Sunday, September 1, 2013

The academic, economic and emotional politics of Konkani

The Editor,
Navhind Times.
We write this letter to indicate that we found the article “Konkani Bhasha: Its Academic, Economic and Emotional Viability”, that appeared in your newspaper on 17 Aug 2013, lacking in terms of conveying the real story regarding the health of the Konkani language.

This article which ostensibly discusses the future development and status of Konkani, including the forces that work for the strengthening of the language, has nowhere, not even once, made a mention of the Roman script, nor of the cultural and literary productions in that script, nor of the institutions engaged in giving the script and its productions new life. Allow us, therefore, to present an alternative narrative about the academic, economic and emotional politics of the Konkani language.

The article commences with a paean to Shenoi Goembab (Varde Valaulikar), in an attempt to situate him as the origin of the literary development of the Konkani language. While there can be no doubt regarding Varde Valaulikar’s contributions to Konkani literature, it should not be forgotten that he was but one of the many supporters of the language and cultural production in it. Notably, while the article makes a case that it is just a small segment of the Konkani-speaking population that is attempting to safeguard the language, reality is entirely to the contrary. The Konkani language acquired its first mass base largely through, but not restricted to, the literary efforts of working class Goan Catholic migrants in Bombay, and the simultaneous articulations of the language on the stage through the associated arts of Tiatr and Cantaram. Tragically however, this literary tradition has been stifled by the policies followed by the official Konkani language establishment since the adoption of the Official Language Act of the State. Nevertheless, Konkani continues to thrive via Tiatr and Cantaram, not merely in the State, but in various parts of the country, most notably Bombay, as well as globally, once again in places where Goan Catholics have migrated in search of employment. Tiatr shows, festivals and competitions receive widespread public patronage and run houseful on a regular basis, in towns as well as villages of Goa. So popular are these performances that it has also led to a thriving business in the sale of CDs and DVDs of these shows. While on the topic of the cultural productions of the Roman script, allow us to highlight the contribution of Romans (Konkani language novels in the Roman script) writers to Konkani literature, amongst whom Reginald Fernandes was the most towering figure, and is believed to have written over 200 books.

Also worth mentioning is the role played by the Konkani language establishment, especially the Goa Konkani Akademi (GKA), in stifling the Konkani language as embodied in the Roman script, and the dialects other than the Antruzi variant identified with, and claimed by, the Saraswat caste.  The GKA has since inception been formed largely by members of the Saraswat caste, and caste-groups and individuals allied with this caste. If anything, this only further contributes to the limited narrative that the article proffers about Konkani and its alleged proponents.

The article quotes Pundalik Naik speaking of the apparently uphill battle that the GKA has waged to raise Konkani to this dubious level of merit. What is not highlighted is the perhaps grimmer battle that this institution and its allied partners have waged against persons writing in the Roman script. Whether in the Kala Academy or the GKA, contributions in the Roman script used to be rejected for competitions, on the basis that Devanagari alone was the official script, and hence the Roman script could not be recognised. As if to add insult to injury, subsequent to these discriminatory rejections, and clearly without reading these works, submissions in the Roman script were routinely dismissed as “lacking in standard”. Rather than attempt to support litterateurs who used the Roman script to achieve these levels of standard, these persons were starved of state support, as they were forced to work in Devanagari and the Antruzi dialect exclusively. With official Konkani’s highly sanskritised form and rejection of Konkani history, we would like to highlight that this was akin to requiring Hindi litterateurs to write in English! Myopic measures of this nature are precisely what have curtailed the growth of literary traditions when, in fact, the rich diversity of Konkani in its many scripts and dialects should be lauded for the fertile possibilities they allow for multifarious growth. The Kala Academy, however, thankfully appears to be changing its policy, as obvious from a recent notice dated Aug 27, 2003, that it has extended the scope of its annual literary awards to include works in Konkani in Devanagari as well as Roman scripts.

Furthermore, the official guardians of the culture of the State systematically went out of their way to ridicule Tiatr suggesting that it similarly lacked standard. This, despite the fact that reputed scholars like Pramod Kale, Rowena Robinson, and Goa University’s Rafael Fernandes have recognised the dynamism of the tiatr form.

The story of Konkani since Liberation, and especially since the adoption of the Official Language Act, has therefore been a history of the destruction of an organic and vibrant language in order to prop up the artificial language dreamed up by a small segment of the Goan polity, more obsessed with Brahmanical purity and pedigree than the health of a polity and a language. Not only does this serve to limit literary and linguistic possibilities based on caste and class, but it also undercuts avenues of growth outside of the limited imagination prescribed by such intention.

To its credit, the essay does refer to the Chief Minister indicating that “it is important that we include various dialects in our writing.” However, this stray phrase would not make much sense to a reader unfamiliar with the quiet but intense battles being conducted behind closed doors. Further, this recognition by the Chief Minister has come about as a result of intense efforts not only to reviving organic Konkani, but also to give it political recognition. Yeoman service in this regard has been rendered by the Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Romi Lipi Action Front, and the Tiatr Academy of Goa, three multisectarian fora that have acknowledged the problems that have been caused by the exclusionary strategies of the official Konkani language establishment. As a result of their efforts, one can notice a certain renaissance as artistes long starved of state support now have a sense that their language is not something to be ashamed of, but one they can be both proud of and productive within.

We would also like to point out that the whole idea of a single “mother tongue” has been severely criticised in more recent scholarship, pointing to the fact that the real geographies of any language are much more complex. Indeed, it has been the insistence on colonial, racist, and out-dated notions of a single mother tongue that has resulted in the complicated tensions between those who prefer to use Marathi as public language, and those who prefer to use Konkani, and the wicked suggestion that the demand that state support be offered to schools that provide primary education in the English language is anti-national.

Giving that these essential facts were missing from the article, we believe it risks misrepresenting the complexity of the Konkani language in Goa. As such, we would appreciate it if the editor gave prominent space to this letter as a way of recognising the diversity of the Konkani language, and especially the presence of the Roman script, and non-Antruzi dialects.

Jason Keith Fernandes, Taleigāo – Goa
Dale Luis Menezes, JNU Delhi/ Quepem – Goa
R. BeneditoFerrão, Porvorim – Goa

(A version of this letter was first published in the Navhind Times, in the My Take section, on 2 Sept 2013)

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