Twist of the Tongue

Using mobile phones and Bluetooth, the Pahadi Korbas of Chhattisgarh record and share songs of their community and rediscover a dying language.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Updated: November 6, 2016 2:17 pm
Voices from within: Members of the Pahadi Korba tribe at a workshop in Gitkalo village in Chhattisgarh. Voices from within: Members of the Pahadi Korba tribe at a workshop in Gitkalo village in Chhattisgarh.

Inside the small hall of a primary school in the Dharamjaigarh block of Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, a small group of women of the Pahadi Korba tribe sits near the window, their faces to the floor, their hands covering their mouths, and their bodies shaking uncontrollably with laughter. The laughter comes from within — a mixture of joy, wonder and embarrassment. The source of mirth is the speakers and laptop they have seen for the first time, through which they are hearing their own voices and the songs sung in their own bhashi (language). The irony is that while they know the language, not one of them actually understands the words. Which is why they now seek to protect their language through recordings, editing and bluetooth radio.

The Pahadi Korba community that lives in hutments on top of hills is one of the seven particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PTG) listed by the central government in Chhattisgarh. These groups are extremely low on developmental indices, with a zero to negative rate of population growth. The state government of Chhattisgarh puts their number in the state at 37,472. The language of the community, once a crucial link that bound them together, is gradually dying, with village elders saying that less than 10 per cent of their population knows how to speak the language and that, of course, doesn’t include the young. The language, for many, exists only through songs. And so, the Pahadi Korbas of Dharamjaigarh decided to get in touch with CGNet Swara, a rural journalism enterprise founded by former journalist and activist Shubhranshu Choudhary, in an effort to change this narrative.

When Jeetan Ram Korba, a local Pahadi Korba, attended a CGNet Swara meeting in Mandla in Madhya Pradesh in late 2015, he saw people recording their grievances on mobile phones. “I recorded a message too, and told them that two women had died because of the lack of a road in our village. The trainer asked me to speak in my own language. And then I realised, this is a way to bring our voices to the mainstream, tell officials of our problems, and save our language, all at the same time,” he says. The language, through the popularity of the songs, might become a part of daily parlance.

For members of the tribe like Phulmet, 18, a Class 10 pass-out, the rediscovery of a language that is both part of the identity as well as alien to them, was confusing. The school in which Phulmet studied taught her Hindi, and that is a sign of upward mobility. “The others in the village don’t even speak Hindi. They speak Chhattisgarhiya. School made me interested in computers and so editing is exciting for me. But the bhashi is inside me,” she says.

The organisation was willing to help, but efforts would have to be made from within the community. Four people, including Phulmet, went to the organisation’s Naya Raipur office to learn how the system worked. Between October 9 and 11, it was the Pahadi Korbas of Raigarh from across 10 villages that sat to listen and learn in Gitkalo village in the Raigarh district and Gopalpur in the Bilaspur tehsil.

In the workshop, Choudhary told the crowd of villagers that the only way their language would survive was for it to be heard around them. “The Pahadi Korba language is actually alien to most parts of Chhattisgarh. It comes from the Munda family of Austroasiatic languages, and is very different to even other tribal languages in the state. So, as people don’t hear it around them, they are leaving it behind. Radio Bultoo is a way of correcting that,” says Choudhary.

Radio Bultoo, a CGNet Swara initiative, emerged earlier this year out of the need to save the dying local dialects. Under Radio Bultoo, villagers use their mobile phones to record songs or voice their problems, and upload them to CGNet Swara either through a phone call or through an app that uploads the file. Rural youth, trained for the purpose, then compress them into 2 MB of data, which is sent back to a nodal person in the community. They, then, disseminate the data through Bluetooth. “Most villagers, now, have mobile phones and the most used facet is bluetooth, because it is entirely free. The idea is to identify one community media entrepreneur or a vendor for each area, who will visit a weekly haat and sell this data at a nominal price. Even if one person in a village gets it, the songs and the issues will reach whoever is listening,” says Choudhary.

Mohan Yadav, an elderly volunteer, says, “These communities are largely devoid of literacy, and often don’t know that others like them exist. So, if a Pahadi Korba radio can be built, there can be interaction of the tribe with each other, across districts and states, and even in urban spaces.” Choudhary adds that eventually, this could conceivably lead to economic gain as well. “If the radio can reach out to people across the internet, they could find a medium to sell what they produce. For instance, since they have little money for fertilisers, all of their farm produce is organic, which is in great demand.

Enthralled with the concept and its impact, the Pahadi Korbas of Raigarh have decided to travel to four districts in Chhattisgarh in December, which have people of their own tribe, after which they intend to organise a mahasammelan. Asked how they would arrange the resources, Moru Hasda, a Pahadi Korba, says, “Every house we go to, we will take some rice and vegetables, from which we will organise the meetings. That is all we need. The song and dance comes from deep within us.”