Culture Department has been organising declamation competitions in schools and colleges to encourage students to speak in their first language. “Every year on November 1, we organise Pahari Kavi Sammelan in schools. The state government has recently directed the educational institutes to organise interactive programmes for students where Pahari languages are encouraged. The HP Languages, Art and Culture Academy has been directed a compile a Pahari dictionary and send it to schools and colleges, so that the vocabulary of state dialects can be preserved,” says Harta.

He says many NGOs are also collaborating with government to give an impetus to Himachali dialects. Besides, All India Radio, Shimla, has a dedicated air space for programmes in dialects in question, including Pangwali and Sirmauri.

When a language becomes extinct, it takes with itself an entire culture, its idiosyncratic sense of humour, a way of living, its people's unique identity and an entire knowledge system. Even as the world is witnessing a tragic death of some rare languages, it is also seeing the revival of some. Through the concerted efforts of people and governments, vulnerable languages and dialects can regain their lost glory. A language is a culture's pride and it should be worn like a crown by its people. May no language be abandoned. Let there never be the last speaker.

TANKRI REVIVAL

Tankri script, in which Pahari languages were written, fell into disuse after Independence. Since then, its revival has been a major challenge for the state. Understanding the collective responsibility, Harikrishan Murari, a writer, has taken up the task of resurrecting Tankri. The 65-year-old resident of a Kangra village learnt writing the script in 1986 at a workshop along with a few other young men. He was the only one to pursue his interest with passion and kept finding variations in the alphabets. One of his most illustrious works have been translating centuries-old Tankri land deeds into Devanagari, including those found from Bhootnath and Naina Devi temples of the state. Murari has also made a Tankri primer, which is with the HP Languages, Art and Culture Academy. Though he has been contributing to various magazines and weekly newspapers, at least five to six of his own books haven't been published due to financial reasons. If printed, his work can go a long way in reviving the script.

RESCUE THE MOTHER TONGUE: WHAT CAN BE DONE

  • Encourage use of mother tongue at home
  • Include regional languages and dialects in school curriculum
  • Organise music, dance, literary competitions and youth fests at regular intervals
  • Encourage setting up of more community radio stations as these target a small population and can go a long way in promoting the use of local dialects
  • All India Radio can conduct field visits in far-flung areas of the state and record traditional 'sanskar geet'
  • Short films in regional dialects can play a vital role in drawing the attention of youngsters to their first language
UNESCO ON LANGUAGES

  • A language is considered endangered when it has less than 10,000 speakers
  • It becomes extinct when nobody speaks or remembers it

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