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The love and war over one's language

File Photo. Photograph: (Pinterest)

Delhi, India Jul 18, 2017, 05.22 AM (IST) Ashok G.V.

Language is proving to be a rather contentious issue in India. From the hills of Darjeeling district in West Bengal to the IT hub of Bengaluru in South India, Indians are fighting over their native language. While the feud over language is taking a violent turns in Darjeeling, Bengaluru is facing its own cold war over Kanada. While the debate between Kannada versus Hindi, may seem exclusively about languages, in reality, it is far more complex. Everyday conversation with ordinary citizens reveal an undeniable prejudice against North Indians, Africans, North-easterners and, sometimes, even Tamilians that extends beyond languages.

I have spoken to cab drivers who do the night shifts on weekends and many of them are convinced that Kannadiga women are the paragon of virtues as they wear attire prescribed by patriarchy and remain indoors. On the other hand, the short-dress wearing and alcohol-drinking “characterless” lady with easy virtues speaks a tongue that are either native to the Hindi-speaking hinterlands or are from the North East. Ironically, while speaking to a Haryanvi taxi driver in Delhi not too long back, I heard him describe women from the south as being “characterless” and “out of control”. 

Why have these fault lines emerged? Recently, the situation worsened as protestesters gathered at Bangalore metro stations against display boards containing directions in Hindi. Undoubtedly, behind every big rift and conflict, there is politics. But politics, in its nefarious sense, is premised upon exploiting a vulnerability. Indians, are in that sense, the stereotypical (and patriarchal) damsel in distress, ever so vulnerable to exploitation. 

So allow me to throw light on Kannada. One of the oldest Indian languages, Kannada is not just poetic and beautiful; it has been the catalyst for some of the greatest philosophy, literature, poetry and cinema written and produced in the subcontinent. The works of Basavanna and Sarvagna enshrined values and principles that the western world later called “Human Rights”. Puttanna Kanagal was a director whose works were no less impressive than the great Satyajit Ray. In Dr Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and Anant Nag, we produced actors of incredible stature and calibre. The characters they essayed often proved to be role models for society and contributed to the positive social change. 

The fact that the people in the city of Bangalore spoke at least two or three languages with ease only made this easier. I say all this with pride and not regret.
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Yet for all that Kannada is and will be, it is also remarkably humble and unassuming. It looked the other way and did not raise a quarrel when south Indians became synonymous with “Madrasis” (who represent, contrary to popular belief, the people of a region of Tamil Nadu, now called Chennai, and not the whole of south of India). The people of Karnataka learnt many other languages, instead of refusing to go beyond their own, because we are both capable and sensitive. In the north of Karnataka, Marathi and Hindi is spoken with ease. In my city, even before the IT boom occurred, Tamil and Telugu was prevalent. With the IT boom, large waves of people from the west, north and east of India called Bangalore their home, thereby, enriching our city. Many expats soon found the weather and the cosmopolitan culture here quite pleasant and further contributed to the city’s diversity. The fact that the people in the city of Bangalore spoke at least two or three languages with ease only made this easier. I say all this with pride and not regret.

Yet somewhere this humility became insecurity and this became apparent through the world of cinema. “Paru, I love you”, “Dil Rangeela”, “Paru, Wife of Devdas”, “Johnny Mera Naam”, are just some of the examples of Kannada films having English and Hindi titles. Where South Indian stalwarts like P.B. Srinivas and S.P. Balsubramaniam along with S. Janaki ruled South Indian music, they were replaced not by south Indians or Kannadigas, but by the likes of Sonu Nigam, Shaan, Kumar Sanu and Shreya Ghoshal who sang many hit Kannada songs. Why did we abandon our own talent who could pronounce Kannada better, in favour of those singers and artists who barely knew the meaning of the songs they sang?

Our own heroines were substituted by heroines from Punjab, Mumbai and other parts of India. Wouldn’t actors from other parts of India find it difficult to mouth dialogues in Kannada?
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Karnataka's own heroines were substituted by heroines from Punjab, Mumbai and other parts of India. Wouldn’t actors from other parts of India find it difficult to mouth dialogues in Kannada? Never mind that Indian cinema, in general, has few character roles for women, preferring instead to make them look fair in skimpy clothes. Heck, Sudeep, one of Karnataka very talented actors, starred in a movie called “Bachan”, named after the legend himself. In yet another movie, “Maanikya”, he grooves to a song titled, “Aasman se khoodle, tu naachle tu naachle” and the Kannada in that line is clearly invisible. 

It is not all bad. Films like “Urgram”, “Shuddhi” and “Urvi” signal the revival of Kannada films towards the story driven narrative that we were once famous for. We have talented new film makers like Rakshit Shetty, Pawan Kumar, Raj B. Shetty and Prakash Raj who are delivering excellent movies. While I am yet to come across the quality of lyrics that some of the Black and White Kannada movies would have, there are talented lyricists, such as Jayanth Kaikini who have expressed romance through incredible lyrics. Yet these aforesaid movies are still not mainstream enough. On the other hand, Kannada films with Hindi and English titles have not failed to be popular so far.

Kannadigas must find their lost pride for their language and represent themselves with confidence instead of insecurity.
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With the issue around language being what it is today in Bengaluru- we have two parallel fault lines to correct. On one hand, you obviously have a culture that operates on the ignorance that Hindi is our national language and, therefore, Hindi speakers need not speak Kannada. This hegemony, premised on ignorance, is not only self-depreciating but offensive. The tragedy is, there are discourses on social media and elsewhere which mock Kannada and Kannadigas. An absence of the ability to speak a language is excused, but the absence of effort and inclination needs correction, of both attitude and approach. On the other hand, Kannadigas must find their lost pride for their language and represent themselves with confidence instead of insecurity. That, we are home to multiple languages and remain inclusive as a culture, is our strength and not our weakness. 

My first words were in Kannada. I think in Kannada and what I write in this article is translated from my Kannada thoughts to English sentences. In times of intense emotional crises and personal setbacks, solutions come in Kannada and not English. I wear this language with pride. When there is a child born in the family, I have no means to interact with him or her except in Kannada. My native vernacular, after all, is not just a language, it is part of my identity. I am sure other languages mean the same to their speakers. Why should that stop us from learning other identities? 

Back in 1947, the idea of India was born in the hope that we will shed the baggage of our many socio-economic problems, prejudices and biases. India’s growth story is founded upon the spirit of co-operation which was necessary to heal the wounds of colonial rule that exploited these prejudices. Yet, when once livelihood and poverty drove us to understand and speak with each other better, today our abundance is making us wonder why we should make that effort in the first place. Such a thought process is the beginning of a decline. It is about time we make an effort to talk to each other instead of trying to talk at each other, that too, in a dialect that is seemingly foreign yet perfectly native. 

Ashok G.V.

Ashok G.V. is an advocate with Factum Law.

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