How a Literature Festival Celebrated the Lived Realities of “Minor” Languages

“Ours is different from the Jaipur Literary Festival or the Hyderabad Literary Festival,” BTR Managing Member (CeM) Pramod Boro said in his inaugural address at the Kokrajhar Literary Festival: Poetry for Peace and Love (November 14-16). Kokrajhar is the headquarters of BTR, Assam. Yes, there were indeed a lot of “non-likes”. The Kokrajhar Literary Festival barely made the front page of mainstream / mainland newspapers; it was not the famous and glamorous that happened to Kokrajhar; there was no corporate sponsor to claim it, and there was pork on the menu every third day.

The biggest “opposite” of all was the very idea of ​​the festival: spreading the idea of ​​peace and love through the reading of poetry in a hundred languages ​​and more. Who in the history of India thought of such an idea? How many of us can even name a hundred languages ​​of India among the hundreds that are spoken? Forget JLF and HLF, Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters of India, only recognizes and works with 24 languages ​​- mostly languages ​​that have a written tradition. The Central Indian Language Institute – although it facilitates work in many “minor” languages ​​- has not brought them all together. State governments or central government that claim India’s unique diversity of languages ​​have never moved towards institutionalizing the many languages ​​in which we live. With all the talk about mother tongue education, courtesy of the NEP, have we even imagined these hundreds and more being taught, nurtured and carried over? It was 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 to fruition – something unheard of in so acclaimed history. of the diversity of India. .

Not just diversity. Difference, indifference and inequality were the center of attention as much as love, freedom and peace. Each of the poets who represented their language – from Ladakhi to Hajong, including Kodava, Meena, Santhali and Tamil – recited passionately first in their own language, then a translation, either in English or in Hindi. As one of the organizers said: “It’s okay if you don’t read the translation, we want to hear you speak your language, [I] I am sure that we will all understand even if we do not understand it ”. Such was the fervor. That the recitation was accompanied by live music, improvised for the tone and recital of each recital, was humbling and heavenly. Creativity and imagination were not limited to the organization of the event, which brought together professors, government officials from all levels, students and ordinary citizens, alongside the CeM who accompanied us all. throughout the festival. This gave us all a sense of the life of indigenous communities which to some extent still function through democratic participation uninfluenced by modern institutional / caste hierarchies.

Of course, there were moments of exoticism: Dances, songs, by groups representing the Tea Tribes, Garo, Nepalese, Bodo, Rabha and music too. What has been recognized is that each of us has different stories and living with such diverse stories does not prevent peace.

Lest this be seen as a notion of celebrating the diversity that characterizes our nation, we wish to note that these diverse languages ​​and lives are characterized by communal power relations and institutionally defined. What is currently considered knowledge only comes in the dominant languages ​​- be it English, Hindi, Tamil, Odiya or Assamese – and this erases and judges languages ​​and knowledge as worthless. that people hold in Rabha, Yerava and others. People who speak minor languages ​​are inevitably also people from the lowest rungs of our society. Kokrajhar was about reciting and not reading poetry / songs. Telling our lives and our history through poetry and song was not only privileged writing. As Talal Asad argued, this inequality of people and languages ​​that is entangled in power and can only be corrected when dominant languages, people and power are transformed with the knowledge, practices and potentials of “ weakened ”, instead of transforming the“ weakened ”into a culture of hierarchical homogenization.

Kokrajhar has taught us all that this transformation is possible. Sitting on the Gaurang River, he showed us that the civilizing missions of the rulers can be radically reversed by transforming themselves; and languages ​​are the best platform for such a life. For the beauty and hope it has given us, kudos to Kokrajhar.

This column first appeared in the paper edition on December 4, 2021 under the title “Rhyme and rhythm in 100 languages”. Dechamma CC is a professor at the Center for Comparative Literature at the 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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