Anand Giridharadas

A new generation of villagers is sought to be steeped in their own quickly disappearing traditions

TEJGADH: In an academy deep in the agrarian countryside of western India, five students were writing briskly in ruled notebooks. They were in their early 20s and newly enrolled, but there was no discounting the gravity of their assignment: When they are finished, the world will have five more documented languages.

One word at a time, they are producing dictionaries of languages with which they grew up, but which scarcely exist in the rest of the world. These are oral languages, whose sounds have perhaps never before been reproduced in ink.

“If we make this, those who come after us will profit from it,” said Kantilal Mahala, 21, taking a brief respite from his work on the Kunkna language. “In my village, people who move ahead speak only Gujarati. They feel ashamed of our language.”

It is not only obscure languages that these students are trying to chronicle and preserve, but also cuisines, sartorial habits and other significant elements of rural culture. Like drivers headin g downtown at rush hour, the students see everyone else going the other way.

A swelling class of Indian aspirants from small towns and villages like Tejgadh sees urban life and the English language as pathways to affluence, security and respect.

Had it not been for Ganesh Devy, a former Professor of English literature who founded the academy more than a decade ago, the young people in this rural community might have gone down that path. He created the school, known as the Adivasi Academy, with a burning question on his mind: Why do we wait for cultures to die to memorialise them?

“There is a continent of culture getting submerged, and that’s why I wanted to take the plunge,” Mr. Devy said.

With financing from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic groups, the Adivasi Academy tries to preserve a culture by steeping a new generation of villagers in their own quickly disappearing traditions.

Tejgadh is home to one branch of India’s vast population of adivasis, or “original people.” Sometimes compared to Native Americans and Australia’s Aborigines, the adivasis are highly fragmented, with nearly as many languages and cultures as there are clans. But there are common threads.

The clans traditionally inhabited hilly or forested areas, where they lived nomadically, hunting and foraging. They are known for a respect for nature, for their bonesetters and shamans, for their worship of elephants and trees instead of abstract gods, for a love of art and for a lack of interest in material accumulation.

Tejgadh is home to the Rathwa clan, famed for wall paintings. When a person falls ill, the Rathwas often invite a painter to come along with a shaman. As the painter decorates the walls, the shaman enters a trance and guides his brush strokes.

In recent years some people in Tejgadh have become professional artists, one example of a deeper transformation. Modernity has been creeping in to the villages, and young people have been pouring out. But they are unprepared. — New York Times News Service

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