Ten voices from Adivasi literature

15 January 2021

“People want Adivasi literature, not Adivasi writers,” a Koitur writer once told me. A quick web search for “Adivasi books” will show that most books about Adivasi communities have been and are still written by non-Adivasi, upper-caste writers. Adivasi—a term accepted by indigenous communities in peninsular India—communities have created oral archives of their histories and knowledge systems, in the form of songs, stories and mythologies, over generations. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, though, the communities have not exclusively used oral systems. Susheela Samad, among the earliest Adivasi writers, was the editor of the magazine Chandni from 1925 to 1930, and her two poetry collections were published in 1935 and 1948. Alice Ekka, also considered one of the first Adivasi women writers in Hindi, published several stories in the 1960s in the weekly magazine Adivasi Patrika. The writer Munshi Mangal Singh Masram first attempted to codify Gondi grammar in the 1920s, and these efforts were later published as a book in 1957. However, written Adivasi literature is mainly confined to a few larger communities and certain regions, while the majority of the Adivasi communities—especially belonging to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups—has not yet had any written literature penned by their own people. Moreover, their own indigenous languages have become vulnerable and endangered due to the lack of state recognition and support.

There are still very few English-language books by Adivasi writers, since English as a medium of education still remains the privilege of a few. There is also an urgent need for the translation of vernacular Adivasi literature into English. For instance, the Koitur community, made up of fourteen million people, has not had a single book published in English so far, although there are many writers who have published in Hindi, Marathi and Telugu. There are also books by Adivasi writers written in other vernacular languages—including Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Malayalam and Kannada—as well as their own indigenous languages, such as Gondi, Kurukh, Santali, Ho and Bhili. Most of this writing in vernacular languages can mainly be found in jatras and annual gatherings of various Adivasi organisations. Moreover, the academic discourse on Adivasis, with very little representation from these communities, leaves little space for Adivasi voices from the linguistic margins.

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    Akash Poyam is an assistant editor at The Caravan.

    Keywords: Adivasi Adivasis Writing literature writers