In March 2018, the first ever standardised dictionary of the Gondi language was published by the Kannada University, situated in Karnataka’s famed town of Hampi. Gondi is the language of an Adivasi community known as the Gonds. Adivasi is a term used to describe the Scheduled Tribes who are the indigenous inhabitants of peninsular India. In a stark marker of the history of suppression and successive alienation visited upon the Adivasi groups of central India, the term Gond itself is an outside imposition. The community, which is the second-largest tribal group in the country with a population of over one crore, identifies itself as Koitur, which broadly translates as “people.”
The Gondi dictionary was the outcome of a historic initiative led by the community to revitalise their mother tongue that has been deliberately excluded and rendered invisible in the policies of the Indian state. This was achieved by a series of seven workshops, held between 2014 and 2017, which saw the participation of hundreds of Gondi language experts and volunteers from the seven states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka—which have been the ancestral homeland of the Koiturs.
In November 2015, I attended the sixth workshop, held in Chandrapur in Maharashtra, as a volunteer. As I walked into the venue, the assembly hall echoed to the chants of seva johar, Lingo and Persa Pen. “Seva” or “seva johar” is a greeting in the Gondi language while Persa Pen is the supreme deity of the Koiturs. Pahandi Pari Kupar Lingo or Lingo is an ancestral figure, who is also considered a deity, who organised the Koitur society and religion. He founded the existing Koitur clan system of Koya Punem, which is also considered to be the Koitur community’s religion.
Under this system, the Koiturs are divided into 12 groups comprising a total of 750 clans. Each group consists of clans related by blood. As the chants subsided, the gathering paid homage to the Gondi scholar Motiravan Kangali—who passed away earlier that year—one of the most influential Koitur scholars of contemporary times. Pictures of Koitur historical figures—such as Rani Hirai, a Koitur queen of the Chandrapur kingdom from 1704 to 1719, Baburao Shedmake, the first person in central India to revolt against the British in 1857 with his army of 500 Koiturs, and Lingo—occupied the front stage.
Apart from the codification of the language, the workshops had turned into a space for social and political dialogues among the Koiturs from across the country and a site to celebrate Koitur culture. The Chandrapur workshop ended with a visit to a Pen Thana—a sacred space where ancestral spirits reside, which is marked by stones placed in circular shapes, with each stone symbolically representing an ancestral spirit—located deep in the forests of Chandrapur. By evening, the place had turned into a jatra—gatherings of ancestral spirits where Koitur people make offerings and seek blessings through rituals, dances and songs. The men and women were holding hands, dancing and singing Rela pata—Gondi songs usually sung at jatras—till the sun set.