How a literarature festival celebrated the lived realities of ‘minor’ languages


“Ours is unlike the Jaipur Literary Festival or the Hyderabad Literary Festival,” said Pramod Boro, chief executive member (CeM) of the BTR in his inaugural address on the occasion of Kokrajhar Literary Festival: Poetry for Peace and Love (November 14-16). Kokrajhar is the headquarters of the BTR, Assam. Yes, there were indeed many “unlikes”. The Kokrajhar Literary Festival hardly made it to the mainstream/mainland news; it was not the famous, glamorous that arrived in Kokrajhar; there were no corporate sponsors to claim it, and there was pork on the menu all three days.

The biggest “unlike” of all was the very idea of the festival — to spread the idea of peace and love through the reading of poetry in a hundred languages and more. Who in India’s history has thought of such an idea? How many of us can even name a hundred languages of India from the many hundreds that are spoken? Forget about JLF and HLF, Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, recognises and works with only 24 languages — mostly languages that have a written tradition. The Central Institute of Indian Languages — though it aids work in many “minor” languages — has not brought all of them together. The state governments or the central government that assert India’s unique diversity of languages have never moved towards institutionalising the many languages we live in. With all the talk about education in the mother tongue, courtesy NEP, have we even imagined these hundred and more mother tongues being taught, nurtured, and carried forward? It is the government of BTR, the region encompassing Bodoland, inhabited by peoples belonging to Bodo, Garo, Rajbanshi, Rabha and many other communities, that brought this idea into fruition — something that is unheard of in the much-acclaimed history of India’s diversity.

Not just diversity. Difference, indifference and inequality were in focus as much as love, freedom, and peace. Each of the poets who represented their tongue — from Ladakhi to Hajong to Kodava to Meena to Santhali to Tamil — recited passionately first in their own tongue and then a translation, either in English or Hindi. As one of the organisers said, “It is okay if you do not read the translation, we want to hear you speak your tongue, [I] am sure all of us will understand even if we don’t”. Such was the fervour. That the reciting was accompanied by live music, improvised for each reciter’s tone and recital, was humbling and heavenly. The creativity and imagination were not limited to the organising of the event, which pulled together professors, government officials of all levels, college students, and commoners alike, alongside the CeM who sat with all of us throughout the festival. This gave all of us an idea of the lives of indigenous communities that still, to an extent, functions through democratic participation unswayed by caste/modern institutional hierarchies.

Of course, there were moments of exoticism: Dances, songs, by groups representing Tea Tribes, Garo, Nepali, Bodo, and Rabha and music too. What was recognised was that each of us carries different histories and living with such variegated histories does not occlude peace.

Lest this is taken as a celebratory notion of diversity that marks our nation, we wish to note that these diverse languages and lives are characterised by communitarian and institutionally-defined power relations. What is currently valued as knowledge only comes in the dominant languages — be it English, Hindi, Tamil, Odiya or Assamese — and this erases and deems worthless the languages and knowledge people hold in Rabha, Yerava and such others. People who speak minor languages are inevitably also people in the lowest rung of our society. Kokrajhar was all about reciting and not about reading poetry/songs. Telling our life-stories and history via poetry and song was not just about the privileged writing. As Talal Asad has argued, this inequality of people and languages that is enmeshed in power and can only be addressed when dominant languages, people, and power transform themselves with the knowledge, practices and potentials of the “weakened”, instead of transforming the “weakened” into a culture of hierarchised homogenisation.

Kokrajhar taught all of us that this transformation is possible. Sitting on the river Gaurang, it showed us that civilising missions of the dominant can be radically reversed into transforming themselves; and languages are the best platform towards such a life. For the beauty and hope it gave us all, cheers to Kokrajhar.

Dechamma CC is professor, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad. Shetty is assistant professor, Sargur Govt. College, University of Mysore. They read Kodava and Tulu poetry at the Kokrajhar Literary Festival

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