Times of India, June 14, 2015
If proof of the pudding is in the sampling, so too are pleasures of an oral language manifest in the listening. Keenly aware that an orality possesses more in its audible parts than the sum of its literation in a borrowed script, Sahitya Akademi has set out to document and archive in audio and visual form, samples of oral and tribal literatures of India.This means you can soon animate your reading of Toda folklore in Tamil with audio clips of the real thing.
What started as a 'project' in the mid 90s to preserve oral languages, has gained solidity and singular purpose with the institution of an independent department called the Centre For Oral and Tribal Literature. Formalized in January, the Centre is headed by noted linguist and former JNU academic, Dr Anvita Abbi. She was awarded the Padma Shri for her work on endangered languages in India and the Kenneth Hale Award by the Linguistic Society of America, and is presently president of the Linguistic Society of India.
While she's still outlining her broad agenda, Dr Abbi has decided that she will start at the very beginning - with creation myths. "I've already been sent recordings from Kalahandi, the Nilgiris, and I have my own recordings of the creation myths of the Andaman Islands," says Dr Abbi. "Every tribe has its own myths about the origins of their community and the world. These myths tell you about human migration, evolution, innovation and so on. In Great Andamanese for example, the first human is said to be born of bamboo. And he sculpts woman from the five elements and bakes her at a high temperature," she says, acknowledging that although many oral narratives have already been recorded and transcribed by enthnographers, some stories have slipped between the gaps.
It will be a mammoth task to document the 1000 or so spoken mother tongues in India, but the Centre has already reached out to a national network of linguists, anthropologists and ethnographers for their collaboration. Dr K Sreenivasarao, secretary, Sahitya Akademi, who declined to put a figure to the budget allocated for the purpose, said the Todas of Nilgiris will be the first to be documented, and will later be the subject of a linguistic conference.
Last week, Sahitya Akademi opened a North-East Centre for Oral and Tribal Literature (NECOL) at Manipur University, Imphal. The centre was formerly at Agartala. The centre in Delhi will oversee the documentation and promotion of oral and tribal literature from the rest of the country.