The papers in this volume are selected from the Chotro I Conference held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, held in January 2008 in joint collaboration with the European Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies and Bhasha Research and Publication Centre.
They analyze specific histories of conflict and annihilation; the loss of language and neglect of intellectual traditions; the exclusion from knowledge transactions that the indigenous have to face; the question of representation as “savages” from an external perspective; their deprivation of natural resources; denial of access to education and other measures of social justice; their excitement with life and the expression of their joy and their creativity. The historical accounts of various indigenous communities, their languages and cultures point to the fact that in the history of colonialism the indigenous communities desisted from becoming “compradors” at the risk of becoming the perennially marginalized. On the other hand, the marginalization of the indigenous needs be seen as the beginning, if not the source, of colonialism. A majority of the papers indicate that the study of indigenous languages, literature, culture and society may prove rewarding for post-colonial studies, and re-define anthropology. Similarly, they establish that the borders of the term “literature” need to be extended to include the creative expression in oral traditions; the idea of literature needs to reconsider its firm association with the notions of script and writing and return to the more primary notion of linguistic creativity, whether in speech or script.
G.N. Devy is Director and Founder of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Baroda and Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh.
Goffrey V. Davis is Chair, Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), Aachen Germany.
K.K. Chakravarty is Chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), and Director, Institute of Heritage Management and Research, Delhi.
Recognized as ''Aborigines'' in Australia, as Maori in New Zealand, as "First Nations" in Canada, as "Indigenous" in the United States, as "Janajatis" in India, or as "Tribes" in anthropology, as "Notified Communities" in the administrative parlance of many countries, as "Indigenous People" in the discourse of Human Rights, and as ''Adivasis'' in the terminology of Asian activists, these variously described communities are far too numerous and dispersed in geo- graphical locations to admit of any single inclusive description. It would be simplistic to perceive them as divergent victim groups of any shared epochal phenomenon such as colonialism, imperialism, modernity or globalization. In their ethnic, cultural and linguistic attributes, they are so varied that it is almost impossible to speak of them as a common constituency. No single term can describe them with any degree of semantic assuredness, nor can any universal definition of an invented descriptive term stretch without fatigue beyond the margins of a single nation or continent. The term "indigenous", for instance, as employed by the ILO and UNESCO, seeks to represent over a thousand different communities spread over all continents. Obviously, it would be preposterous to lump all of them together. Even if one were to accept this or any similar term for the purpose, its normative frame may run up against numerous contradictions with the strikingly divergent history of every community. Though terms like "colonized" or "colonizers" have learnt to perform at least a degree of communicational theatre, a scrutiny of the entire range of signification that the term "indigenous" is expected to cover brings home that most discursive concepts are perennially contestable.
Chotro, the first global conference organized for literary scholars and social scientists engaged in a variety of "indigenous" communities in their own continents and fields of study, was set up with a very clear understanding that it had no business to start looking for any preconceived set of cultural or historic convergences. What was expected to be shared was not a set of conclusions and concerns, but just a space for articulation and expression. The conference was conceptualized as a place where an inquisitive and serious audience would listen, internalize, learn, imagine and empathize, rather than as a forum where one was expected to speak, argue, present and score points. In other words, Chotro was not designed for expanding the frontiers of any specific field of knowledge, it was organized as an exercise in reducing our collective ignorance about the communities generally described as "indigenous". Moreover, even if convened tor listening to, or listening about, the indigenous peoples from various continents, Chotro was not intended to be "a celebration of diversity", as the cliche goes. In the context of the communities and cultures that were the focus, the expression "celebration" would amount to a travesty of the existential disasters that these communities have been facing everywhere. However, Chotro was not organized as a mourning marathon either. It was not meant for foregrounding the activists fighting for the rights of the indigenous. While discussions in Chotro displayed a profound recognition of the importance of activism, it was by no means planned as an ideological intervention. Chotro was not organized by any local or global professional or occupational organization, nor was it aimed at creating any such organization.
Considering these definitional difficulties, it was felt that it would be best to avoid calling the unique convergence of scholars, writers and members of the communities, a "conference". When Geoffrey Davis and I met in Baroda in 2006 to discuss the possibility of convening such a conference, it became evident to both of us that the term "conference" would be quite inappropriate to bring home the spirit of what we were to embark upon. Therefore, we chose the term "Chotro" while announcing the event. In many varieties of the Bhili language group, Chotro implies "a place where villagers gather", "a public plat- form", "a centre for dispute resolution" and "a place for announcing news".
In 1996, I started work with migratory labourers moving to metropolitan centres in search of wages. They would work without any holidays throughout the month, except the new moon day. My colleagues started bringing them together on that day every month. We asked them how they would like the meeting to be named and they promptly answered, "Chotro". In these meetings many stories surfaced. These were narratives drawn from cultural memory and allegories based on contemporary social reality and conflict. There was quite a polyphony of literary tones, some in music and song, some in prose and even just gossip. "Chotro' gradually came to mean a literary form for those tribals, a form such as their tradition did not know but one that their lives in the context of modernity had created. Therefore, when we were looking for a suitable title for an international conference on the literature of Indian tribal people or the Janajatis, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, Canadian First Nations and American indigenous people, we were thinking not of a discipline but of a rich polyphony. Hence, "Chotro".
Chotro was hosted jointly by the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (BRPC), the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the Indian and European Associations for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ICLALS/EACLALS). The two associations devoted to the study of Commonwealth literature and language have been active in their field for over three decades. They have attracted scholarship from all over the world and have both caused and witnessed a total transformation of English stud- ies globally. The community of scholars belonging to the two associations has created post-colonial literary studies as a multilateral and multi-disciplinary field of critical enquiry. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has distinguished itself in several disciplines and performing arts by its focus on aesthetics and cultural traditions in Asia. It has come to be seen as the most important institution for cultural studies in India. Since its inception, the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre has devoted itself to combining academia and activism, nomadic people's rights and tribal development, the conservation of marginalized languages and the dissemination of creative literature in them. The three organizations brought their energies and, more importantly, their political imagination together to create Chotro I at Delhi in January 2008.
The response to the call for papers for Chotro was quite overwhelming. We received papers from Canada, the US, Europe, Africa, Australia, Russia, China, South-East Asia, and many parts of India. In all humility, we are tempted to describe this as not an international conference but a global conference on the literature of Indian tribal communities and indigenous people in other post- colonial countries. There were papers dealing with more than fifty languages presented at Chotro, which in itself can be considered as its distinguishing feature. The conference cannot be easily described in terms of any single academic discipline. It dealt with literature, linguistics, language policy, history, sociology, media, film studies, theatre, music and visual culture. It is not just that the scope of the conference was vast but, as a matter of historical detail, Chotro was the first attempt devoted to thinking internationally about tribal culture, history, language and literature. We were therefore particularly fortunate in having indigenous people from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US as well as Adivasis from India with us. The range of presentations made during Chotro in Delhi and the wealth of detail and perspective brought together by them were so striking that it was impossible for Dr K. K. Chakravarty of IGNCA, Prof Geoffrey V Davis of EACLALS (now Chair of ACLALS) and myself to resist the temptation of bringing out the proceedings. Had we decided to include every presentation made during Chotro, all the interviews and dialogues recorded as part of the documentation for the IGNCA archives, and readings by poets, it would easily fill four or five volumes. Following the event, we decided to select some of the presentations so as to compress the material into two volumes. We are happy that Prof Shirley Chew, editor of Moving Worlds in the UK, will be contributing to the dissemination of material from Chotro by publishing some of the papers together with creative writing and visual material in a special issue of her journal.
The papers brought together in these volumes make it evident that there are major areas as yet waiting for scholarly exploration. They include the study of numerous marginalized languages, their literary traditions, the aesthetic frame- work of those traditions, the origins of the communities, their mythologies and histories, their visual representations, artistic practices and art criticism, and the politics and the ideologies of these communities. The papers included in the volumes have taken up for discussion specific histories of conflict and annihilation; the loss of language and neglect of intellectual traditions; the exclusion from knowledge transactions that the indigenous have to face; the question of representation as "savages" from an external perspective; their deprivation of natural resources; denial of access to education and other measures of social justice; their excitement with life and the expression of their joy; and the creativity of the indigenous communities. The historical accounts of various indigenous communities, their languages and cultures point to the fact that in the history of colonialism the indigenous communities desisted from becoming "compradors" at the risk of becoming the perennially marginalized. On the other hand, the marginalization of the indigenous needs be seen as the beginning, if not the source, of colonialism. A majority of the papers brought together here clearly indicate that the study of indigenous languages, literature, culture and society may provide a rewarding future possibility for the post-colonial studies, and make this inter-disciplinary venture the nemesis of anthropology. Similarly, these papers clearly indicate that the borders of the term "literature" need to be extended in order to accommodate within them the creative expression in oral traditions, and that the idea of literature needs to reconsider its firm association with the notions of script and writing and return to the more primary notion of linguistic creativity, whether in speech or in script.
As Chotro I was organized in India, it was expected that there would be a relatively stronger representation of Indian janajatis. In the published volumes, the editors have attempted to maintain a reasonable balance of representation from all continents. The story of the Indian janajatis, or "tribes" that the Indian presentations in Chotro unfolded and that the papers included ill these volumes highlight may be stated as follows.
If the visibility of tribal languages has remained somewhat poor, those languages need not be blamed for the want of creativity. The responsibility rests with the received idea that literature in order to be literature has to be written and printed as well. Tribal literary traditions have been oral in nature. After print technology started impacting Indian languages during the nineteenth century, the fate of the oral became precarious. A gross cultural neglect had to be faced by the languages which remained outside print technology.
The reorganization of Indian states after Independence was along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts were counted. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own states. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had a great stock of wisdom carried forward orally, were not fortunate enough to get educational institutions for themselves. It is in this context of gross neglect that one has to understand the creativity in India's tribal languages.
The history of tribals during the last sixty years is filled with stories of forced displacement, land alienation, increasing marginalization, the eruption of violence and counter-violence by the state. Going by any parameters of development, the tribals always figure at the tail end. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic has been even worse. Considering the immense odds against which tribals have been fighting, it is nothing short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the astonishing linguistic diversity of India.
The number of languages in which Indian tribal communities have been expressing themselves is amazingly large. Though there are the usual problems associated with determining the mother tongue in a multilingual society, the successive Census figures indicate that there exist nearly ninety languages with speech communities of ten thousand or more. When one speaks of Indian tribal literature, one is necessarily speaking of all these.
In recent years, tribals have taken to writing. Many tribal languages now have their own scripts or have taken recourse to the state scripts. Some four decades ago, when Dalit literature started drawing the nation's attention towards it, it was usual to think of even the tribal writers among them as part of the Dalit movement. In Marathi, for instance, Atmaram Rathod, Laxman Mane, Laxman Gaikwad, all from nomadic tribal communities, were hailed as Dalit writers. At that time, the north-east was no more than a rumour for the rest of India. One was perhaps aware of the monumental collections presented by Verrier Elwin, but there was no inkling of tribal creativity. It is only during the last twenty years that various tribal voices and works have started making their presence felt. Thus, Kochereti from Kerala and Alma Kabutri from the north surprised readers at almost the same time as L. Khiangte's anthology of Mizo Literature, Desmond Lharmaplang's anthology of Khasi Literature, and Govind Chatak's anthology of Garhwali literature appeared in English and Hindi translation, respectively. This made possible the publication of Painted Words (Penguin India, 2002), an anthology of tribal literature in English translation.
The last two decades have demonstrated that tribal literature is no longer merely folk songs and folk tales. It now encompasses other complex genres such as the novel and drama. Daxin BaJarange's Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad has been producing stunningly refreshing plays, modern in form and contemporary in content. Little magazines such as Chattisgathi Lokakshar and DIIOI have started appearing which provide space for tribal poets and writers. Ramnika Gupta's Aam Admi (The Commoner) has made a significant contribution to this movement. Literary conferences providing a platform for tribal writers are frequently held at Ranchi in Jharkhand and Dandi in Gujarat.
There is now a greater understanding among tribal activists all over the country that tribal identity and culture cannot be preserved unless the tribal languages and literature are foregrounded. Over the last four decades, a mainstream writer like Mahasveta Devi has been writing on behalf of the tribals.
Every continent has its own story, or stories, of the colonial experience, the marginalization of the indigenous, their struggles and the emergence of their voice in the respective national literature. These two volumes drawn together from the rich range of presentations made in Chotro I in Delhi in January 2008 may bring to the readers an idea of the colourful tapestry of perspectives and the empowering polyphony of voices that made Chotro an unusually rewarding experience in learning and humility.
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