At the recent 7th North East Festival in Delhi, while the aroma of pork curry in bamboo shoot, lai shaak (mustard greens), or black sesame paste, and the dulcet notes of Bipul Chettri’s music, pulled in hordes, a debut feature — Oral Narratives symposium — had a few in attendance. Addressing the linguistic debate of the imposition of Hindi as the national language, and of his work in revitalising Nagaland’s Sumi language, one of the speakers, Hesheto Y Chishi, director of Dimapur-based NGO Indigenous Cultural Society, said, “National language is to be maintained but equal importance should be given to the native language. Most schools (in the North-East) have a Hindi teacher but not a native-language teacher.”
The symposium, with film screenings, was curated by Assamese NGO Folk Culture Research Centre of North-East India — Arhi (“example” in Assamese). Formed in 2008, the community collective was recognised by Unesco in 2017 for its work in reviving, documenting and preserving endangered NE linguistic and artistic traditions.
More than 80 village communities have no provision of formal languages, many don’t have scripts, says Dibya Jyoti Borah of Arhi, which helped popularise Arunachal Pradesh’s new Hewa Tangsha script. He says, “We have done major work with the Tiwa community in Assam and Meghalaya.” Tiwa is “one of the largest tribes in Assam, but only 20-25 per cent can speak Tiwa, since most have forgotten. The salaries of Tiwa language teachers in government schools had been pending for years, so they left the jobs. Mostly people speak Assamese and Nagamese. That Nagamese has taken over most of Nagaland is also Chishi’s gripe. It’s so ingrained across the 16 tribes that “we are finding it difficult to erase or reduce”, says Chishi, the first person to have written the grammar in Sumi. Chishi, who has been working on this since the ’70s, says, “When we say oral tradition, one’s own language is the first expression of cultural identity. We have to codify to preserve, protect and promote our culture.”
“Sumi (with 1,000 folk songs) is from Tibeto-Burman language family, and uses the Roman script. But we have words that are difficult to actualise in the Roman script. For instance, q will always be followed by a or ha — qa or qha — unlike u in Roman, like in queue and queer. Many people stop learning Sumi because of this, they find it difficult to pronounce,” says Chishi, “The grammar is contradictory to English. The object comes before the subject.”
Arhi has been digitally documenting, video-recording to build a small archive. “It is difficult with no government support, no technician or proper method,” says Borah, “Earlier works are lost as archival material needs to be kept in temperature-controlled places.” Chishi adds, “Language digitalisation and policy is important. Sumi is still under dialect, not language category. Language loss is rampant. Parents must promote their native language at home.”