Tribal literature: A treasure trove

-Sahitya Akademi preserves unheard voices

Languages are not only our first medium for communication, education and social integration, but are also at the heart of each person’s unique identity, cultural history and memory. We, Indians are proud to be known for our diversity and multiplicity of languages. Some of our languages are fortunate enough to be enshrined in written forms. However, a large number of them are preserved and sustained in oral forms. To preserve this literature, Sahitya Akademi has taken effective initiative for documenting the works in tribal languages and literature across the country. Here, Dr K Sreenivasarao, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi shares inside information about Indigenous Voices in conversation with Smita Dwivedi.


As of today there are more than 1600 languages belonging to seven different language families spoken in the country. This multilingual mosaic has provided our country a philosophy of tolerance and love for others. And in India, there is abundant presence of tribal oral literature in all the States, especially Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Karnataka. The Sahitya Akademi created awareness about the same by organising seminars and workshops in different parts and this led to the collection of a huge amount of oral literature. The literature collected, so far, has already been brought into many published books.

Unheard Voices

On asking about the importance of oral literature, Dr K Sreenivasarao, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, shared, “Our oral tradition is as old as 3500 years, and has been maintained till now. There are more unwritten languages in the country than the written ones. These languages are spoken by tribals as well as non-tribals. Some of them are spoken by migrated and marginalized societies. Some others are spoken in inaccessible islands, forests, hills and mountains. Tribal literature is increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for human development.”

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to raise global attention on the critical risks confronting indigenous languages and its significance for sustainable development, reconciliation, good governance and peace building. And Akademi has been taking serious efforts for long now. The Sahitya Akademi supports work in English, Hindi, and Urdu along with languages, which are present in the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution. These are Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil and Telugu.

Survival theory

Discussing about the Indian scenario, he further added, “Until the practice of printing and publishing literary works became well established during the nineteenth century, literature in India existed mostly in oral traditions. Even when the literary works were written and handed down the generations in manuscript form, the general dissemination of literary work depended on its oral circulation. This oral casing included works from scriptures to folksongs and drama. Even after the medium of printing became well established in India, some of the oral traditions have survived. They include epics, plays, songs, stories, narratives, proverbs, and aphorisms.”

“If they have survived the test of time, we should take serious measures to preserve them, be it in any script or any language. That is the reason we are promoting regional tribal languages, so that it is preserved for future generation and not get lost. In North Eastern states of India, every two kilometers, language gets changed, and so do dress code and food. Such diversity is nowhere in the world. So we have to promote and preserve this identity.”

Unified diversity

While sharing details about richness of tribal literature, he also shared a few interesting examples, “Bodo is also tribal but now it is under 8th schedule. And within one language, we have so many sub languages; so these tribal languages have rich literature, wonderful songs and poems. We have sourced many old recordings from All India Radio, and now we are documenting it. Bodo is a language having several dialects, and is spoken in the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya and in Bangladesh. It is related to Dimasa, Tripura, and Lalunga languages, and it is written in Latin, Devanagari, and Bengali scripts.”

“Toda is a Dravidian language noted for its many fricatives and trills. It is spoken by the Toda people, who live in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India and they are only 1500 in number. Still, they have a huge literature and we are producing noteworthy works of literature. The Toda language originated from Tamil-Kannada,” he added.

“We held a poets’ conference for the tribal community of Bongchar in the northeastern state of Tripura five years ago, and we were surprised to find that around 800 members of the group were poets. This year, Bongchari poet Zohming Thanga, along with 40 other tribal writers from different parts of the country, participated in seminars and reading sessions at the Akademi’s annual Festival of Letters. Many of them were participating for the first time. Intellectuals from communities like Baiga (Madhya Pradesh), Bathudi (Odisha), Bhotia (Ladakh), Dhodia (Gujarat), Maram, Mao (Manipur), Nyishi (Arunachal Pradesh), Rathavi (Gujarat), Tadavi (from the Bhil ethnic group) and Toto (West Bengal) have not been represented in the previous iterations of the festival,” he added further.

Being extempore, it is rarely scripted, even if they write, it is in nearest language script. For Tripura it is Bengali script, Toda community writes in Tamil, where as Konkani language has five scripts.People who stay near Cochin write in Malayalam script, while those staying in Konkon are using Kannada script and many people within Goa even write in Catholic script.

Promotion and preservation

Most of oral literature faces the threat of being lost to oblivion because it neither enjoys institutionalized support nor it is preserved by inter-generational transfer anymore. Considering the vast amount of oral literature available in the languages of the seven language families of India, it is desirable to document, analyze, digitize and archive the enormous wealth of the country. “We have a newly opened centre, which is destined to preserve our heritage in a systematic and scientific way so that Indian masses comprehend the world-view of our ancient societies and keep abreast with our traditional knowledge. The Akademi, also proposes to archive the original oral texts available in these languages in audio and audio-video formats accompanied by translation in Scheduled languages and English in written forms for wider distribution. Such an attempt will add extremely valuable materials to our literary histories and substance to our literary criticism,” he elaborated.

“Sahitya Akademi has also been giving annual awards to books of outstanding merit and annual prizes for outstanding translations in the 24 languages recognised by it. However, the Akademi felt that in a multilingual country like India that has hundreds of languages and dialects, Akademi’s activities should be extended beyond the recognised ones by acknowledging and promoting literary creativity as well as academic research in non-recognised languages. The Akademi, therefore, instituted Bhasha Samman in 1996 to be given to writers, scholars, editors, collectors, performers or translators who have made considerable contribution to the propagation, modernization or enrichment of the languages concerned. The Sammans are given to 3-4 persons every year in different languages on the basis of recommendation of experts’ committees constituted for the purpose,” concluded Dr. Rao.

SA organizes All

More recently, Sahitya Akademi organized an All India Indigenous Writers’ Festival on the occasion of International Year of Indigenous Languages at Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Dr. Sitakant Mahapatra, eminent Odia poet and scholar, was the Chief Guest, and eminent poet and folklorist, Sri Haldhar Nag was the Guest of Honour. Keynote address was presented by Dr. Udaya Narayana Singh, eminent scholar and linguist, and Presidential Address was delivered by Sri Madan Mohan Soren, Convener, Santali Advisory Board, Sahitya Akademi. It was well attended by poets and writers from the lengths and breadths of the country.

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