Published: 05th February 2021
This writer is helping revive Tamil Nadu's fast-receding tribal languages by training children in storytelling
Lakshmanan, a writer, activist and theatre personality has spent years working for the upliftment of tribal communities in Tamil Nadu including the Irulas, Todas, Kotas and Kurumbas
Perhaps today, more than ever, identity has taken an extreme prominence in our lives. Over the years, we’ve lost thousands of languages to dominant ones. When Lakshmanan Rangasamy saw it happen to tribal communities in Tamil Nadu, he knew he had to step in and come up with a way to preserve their languages. He encouraged the children of these communities to narrate stories. Stories of their land, ancestors and life in their own languages. He found that the best way to keep these languages alive is to make the inheritors of these languages, storytellers.
Lakshmanan, a writer, activist and theatre personality has spent years working for the upliftment of tribal communities in Tamil Nadu such as the Irulas, Todas, Kotas and Kurumbas. In his interactions with the community, he noticed that their native languages were in danger of completely disappearing as the younger generation was speaking more in Tamil than their native dialects. This was not just because they were going to schools where Tamil was the medium of instruction or because outside of their communities pretty much everyone spoke only in Tamil.
An ongoing session
Lakshmanan says that very often, young people from these communities were forced to feel overly conscious, shy and even uncomfortable speaking their mother tongue in other people’s presence. “The younger generation doesn’t always find it easy to speak in their mother tongue when they are out in public spaces. They speak in Tamil since it is a common language but many also don’t speak it often at home. They are not as fluent in it as they could be and sometimes a lot of words have been replaced by Tamil words, so there is a danger of losing these languages entirely and these are languages that are linked to Tamil too. So it would be a real pity if we couldn’t save them,” Lakshmanan said.
Before it's too late
And he's a man on a mission. He has written two books and filmed a documentary on tribal life and has a deep interest in their languages as well, “A lot of Tamil and Malayalam words come from these languages. They’ve contributed so much and yet we don’t know enough about these links.” The activist also does career counselling and helps students access job opportunities and fund their education. He also records songs from these regions and documents them. While he aims to bring out a book of short stories in all the different languages of these regions, so far he has brought out a book with ten stories in different languages.
Lakshmanan with his students
Which brings us to literature. Another problem that Lakshmanan recognised was that there was barely any literature in these languages, a lot of their stories had not found spaces on paper. He recognised that it was important for these stories to get told and written down, for them to be carefully carried on from one generation to another. So a few years ago, Lakshmanan started to encourage children from these tribal communities to start reading more, but not just regular books. He encourages them to read literature that spoke of their communities, mentioned familiar regions and customs, stories they could identify with, “We had already been working on creating a reading movement for these children and soon found that it was important for students to read about their own roots.”
Can I tell you a kathai?
So Lakshmanan started encouraging the children to ask their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts for stories, both fictional and non-fictional. “We also started translating Tamil stories in their languages,” the activist said. The children were then asked to learn these stories by heart and retell them to an audience. “We found that this could help immensely in the revival of languages,” Lakshmanan said. “We so often impose racist stereotypes on these communities but these children are extremely sharp and observant but are not encouraged to express themselves because of other dominant cultures,” he added. Soon enough, the activist and his team started to notice their endeavour becoming a success, as many of the children started to become more confident, expressive and became more comfortable speaking the language and also more enthusiastic to learn it better, “The family members were excited too as these children would go back home and ask their parents for meanings and new words and stories. They were also properly speaking the language at home. They took pride in it.”
A poster of the event
A young boy named Praveen Kumar from Alamalaimedu belonging to the Irula community tells us he was overjoyed by the appreciation he received when he did his storytelling session, “Initially we were asked to read the books, which is thoroughly enjoyed. But when they asked us to tell stories in our language, I had no idea what to say or how to say it. So I asked my parents and other family members, neighbours and other people in my community. Slowly I learnt the stories and was finally able to tell them,” he says proudly.
Power to the kids
What made these families more proud that when Lakshmanan started organising storytelling events, they went all out with the publicity, even though it was on a small scale, “We make posters, put the child’s photo on it and share it with the school that they study in. We also sent it to the local authorities, block education officers, and sub-collectors. So this instilled a lot of confidence in the children.” These days, Lakshmanan receives a lot of videos from the children and their families of them storytelling as an audition for the event. He tried to organise these events monthly or bi-monthly if time permits and the volunteers in these regions are able to coordinate.
But Lakshmanan’s team doesn’t stop with just reading and telling stories, they also get children to write them, “We get them to write the stories in their languages, use names and regions that are familiar to them. And when other children read these stories, they are happy to see familiar names. The children also translate stories on their own these days,” he explained.