Santals : Language, lyricism, emotions and identity

Kumkum Bhattacharya and Ranjit K.


The Santal tribe is the largest tribe of eastern India and the third largest in the country, and has been officially recognized by the government of India as a ‘Scheduled Tribe’. In the contemporary scenario, it is problematic to include every individual of this community under the label ‘Santal’; there are wide variations in economy, education, occupation, aspirations and in religious affiliation; the number of Christian Santals is noticeable. However, the common force that usually binds this once very homogenous community is their language, which for several reasons is under threat. The shrinkage in numbers of users is clearly observable and is reflected in the life of the community. Santali, the language of the Santal tribe, is a beautiful and rich language. It has attracted the attention of scholars who have worked with the Santals starting with the seminal work of Reverend P.O. Bodding (1935-1940), The Santal Dictionary in five volumes. The language’s flexibility, expressiveness and extensive vocabulary have enriched the community’s long poetic tradition. Its poems use allegory, allusion, euphemism and metaphor, and play joyfully with the tensions inherent in words that have

multiple meanings and usage.1 The language belongs to the Mundari group and has no written record prior to the twentieth century, and may not have had a script before the ‘discovery’ in that century of the Alciki (sometimes transliterated Olciki) script. Some people believe that Alciki - al (ol) means drawing or writing, and ciki means to speak - is the ancient but lost Santali script. However, there is virtually no supporting evidence, and the scant available written records do not reflect the use of this script. Records created painstakingly by Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are usually written in Roman script; some are in the scripts of dominant regional languages like Hindi, Bengali and Oriya, the languages of the three eastern states that the Santals inhabit. Further, the limited version of the original Santali script did not meet the demands of expression and pronunciation.

The quest for establishing Alciki has an interesting history (see Moha-patra 2001, pp. 74-88) that, in many ways, runs in parallel with the ‘off and on’ pattern of demands for the formation Jharkhand state. Initially, it was a response to the need to have a script, followed by an interim period of sporadic inventions and elaborations and, finally, the mobilization of political will (dating, approximately, from 1943 to 2003) for inclusion of the language under the Indian Constitution’s 8th Schedule, which currently lists 22 languages that are accorded recognition as official languages of the nation and implemented by the states to which the communities belong; Santali is among the official languages of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Assam. In its journey, the issues of language and script meandered into channels that, step by step, became torrential in their spread. Especially in the context of Santali, the script and language debates have somehow overpowered the actual use of the language or in increasing the usage base in the community. There seems to be a lesson here for language preservation: more than political will goes into the breathing of life into a language; language survival needs the support of intangible cultural elements for its sustenance and growth; it needs to be appreciated, encouraged and used. Languages that have scripts generally have a higher survival rate, bur not necessarily higher than languages that are widely spoken and used as a means of extending one’s social and cultural persona. Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew are some of the languages with scripts with limited usage. The experience of identification of the self with one’s language becomes complex when people experience the pressures of other, dominant languages, especially when proficiency in particular languages is imposed as the price of admission to a political-social system that promises rewards. ‘Social identity conflicts are less about disagreements over resources and needs and more about our understanding of self and other, group dignity, integrity and purpose, security, agency and efficacy, who is included/excluded, values, beliefs, and what is just’ (Rothman 1997; cited in Acharya and Kshatriya 2016, p. 205; see also Coleman and Lowe 2007).

We can also think of the many debates on the issue of whether school instruction in the mother tongue is absorbed more readily than in any other language.2 The medium of instruction in modern education, day-to-day interaction and transaction with people in governance and administration continues to play a crucial role in the shaping of the contemporary linguistic order, which in most cases can be described as asymmetrical bilingualism or multilingualism.

We know that many will not even dream of challenging the truism that a great and prodigious literature plays the most significant role in the persistent use of a language. (We eschew the use of the word ‘survival’ as this has a much-reduced connotation than ‘continuing’ in many ways comparable to the distinctions between ‘survival’ and ‘living’.5) How far this can be completely and acceptably true is difficult to demonstrate; it is assumed that printing technology and the wonderful institution of the library probably played significant roles in the continuation and spread of languages. But more than the cultivated form of written/printed literature, it is the language users, especially those who use the language with love and ease, helping in facilitating communication, that contribute to the lives of languages. Language use is socially constituted; it is a reflexive, dynamic product of the social, historical and political contexts of an individual’s lived experiences (Hall 2011). Languages may be invoked and used to signal group membership, especially if groups feel that their identities are threatened (Jaspal 2009 cited in Acharya and Kshatriya 2016, p. 205). Thus, we can aver that the spoken form of a language is a real and vibrant force. Scripts textualize language, but they also (re)contextualize it. As Saraswati (1992, p. 213) explains, ‘Textualization of oral culture creates internal crisis, destroys the very texture of the oral culture and takes away all its vision and vigour.’

There is another factor that nurtures language: the social and cultural space within which one can with dignity and appreciation practise one’s language, with or without script. The phrase ‘social and cultural space’ signifies the environment within which the language (and other cultural items or traits) is used and enriched. India is a multi-ethnic country in which the communities can be classified along a dominant-marginalized continuum. Marginalized communities have to contend with their status at various levels, including forms of social-cultural exclusion that reduce the extent of public space available for expressing themselves in their mother tongue. And yet these communities continue and sometimes flourish (albeit, differentially), as do their languages. In the past, cultural seclusion helped in keeping such public spaces open within the communities. Today, however, this strategy seems possible only in rare ecological niches that combine both social-cultural and geographical seclusion; few examples from India are the Jarawa, Sentinelese, Shompen islanders of Andaman and Nicobar.

In India, tribes in general are marginalized. The tribesperson’s lack of public space is experienced as a direct attack on their identity and very being. This can result in radical championing of language as an important means of maintaining one’s cultural space vis-à-vis accepting the imposition of other languages, or perhaps this is seen as a means to counter the widespread sense of apathy of the language users towards the heritage of their own language. The expression of apathy of marginalized communities towards their languages is not generally remarked upon as a factor that erodes the cultural foundation of communities. However, there is certainly no need to guard languages like the proverbial Yaksha guarded the wealth of Kubera - by secreting it into the netherworld. In line with this allegory, we find that script sometimes does bind languages within grammatical parameters (strict and loose) and thereby restricts spontaneity and fluency, due to which some not-so-obedient or colloquial users experience a sense of marginalization that causes loss of face of the speech user and a greater tendency to use other languages to communicate.

Languages with scripts that go far back into time create their own ‘caste-systems’ of hierarchical divisions between the ‘sophisticated’ and ‘laity’, whereas languages without script allow the nurturance of a feeling of egalitarianism that does not require elitist approval. This feeling of homogeneity in the latter case comes from a genuine feeling of equality. However, in a hierarchical society, in terms of both caste and class, variations in dialects reveal caste or class positions of the speakers. This is not so in the case of the Santals, and probably not so for other homogenous tribes in India. To the contrary, the predominantly rural Santals display ‘no appreciable or observable hierarchy in terms of lifestyle, occupation, etc.’ (Bhattacharya and Baski 2002, p. 10).

Oral tradition develops an ear for the spoken word, its cadences and semantics. It provides the experience of deep engagement with the language resulting in attraction and love for it in the user. It also ensures mass participation in the proliferation and sustenance of language; languages with written scripts may inhibit the engagement of those who are unlettered or considered illiterate, and also might cause such people to develop a ‘blind’ faith in those who ‘know’ the script of the concerned language. Orality preserves the pristine elements of intangible heritage, and their transmission from one generation to the next is direct without necessarily having to be strained through the sieve of the cultivated form of the language.

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