Safeguarding Tribal Languages: Lessons from the Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

Devy’a interest in preservation and documentation of tribal languages gained momentum after Mahasweta Devi’s work with the denotified communities and led to the establishment of the Bhasha Center.

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Introduction

The Adivasi communities in India have historically faced countless struggles, be it regarding land, language, cultural practices or education. Their identity has been questioned, constructed and reconstructed in many ways. One of their major struggles has been to protect their languages which have not been given the status of scheduled languages’ in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The language of a group is not only a medium of communication but a collective heritage that imbibes traditional knowledge, cultural practices and is, therefore, integral to the identity of the community. Many languages cease to exist globally every year. The language of the marginalized, particularly, stands the risk of extinction (Devy, 2010). Losing a language would also mean losing the arts, rituals, beliefs and lifestyles of the community and its people. In 2014, the Government of India initiated a scheme called, Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India’ to safeguard the many languages which were identified as endangered.

Long before the government introduced this scheme, Ganesh Devy’s interest in preservation and documentation of tribal languages had given shape to the initial work of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center. This work gained momentum after Mahasweta Devi’s work with the denotified communities. Efforts were made to support the cause of preserving Adivasi cultural heritage, which led to the establishment of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center in 1996. The aim was to document and promote tribal languages and forms of expressions that had so far been marginalized and were slowly heading towards extinction. Though the literal meaning of Bhasha is language’, for the organization, it also stands for voice’- the voice of the Adivasis. The Bhasha Trust established the Adivasi Academy in 1999 as a premier institute for Tribal studies. This report is based on our short visit to the Adivasi Academy. The objective of the visit was to understand Bhasha’s educational programs for Adivasi children.

Programs of Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy

1. Preserving languages and documenting culture

Bhasha’s main objective is to safeguard the endangered languages and culture of the Adivasi communities. Bhasha began its work by introducing scripts for several tribal languages in Gujarat. Subsequently, they published a magazine called Dhol’ in two tribal languages — one from Gujarat (Rathwi) in Gujarati script and the other from Maharashtra in Devanagari script (Pavri). As more Adivasi communities came forward, Dhol began to be published in ten Adivasi languages of western India. Some of its issues were also translated into Marathi and Gujarati. Besides bringing the languages into the mainstream, this also inspired people from the Adivasi communities to write about their lives and culture. The massive People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which documents state-wise languages was another activity towards language revitalisation undertaken by Devy. Bhasha publications have an exhaustive collection of books in several of the non-scheduled languages.

While stressing on the importance of documenting languages, nationally and locally, the organization has also been keen to preserve the cultural diversities of the Adivasi communities all over the nation. The Vaacha museum (Museum of Voice) at the Adivasi Academy, is a museum without walls’ that exhibits Adivasi musical instruments, paintings, wooden and clay sculptures, jewellery, textiles and household vessels. The museum provides an opportunity for other sections of society to learn about Adivasi tradition and culture. Some of the musical instruments at the museum are no longer in use as the younger generation is not trained to make or play them.

Another initiative, Bhasha Van, is an outdoor walkway of trees that serves as a metaphor, depicting the life and evolution of a language. Bhasha has developed an audio tour through the walkway wherein each tree is symbolic of a language. Visitors are provided with audio-guides and tablets containing the origin, dispersal, stories, songs, jokes and connection to other languages of 80 Indian languages. More language recordings are being added. The Bhasha Van also provides information about the life, art, culture, rituals etc. of various Adivasi communities all over the country.

2. Setting up an Education and Development Research Organization

According to the organization, education of the tribals in the mainstream schools has not been about them and their culture but mostly about the other’. This school education takes the Adivasi children away from their own culture and at the same time, equips them only enough to work as semi-skilled workers (electrician, plumbers, mobile repairs etc.) or join construction work as labourers. Their own traditional skills are lost as they are compelled to migrate from their homes and environment. Many of them struggle to live a decent life in the cities and are no longer able to engage with their traditional livelihoods.

With the realization that the formal established way of education does not provide any understanding of the Adivasi culture, the Adivasi Academy started a Post Graduate Diploma in Tribal Studies in 2000. The objective was to provide exposure to the students of this program about Adivasi communities and building knowledge through field related activities, discussions and reflections. The course proliferated into several specialisations — museum studies, publication, development, women empowerment and food security. Those who completed this course went on to create their own community-based organisations or joined other NGOs. Many are currently working as teachers, running their own organisations or are involved with political and social mobilization within their communities. The teachers of Vasanthashala (the education program run by the Adivasi Academy), described later in this report, have taken this diploma course. However, the diploma program ran into affiliation issues and had to be discontinued.

3. Other Programs

Other initiatives include livelihood generation, health care, community awareness programs, work with adolescents, School Management Committees (SMCs) and documentation of traditional cuisine and livelihood.

Improving educational status of Adivasi community

In the year 2000, Bhasha started its first Post Graduate Diploma program in which the trainees undertook a survey of developmental issues in the eastern tribal belt of Gujarat. During discussions with children and the communities, Bhasha identified dropping out of school as a major concern among them. Often, children were not enrolled in schools due to seasonal migration or due to the parents’ financial constraints. They were instead sent to work. Even children who did enrol, dropped out because of boredom and disinterest owing to the language barrier in mainstream schools. Both, the textbooks used, and language spoken by the teacher were alien and of little value to the Adivasi children. Poor access to schools was another reason for low enrollment, especially among children from geographically isolated areas. In order to address these issues, Bhasha started many new initiatives. Some of these are discussed here.

1. Non-formal schools

This program was called Vidya’ under which non-formal schools/​centres were run by trained community teachers in their villages covering out-of-school children whose learning gaps were bridged and then they were re-enrolled into the local government schools. The teachers in the non-formal schools were members of the community who had, at least, received a few years of primary schooling. These teachers were trained at the Adivasi Academy in non-formal education.

These schools were multilingual — the students were first taught in the students’ native language which helped sustain their interest and curiosity and gradually, they were introduced to Gujarati, the state language. Once they were enrolled in government schools, some hand-holding continued at the centres. However, after the implementation of the RTE Act, which forbade non-formal schools for children below the age of 14 years, these centres had to be closed down.

2. Multilingual pictorial glossaries

To prevent the dropout of Adivasi children already in mainstream schools and to better equip teachers in respecting diversity, Bhasha formulated a pictorial glossary containing 1400 words commonly used by primary school children. The glossary was prepared in collaboration with and the support of the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The glossary contained words both in Adivasi languages, the state language and English; later more such glossaries were collated in other Adivasi languages. In these glossaries, words were accompanied with illustrations drawn by the community. This initiative was aimed at making the mainstream syllabus more culturally sensitive and providing tools for teachers to sustain the interest of the Adivasi children in schools. The glossaries served as a communication tool that the teacher could use to communicate with the Adivasi children.

These glossaries were initially used in the non-formal schools and later the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Gujarat acquired them for use in government schools. The glossaries, prepared in ten Adivasi languages of Gujarat, were distributed across 8,000 schools in the state’s tribal belt. Teachers were also oriented on how to use the glossaries.

Even though there has been a general acceptance of the pictorial glossaries in schools, a study conducted in selected government schools by Ms Lina Khan, a Clinton Fellow supported by the American India Foundation, shows some gaps in its optimal usage. The study recommends wider distribution of glossaries and an intensive training program for government school teachers in the use of these.

3. Vasantshala bridge school

In 2005, as a pilot initiative, Bhasha held a summer camp for 60 children which involved both, academics and activities. Its success and positive feedback laid the foundations of a permanent residential program, Vasantshala. Vasantshala is a bridge-schooling program wherein out-of-school Adivasi children are brought to age-appropriate learning levels by first teaching them in their mother-tongues and later transitioning them to the state’s medium of instruction, Gujarati. It was set up based on the premise that most Adivasi children leave school because they cannot understand Gujarati and there is no methodology in place in government schools in tribal areas whereby children are transitioned from their home language to Gujarati. Vasantshala bridges this gap.

Most children enrolled in Vasantshala come from remote villages of the Chhota Udepur district in Gujarat. Often referrals come from government schools or community members whose children have been at Vasantshala. Some children are identified by Bhasha during field-work. The school capacity is 60 children in the age group of 8 – 12 years, and it maintains a somewhat equal gender ratio. As fee, parents are asked to contribute any quantity of grains or agricultural produce they can to the organization. This is done with the aim of helping parents feel involved and responsible for their child’s education.

  • Unstructured group study: The first step after enrollment involves making detailed observations of what the child already knows by enabling group studies and activities. This provides children with the opportunity to show what they know instead of the school drawing boundaries of what they need to know and test them on it. This activity also serves as an icebreaker among students and between students and teachers. It lays the foundation for trust and counters initial homesickness.
  • Knowledge analysis: Following this, students are divided into ability groups; Jagruti, Prakruti, Sanskruti, Swakruti and Pragati, according to their learning levels. Progression to the next level depends on the child’s pace and is not time bound. Sanskruti, Swakruti and Pragati levels follow the government school syllabus of 5th, 6th and 7th standard; this is done to ease the bridging process back into the government school. Additionally, these levels also suggest the required competency the children should achieve in terms of comprehension, articulation and expression.
  • Pedagogy: The freedom and agency given to the children at the Adivasi Academy are what stand out in this mother-tongue and multilingual approach. As educationists, we often talk about the importance of learning by exploration and tapping into the natural curiosity of the child; at the Adivasi Academy, one can see these at play. For classrooms, they have one blackboard and the students can decide where they want to have the class on a particular day. It seems as though not being in a walled room but being out in the open plays the psychological function of being free. The surroundings of the students are actively used to teach different concepts. For example, for learning shapes or colours, the students walk around the campus and find objects of different shapes or colours. This methodology seems to make learning more immersive and engaging. Furthermore, during the student’s initial months, more emphasis is given to verbal learning instead of writing; this encourages free expression and participation of the child and reduces intimidation during the learning process. Classes are conducted in the student’s mother tongue — while observing a class on names of birds it was seen that the name of each bird was studied in four languages — three tribal languages and Gujarati. This method makes each child feel included, gives the child the opportunity to communicate, prevents boredom and also enables the child to eventually learn the mainstream language. This also incorporates language democracy within the centre and between the children and teachers. In an attempt to further make the process of transition easy for children, each child is paired up as buddy’ with a student who speaks a different tribal language. This encourages the students to cross language barriers by not only picking up the other tribal language, but they also develop a sense of taking initiative to find novel ways of connecting with others. This is also reflected in the students’ openness in communicating with visitors even if they do not understand their language. Furthermore, this is reiterated during the follow-up practices wherein feedback from government schools has stated that students from Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy showcased increased confidence and leadership abilities.
  • Integration: Each student spends approximately one to three years at the Adivasi Academy depending on his/​her readiness to be integrated into a mainstream school. Students are mostly integrated into ashram shalas, Kasturba schools or such other residential schools of the state. Feedback and follow-up initiatives show that majority of the students who have passed out of Vasantshala have completed their secondary and higher secondary education. Many of them have also pursued higher education. The Vasantshala team actively makes efforts to stay in touch with the alumni members, thereby, maintaining a vibrant community.
  • Beyond academics: At the Adivasi Academy, development and learning go beyond academics. Some values and practices are entrenched beautifully in the everyday lives of the children. For example, the buddy system promotes empathy and the multi-lingual approach promotes acceptance of differences. The residential nature of the program further provides opportunities for children to develop qualities of self- reliance, leadership and peer support. What stood out was the very evident community feel’ among students and teachers present. An older child braiding the hair of a younger one; two people carrying a bucket together; and, many small instances of care and support could be seen. The teachers believe that children build knowledge in several ways and hence, it is important to provide different ways of exploration and learning.The centre also elects a Bal Panchayat consisting of a sarpanch, panch and ministers who are chosen as heads from among the children by the children and given various responsibilities, for example, cleanliness, health and education. This gives students a platform to replicate and experience leadership roles and further their knowledge about civic structures.
  • A day’s routine: A typical day of a student at Vasantshala begins with doing their own and certain community chores (ShramDaan or voluntary work) which is allotted to them. Following that, they have breakfast and start classes. The meals include tribal food, the same that they eat at home. Evenings are spent in activities like gardening, farming and playing. Post-dinner, all students huddle together and share stories, jokes and songs. Their routine enables them to be independent and teaches them self-care. Teachers reported that they often spend time teaching students correct hygiene practices, social behaviour and etiquette.Open access to the museum and library provides opportunities to the students to engage with their culture and traditional activities. Celebration of local festivals helps reinforce this connection. Often, students are provided with lessons about Adivasi leaders and workshops on traditional Adivasi arts such as weaving, pithora painting, bead jewellery making and pottery. Children get exposure to diversity when they meet and interact with visitors — such as school children, scholars, teachers, researchers, government officials and cultural dignitaries — who speak different languages and belonging to varied cultures, some of who come from overseas also. This exposure is an integral part of Vasantshala and contributes to confidence-building and fearlessness among the students.
  • The teachers: Teachers are an integral part of the ecosystem of the Adivasi Academy. Much like a backbone, they hold the system together and provide support in various forms. All the teachers themselves are from the Adivasi community and have passed out of the Academy’s diploma program. A few teachers are local, other teachers are from south Gujarat and belong to different Adivasi communities but have made themselves proficient in the local tribal languages in and around Tejgadh. The teachers live on campus in rooms adjacent to the students. There is a lot of personal involvement of the teachers in the students’ lives. They are well-versed with each student’s background and learning capacities. They also serve as counsellors and help them through social, emotional and family difficulties. The pervasive role of the teachers is evident and also central to the smooth functioning of their ecosystem. All the teachers — Rekha Chaudhari from a Gandhian family; Vanita Valvi from south Gujarat; Gopsing Rathwa and Arjun Rathwa from Vadodara — play multiple roles, ranging from that of a librarian to a teacher, a caregiver and parent. In some sense, the teachers’ willingness to acquire proficiency in all Adivasi languages serves as a natural exemplar for students themselves to be open to learning each-others’ language.
  • Some challenges: The nature of the program is also, in a way, a major challenge for the organisation. Parents of children in Vasantshala often migrate for work and it is difficult to maintain constant contact with them. Yet, the organisation makes efforts towards ensuring that the family of the child is constantly updated. Other challenges come from it being a residential school and because of the initial period of settling-down of students, some of who have been out of school for a long period of time. Even though expanding the Vasanthshala program is not the objective of the organization, funding has been a persistent challenge. Since the children belong to migrant Adivasi families who are mostly engaged in labour work, Bhasha has to continuously raise donations for the upkeep of Vasantshala, which includes teachers’ salaries, educational material, sports equipment, hostel facilities, meals and clothing for the children. This, along with working with the government to scale the efforts and engage with the government teachers (systemic challenges) has often proved to be challenging. The documentation of the learning trajectories of children and follow-up after they get back into school systems was observed as another major challenge by the organization. The organisation expressed the need for collaboration with educationists/​students with a research background (say, students/​other members of a university, like Azim Premji University) for continuous documentation and analysis of the program.
  • Concluding Comments: Bhasha Research and Publication Centre and the Adivasi Academy have an integrated approach towards preserving and promoting Adivasi cultural practises. The publication centre and the museum are archival spaces with the objective of not only preserving tribal heritage but also educating both tribal and non-tribal people from other communities about the possibility of the co-existence of traditional tribal and modern knowledge. It is evident that Vasantshala promotes a kind of education that enriches children’s tribal identity and encourages them to participate in the creative expressions of their community along with building critical thinking and confidence to participate in the modern education systems. After their education at Vasantshala, children slip into the rhythms of the school system with ease. Some of the efforts through which Bhasha has successfully managed to ascertain this include:
    • A strong sense of identity and pride in their own tribal culture was believed to be contributing towards their successful integration with the mainstream school and society beyond their own.
    • The pedagogy at Vasantshala is built on the idea of valuing diversity by first nurturing one’s own sense of cultural identity. These, then become practised values as opposed to ideas that are just taught in the classrooms. The teachers at Vasantshala themselves learn the different tribal languages.
    • Bhasha’s efforts to engage with the government at various levels — workshops for sensitization, promoting pictorial glossaries in schools and other such programs are important steps towards ensuring a decrease in the language related inferiority that Adivasi children usually experience in mainstream schools.
    • Other programs such as Bhasha Van and Vaacha Museum, as well the exhaustive publications on several nonscheduled languages, enable a deeply-rooted as well as a dynamic picture of tribal culture and society.

The Way forward – some possible directions

As mentioned earlier, the teachers’ efforts towards the implementation of the program are commendable. The everyday interactions at Vasantshala and the teachers’ own efforts need to be researched and documented. This would enable reflection on the processes for further learning that would also contribute to the training of teachers who may later join Vasantshala.

Bhasha has made several contributions to the field of tribal education. Vasantshala stands as a model with a limited intake and no plans of expanding their work as of now considering the human and financial resources that this would entail. As mentioned by a Bhasha member, this also helps in maintaining the quality of work and efforts towards the education of children. The organisation, however, is keen to share their experiences with other initiatives and provide support to government schools so that its learnings can be useful to the larger education system relating to Adivasi children. A well-thought-out attempt towards such an outreach program could be one of the ways in which Bhasha extends its work and reaches a wider populace. Several other organisations working in this domain that we have documented in the University Practice Connect initiative, would, for example, benefit from this partnership.

It would also be beneficial to document the experiences of teachers and children — their teaching-learning trajectories and their life choices when they leave the Academy — while they are at the Academy. Exploring how the alumni have, over the years, taken up the role of preservation and promotion of their cultural heritage, their involvement in traditional occupations, their engagement with it in their daily lives and their perspective on preserving their cultural heritage can provide valuable insights. And above all, documenting the pedagogy of Vasantshala would help similar other initiatives.

Acknowledgement:

We are extremely grateful to all members of Vasantshala for giving us their valuable time and sharing their journeys with us. We thank the students at the Adivasi Academy for their enthusiasm. Our heartfelt thanks to Dr Sonal Baxi from Adivasi Academy for sharing her experiences with us.

Authors

Shipra Suneja, Faculty, Azim Premji University

Ritika Gupta, Faculty, Azim Premji University

Rema Devi has been associated with the Field Practice team of the Azim Premji University. She supports coordination between practice organizations and the Practice Connect team. She has worked with various civil society organizations across India on various aspects of social development.