More on Indian Languages

Mehta, Shailendra Mehta at
Wed Apr 16 17:21:21 UTC 1997

>Frances Pritchett wrote:
>"I just came back from a visit to North India and Pakistan.  I found that 
>more than ever, my Urdu (and Hindi) literary friends have their kids in
>English-medium schools."
>1. So true! I can add several examples here. Most of the prominent Hindi
>literary personalities that I know of, have sent their children to English
>medium schools, and indeed encouraged them to go on to prominent universities
>in England and in the United States. This includes several of India's most
>famous editors and writers. It is not entirely a drawback. In fact, their
>home environments being what they are, these children have, almost without
>exception, turned out to masters of Hindi and of English, and thereby
>enhanced their ability to advance the cause of Hindi in a wider context.
>2. Indeed there is a fairly robust tradition of many Hindi writers having
>specialised in English literature before going on to write in Hindi. A case
>in point, is, arguably the greatest Hindi writer alive, Harivanshrai Bacchan.
>He  did his Ph.D at Cambridge, (on Keats if memory serves correctly).  (His
>son the famoust thespain, too was all set towards a degree in English, except
>that his indifferent academic performance put him out of the running for the
>few places in India where English literature is taught well. He ended up
>studying Chemistry.) Similar remarks apply to Dharamvir Bharati, to Amit
>Khanna and to many others.
>3. My mother too, is a writer and has written several dozen books and several
>hundred short stories for children in Hindi. However, she too was adamant
>that all of her children go to English medium schools. For about the same
>reasons that Chelsea Clinton goes to a private school and not to a public
>Srinivasan Pichumuni wrote:
>Since my father was all-India transferable, I studied in Central 
>Schools all my life... Hindi was our first language and we did
>even Social Studies (Hist/Geo/Civics) entirely in Hindi... so, to
>use the felicitous Americanism, I can kickass in Hindi and indeed
>do so with mirth !
>4. I think the ideal situation is what Srini describes above. A child growing
>up in India needs both local and global awareness. One should endeavor to
>teach literature and social studies and perhaps Mathematics in the native
>language while perhaps teaching the Sciences in English.
>5.  What is especially dangerous is the situation where the child grows up
>largely unable to speak any Indian language well. If that happens, then we
>literally have an individual who is an internal expatriate in that his mental
>world is completely different from those around him.  In fact he will then
>have only the accident of his birth in common with the common man around him.
>If he attains a position of power, which is quite  likely on average, he will
>have nothing in common with most of those over whom he rules. This situation
>is profoundly undemocratic, and if allowed to persist would result in severe
>strains on the political fabric. But things are improving in many respects.
>Why do I say this?
>6. Right up until the early 1970s there was a whole class of individuals in
>India which was entirely educated in English and had almost no contact with
>Indian culture in any meaningful sense. They knew nothing about Indian
>classical music or dance (disdaining the latter as fit for dancing girls, a
>common North Indian prejudice at that time) or indeed about literature in any
>Indian language. If they were in Hindi speaking areas they disdained Hindi
>films and cared little about the excellent Hindi and Urdu poetry to found in
>its songs. Further, they were largely unaware of Indian philosophy and Indian
>mythology. Mutatis mutandis, for other areas in India. All this has changed,
>and I would be hard pressed to find any young Indian in India who fits the
>above description today. Of course, the sociological understanding of this
>phenomenon will be quite complex, and nuanced, but I will identify four
>A. The growth of SPIC MACAY - the Society for the Promotion of Indian
>Classical Music and Culture Among Youth. I was a college student in India in
>the late 70s when we organised the first concert under the aegis of this body
>in Delhi University. The response was electric. Suddenly, Indian Classical
>Music and Dance became "high brow" and "cool" and spread like wildfire across
>campuses all over India. It also changed the economics of the performing arts
>in that artists could now subsist, indeed thrive without patronage of any
>B. An exceptional generation of light classical musicians from India and
>Pakistan popularised the ghazal form in India. It took India by storm and
>created a groundswell of interest in this and related genres, benefitting
>both Urdu and Hindi poetry.
>C. The Amar Chitra Katha series, developed a taste for mythological and
>historical stories among young children. As a result, children growing up in
>the early 80s had an order of magnitude greater familiarity with the Indian
>classics. This is now completely superceded by:
>D. The popular appeal of Ramayana, Mahabharata and other mythologicals on
>7. As a result the average Indian growing up in India, is likely to know more
>about "highbrow" Indian culture than his or her parents did. This is
>especially true in North India. It probably applies to a lesser degree in
>Southern India.
>8. I think we should realise that the time has come to move on to the next
>logical step,  which is to promote the use of Indian languages in the same
>way that Indian classical music and dance have been promoted - that is
>through a collaboration of like-minded indviduals who communicate their
>passion, and make plain that Indian culture as expressed in Indian languages
>enriches Indian life. I hope, in a few years Frances Pritchett would not need
>to add:
>"Let's hope for some kind of swing of the cultural
>pendulum that will cause people to be more seriously committed to *real*
>bilingualism and *genuine* literary maintenance of the modern South Asian
>languages than many of them they now appear to be."
>It will require the extension to language, the sea change which has been
>observed in Indian music, dance and symbolism.
>9. How can one bring this about? I do not have all the answers, but here is a
>thought. As I have argued before, at the technical level Indian languages
>largely use identical vocabulary based on Sanskrit. The one exception is Urdu
>and another partial exception is Tamil (as several people pointed out in this
>forum). We should use this commonality to promote all the Indian languages
>simultaneously. Why? For this let me turn to perhaps the most useful
>observation made about Indian langugages on this forum. Narayan Raja has
>"My observation is that Indian languages (including Hindi)
>are all being marginalized by English.  Hindi -- if at
>all it's a "threat" to other languages, which I doubt -- 
>is much less so than English.
>Young kids in Madras nowadays are chattering
>away in English (not in Tamil, definitely not
>in Hindi).  I was unable to find any good-quality
>Tamil books or tapes for my daughter, despite searching 
>for two days in Trichy, and one day in Madras.  I was 
>told "There aren't any."  (No, the Tamil books had not 
>been driven out by Hindi books.  You can easily guess 
>which language books were easily available everywhere).
>Seriously, what do you think?  Is it English or Hindi 
>that is displacing Tamil among many Tamil-speakers?"
>10. I think, in focusing on the internal threats (which are minor) we are
>losing sight of the external threat (which is major). This is of course, a
>situation not entirely unknown in Indian, especially Rajput, history. Or as
>the Panchatantra story goes, in the fight between the the monkeys (the Indian
>languages) it is the cat (English) which is winning. Let us realise that all
>Indian languages will rise and fall together, because they constitute a
>finely balanced ecosystem where to disturb one part is to disturb all. And
>let us not forget that
>each one of them is precious to us all. This is the reason why we must move
>especially quickly to help the cause of the most marginalised of the Indian
>languages as Robert Zyndenbos has so eloquently argued. And oh, I am not
>thinking of languages which were recently mentioned here in one context or
>another, namely Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Kannada or Marathi etc... which are
>doing quite well, thank you. Rather, I am thinking of proud languages such as
>Oriya and Assamese and others like them which have never been mentioned in
>this forum in recent times, and which have no discernable presence on the
>Web, nor are likely to have one in the near future.
>11. (Of course, there are several ironies here including the most obvious one
>- I am making this case for Indian languages, in English, but then I have
>long adovocated the use of judo linguistics.)
>12. A start has been made, in that we have set up a small group of people in
>India and in the United States who will actively promote the
>inter-operability of the all the Indian scripts on a unified basis, by
>interacting with the Unicode forum, the software developers and the bodies
>which set Internet standards. Now that at least three newspapers each have
>appeared on the Web in Hindi and Tamil and several others in Kannada, Marathi
>and Begali, among others, the time has come to set standards and to make
>available fonts, software, multimedia kits and original literature in all
>Indian languages on a unified basis, so that we can all plumb the treasures
>of all the Indian languages in the original, using the script of our choice,
>whichever that may be. And I for one will be quite willing to help spread the
>sweetness of "high culture" in all the Indian languages. If I may be allowed
>to express a little bit of partiality, I would like to add that I would
>particularly like to  promote the spread of the South Indian languages in the
>North, since treasures, such as those of the Tirukkural, are quite unknown
>there. I for one, would like to see Prakrit Bharati's excellent Hindi and
>English translations of this classic vade mecum, made available to everyone
>on the Web.
Shailendra Raj Mehta
>mehta at

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