Watching a play in a language you don’t entirely grasp can be disorienting but at the end of Song Of The Ghetto, a play in Kannada that I watched last weekend, I found myself reflecting on the power of telling a story in one’s own language. The performance told of the lives of the Dalit residents of Dindagur, about 150km from Bengaluru, who had to file a petition in 2021 to claim their right to use public spaces in the village.
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What made the storytelling so evocative was the authenticity of the men, women and children on stage—they weren’t just actors, they were the people who had lived the stories they were telling, and were narrating their experiences in their own words and language. It was a powerful statement not just about inequality but also about language, that it is not just a collection of words with which to communicate but also a powerful tool, even an archive, of memory.
Nearly 200 languages in India are endangered—children no longer speak them or even the elders remember only scattered words and phrases. With the loss of a language, everything from a particular way of life to traditional wisdom disappears, as our cover story observes this week. Most people remember the death of Andaman’s Bo language with the passing of its last speaker, Boa Sr, over a decade ago. Lesser known is the danger to the many languages of the North-East and central India that are rapidly losing out to migration, government policy, homogenisation, and domination by the dialects of trade and livelihood.
Our writer met the last speakers of some of these languages, who, together with dedicated researchers, are trying to preserve their words, songs, stories and myths, in an effort not just to hold on to their culture but also ensure their existence isn’t erased. Or as African-American novelist Toni Morrison said in her Nobel Prize lecture in 1993: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Essentially, until we talk about it, until we say it, in words of our own choosing, does an experience become real? It’s one among the countless reasons to safeguard the diversity and languages of the many dialects in India.
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Also read: Meet the people who are giving lost languages a voice