Languages festival Samanvay calls for language as a means of public action

By: | Published: November 13, 2016 6:01 AM

The power of language is no longer bound to the realms of regions. As it keeps expanding, its meaning changes for every individual. But what does language really mean?

Can activism be a language? Even if it’s one of impatience? Speakers at the recent ILF Samanvay, a festival of languages held in the national capital, certainly thought so. With the central theme being ‘Language as Public Action’, similar ideas were mooted through the three days of the fest. “We need a new language to speak about issues—the language of swaraj. In India, there is a lot of ignorance about how the word ‘rashtra’ has been used,” said Makarand Paranjape, a professor of English at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Clearly, the idea of language being restricted to script and merely as a tool of verbality is a forgotten concept. Evolving beyond the realms of region, it has acquired new dimensions of being an idea, a movement and a common cry.

Moreover, as the concept of language keeps expanding, the meaning of language changes for every individual. In some cases, the domination of one language has prompted the linguicide of another.

Living in an era where English is the universal language, how can one find a way to communicate to the younger generation the different narratives of nationalism? And if the idea of a nation is in some way valid, how can we speak about it in a pluralistic space like India without falling into the trap of homogenisation? More importantly, how or when can language be used to construct the notion of a nation? As Paranjape added, “If we think about all the languages in India, we must remember that language is an action, not a science. We need to start thinking more about swaraj than nation.”

For some, language is a means to form relationships with other human beings. “Bhaasha manushya ka maap hai (language is a tool to measure someone’s personality),” said Ashok Vajpeyi, managing trustee, Raza Foundation, an arts and culture organisation, at the festival.

Then there are others for whom language means cultural existence. Santhali, for instance, is spoken in numerous states across India and even neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. But despite being spoken by more than six million people, we are hardly aware of its existence. “For Santhals, the survival of their language depends on the survival of their culture. Mere protectionism will not save it,” said Boro Baski, an undergraduate student, who is working towards the improvement of Santhal culture.

While language as public action is the need of the hour, there are a few moments—and wounds—that can’t be put into words. So is there a way one could arrive at a public expression of these? “There are some visuals you can’t translate into words,” said Rahul Pandita, a senior journalist and author of Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Pandita’s stance emanates from his experience as a 14-year-old when his Kashmiri Pandit family was forced to leave the state in 1990.

Sometimes a wound can be so deep that it leaves you scarred forever. Urvashi Butalia, founder and CEO of Zubaan, a New Delhi-based independent publishing house, shared the story of her grandmother, who “went mad” after most members of her family moved to India after Partition. The painful fact is that she wasn’t the only one who descended into a deep abyss of madness during that time. A lot of people were left bereft of a language to express themselves and their sense of loss in.

Coming back to the real meaning of language, some believe it can be found only by speaking more than one language, as its true meaning is hidden underneath the myriad possibilities of multilingualism. As author Alok Rai put it, when language is seen as a vehicle of identity, it marks differences and borders. But when it’s seen as a vehicle of expression, these borders become permeable and porous. “Language is a living being. People like you and me are just pulling it in different directions,” he said.

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