How modernisation deleted endangered tribe’s dialect
By Shahroz Afridi & Prabhatesh Tripathi
Chhindwara: On a sweltering summer evening, Inder Chalthiya and the other members of his tribe were out in the wild, preparing for a ritual of sacrificing an animal to the village gods. Inder was responsible for handling the final moments of the goat. He was supposed to follow the instructions given by a tribe elder but could not understand properly what the elder said in the local tongue and the animal lying on its back moved. Immediately, a senior tribesman jumped in and finished the job.
Inder is a college student and a member of Bharia tribe, a Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). He was home to take part in the rituals of a wedding in his family but he faltered at the last moment as he couldn’t understand the Bhariati dialect, which is used by members of his tribe.
The local priest Kishanlal Chalthia said, “For us tribal people, everything takes place under the instruction of Van Devi [Forest Goddess] and our Devs [Gods]. The method used by us to sacrifice the animal shows how close to animals we actually are. This is one of the rare occasions where this Bhariati dialect is used these days.”
On the decline
The members of the group are confined to the Patalkot region in the Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh. They inhabit 12 villages spread across the foothills of the Satpura mountain range in Tamia block of the district. The tribe elders claim they had settled here centuries ago from Maharashtra following an exodus after their king had to flee.
Historically a gatherer and farmer tribe, the heavily built Bharias were once king’s porter, and hence the name Bharia, which is similar to the Hindi word ‘bhaar’ meaning load.
Inder belongs to the modern generation of the Bharia tribe who have never spoken the native Bhariati dialect, even at home as the conversations have shifted to Hindi.
While there are 3,300 Bharias, only about 20-30 can speak and understand the dialect without a script.
As per the People’s Linguistic Survey of India 2013, as many as 780 different languages are spoken and 86 different scripts are used in the country. Only 22 languages are recognised by the government as scheduled languages. Also, India has lost around 250 languages in the last 50 years, and 196 more have been declared endangered by UNESCO.
Ever-increasing penetration in a connected world dominated by a globalised and homogenised community, the languages spoken in remote places like Patalkot are no longer safe from the dominating languages of the commercial world.
The competition of Hindi and English in the form of modern education against Bhariati has reached almost every household where not even Hindi but English is winning the fight. The evidence is quite visible in almost every house of the Gaildubba village.
The wall around the main entrance of every other house displays “Welcome” and “Come Again” carved with clay and names of the family head head written in English. One can see a groom dressed in a western suit as the wedding rituals continue amid thumping remixes of modern Bollywood songs.
Ashok Mishra, the curator of Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum, said the Bharias encourage the young generation to move to cities for better education and in turn distance themselves from the dialect of their ancestors. In the race to modernisation, Hindi and English guarantee better education and success.
The loss of indigenous language has resulted in the loss of culture, which as a result, has drastically changed the lives of these tribesmen to whom the culture belonged, he said.
Bhaglu Chalthia, an elderly villager, said while the residents of the modern world are wearing jeans and shoes, driving cars and taking the help of latest gadgets, they expect tribal groups to stay the same.
He lamented the introduction of strategic teaching methods, books and other study materials in Hindi. He said the society can blame them for forgetting their local dialect or expect them to wear traditional costumes, play Timki (local percussion instrument), and practise tribal dance as the modern society was made irresistible by people.
“Our dialect represents our culture. It is how our ancestors told us about nature, plants, animals and mountains. However, sadly we failed to do so with our future generations,” he added.
Village priest Kishanlal said the knowledge of their ancestors was through the dialect, which comprised who they are, the world before and where they are from. “As our dialect wanes, so does our link with the past. The loss of language undermines our identity, and belonging which ultimately uproots the existence of Bharia’s,” he contended.
Historically, races and languages died when the entire race was eliminated, but in a case where culture and language wane due to the cultural subsumption, the loss is far more tragic.
An elderly villager, Kanerilal, who only goes by his first name, said the routine life is governed by the norms laid down in the community and only rare interference of police or court is seen. Village elders solve disputes by citing old stories and organising long meetings, he noted.
These stories have, however, waned over the years as the new generation has been seduced away by Hindi in education and English on mobile phones and TV, he added.
The elders who are fluent in Bhariati live far apart and don’t converse with each other, which automatically causes a degradation of the language in the speaker’s mind, experts pointed out. They said the dialect was passed on from generations after generations orally, much like the Hindu traditions.
While the dialect is nearing extinction, no significant steps are being taken to save the age-old dialect and only being limited to a matter of discussion among the elderly people in the village. The government of Madhya Pradesh had set up a special government body, Bharia Abhikaran, apart from the tribal welfare department to work for the development and preservation of the Bharia culture.
The Abhikaran is without a department head for several years now. In Tamia, where it is located, one can only find a clerk handling the office affairs. Seeking anonymity, he said the district collector handles the affairs now. He added that the annual budgetary demands that they had put in were not sanctioned by the government since 2018.
Curator Mishra said the members of Bharia tribe were forced to move for livelihood for which they migrated, unlike the Bhil tribe which is still self-dependent. They migrate to other regions leaving traditional livelihood with which the language disappeared, but it took decades, he added.
It is not only Bhariati dialect that is on the verge of extinction. Kol, Korku, Baiga and Saharia tribes are losing their respective dialects do due to the market-based livelihood. To save them, Mishra added, livelihood support needs to be created for the native speakers so that they don’t have to adopt a different language.
Basant Nirgune, a recipient of Bhasha Samman, said Bhariati as a language is almost extinct. Efforts are needed to document and archive the diversity of disappearing languages or whatever is left of them by recording them, he stated.
“There is a chance that these languages could be saved. However, it would be like saving the language in a museum without its native speaker,” he added.