Champa, a teenager, is happy that her spoken language has now got a script. A Bagatha tribal from the Araku Valley of Visakhapatnam district, she said a paper chart containing the script was presented to her husband, and that she will now spend some time learning it.

19-year project

Champa has Prasanna Sree, senior professor in the Department of English in Andhra University, to thank for designing it. The professor has been working on the project for 19 years.

There are about 35 tribal groups spread over different regions in Andhra Pradesh. Out of them, 16 to 19 groups inhabit the hill regions of the Eastern Ghats.

Professor Sree picked 10 major tribes such as the Bagathas, the Gadhabas, the Jathapus, the Valmikis, the Kolams, the Porjas, the Koyas, the Konda-Doras, the Kotias and the Gonds, and designed distinctive and individual scripts for them.

On the process, she said, “Matru Matra is my style of devising a character for a language. Matru means maternal; Matra means alphabet or a letter. Each script designed by me is separate and with a distinct style.”

A combination

Professor Sree has combined elements and influences of religion, culture and lifestyle of the respective tribes, and oriented them to the sound structures of each spoken language.

“One of the main characteristics of folk speech is that it is more restricted to oral circulation, commonly known as oral literature, which is also called ‘verbal art' or ‘expressive' literature. Considering the sound structure of this oral form, I tried to identify them with easy identifiable symbols from their daily life. I have also used a few designs from Oriya, Telugu, Hindi, Devanagari, Bengali and Tamil scripts, as they do have an influence over the oral language spoken by the tribals,” she said.

At times, she faced hostility, both from members of the primitive tribal groups (PTGs) and Maoists.

“The Porjas are shy and aggressive people. It took many months for me to get acquainted with them. The sound from my tape recorder [when replayed] terrified them. Camera flash upset them,” she said. Professor Sree said her work was only the beginning.

“The major task lies ahead — introducing the script to the natives. Nearly 132 tribal volunteers, supervised by 10 motivators, are now shouldering the responsibility of teaching these alphabets in the primary schools, to women of self-help groups and at adult education centres in 167 villages.”

Global acclaim

Globally, her work has been widely acknowledged and appreciated by Tim Brookes, creator and director of endangered alphabets project, Champlain College, Vermont, and Simon Ager, director of Omniglot, a United Kingdom-based researcher in writing systems and languages of the world.