Championing Gond culture

Kangale says that tribals should be allowed to study in their language.  

Every Dasara, huge Ravana figures are burnt in various parts of the country. The act is perceived as a triumph of good over evil. However, Ravana’s negative portrayal is not unanimously accepted across India. Many communities in central India, in particular the Gond tribe, venerate Ravana as Gade Raja, a figure they have been worshipping since ancient times.

Some Gonds even hold that Ravana’s stature needs to be popularised. In the 1970s, Motiram Kangale, spurred by this sentiment, participated in a movement demanding that the symbolic slaying of Ravana during Dasara be stopped. “Ravana has been worshipped by Gonds since ages. Ravan Dahan [burning] started only in 1833 on Raja Bakshi Maidan in Nagpur,” says Mr. Kangale, 67, a Gondi language scholar based in Nagpur.

The agitators sought legal recourse but nothing substantial came of the campaign. However, it left behind a mark on Mr. Kangale’s life, one that has defined his identity ever since. Once a journalist had asked Mr. Kangale why he still bore the name Motiram, a reference to Lord Ram. “I decided to change my name that very instant,” says Mr. Kangale, who then renamed himself Motiravan.

Students’ movement

Mr. Kangale, born into a family of farmers at Ramtek in Nagpur, had to travel out of his village for basic education. He was active in the students’ movement, and with a keen interest in the cultural history of his tribe, went on to study sociology, economics and linguistics. In 1973, he joined the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation in Mumbai as a labour officer. But he was soon pulled back to Nagpur, which gave him a vantage point to follow his main interest, the philosophical base of tribal culture and values in central India. He joined the Reserve Bank of India and retired in 2009 as Assistant Manager after 30 years of service.

“My work in Nagpur involved long field trips to parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. That really helped my research,” says Mr. Kangale.

He engaged in historical and archaeological study, and was well-appreciated for attempting to decipher the Harappan script in Gondi. Today, much of his time is spent on promoting and campaigning for the revival of Gondi language and Gond culture, of which he claims, little is known by his countrymen. Though a large population of Gonds live in central India, Gondi, the second largest spoken tribal language in the country, with at least 25-30 lakh speakers, lacks a working script.

Also, there is not a single government-appointed Gondi teacher in the country. “The concepts would be clearer in their mother tongue. Not being allowed to learn in their language is a big reason for the backwardness of the tribal people,” says Mr. Kangale.

Overturning these deficits has been Mr. Kangale’s pursuit, as he has compiled around two dozen publications on the socio-cultural and religious values of Gonds. He has helped standardise and preserve Gondi grammar and bring out Gondi dictionaries in Hindi, Marathi and English.

Historical account

His book Gondi Punamdarshan (dharm) provides a rich account of the cultural history of Gondwana, the land of the Gonds. For a community that believes in totems, the terminology (language) used alters emphasis of values, often diluting heritage. “If our gods are referred to as devta, they acquire an Aryan tone. Among Gonds, divinity has an animistic connotation. We refer to it as Pen [power]. If language and culture are lost, Gond values will also disintegrate,” Dr. Kangale says.

Gonds also feel they need to fight historical injustice as Gond areas were reorganised among other linguistic States after Independence — there was even a movement for a State of Gondwana.

The second largest spoken tribal language in the country lacks a working script