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A Tribute to Guru Gomke Pandit Raghnath Murmu

T. Vijayendra

Some time during the mid 80s my friend Ms. Kaveri Dutt was joining her husband at Rairangpur. She asked me what can she do in such a remote place. I said why, the best thing you can do is to visit Pandit Raghunath Murmu and write down his memoirs. She went and visited his house. His son came out and said sadly "How would you know? After all no newspaper published the news of his death, let alone an obituary. He died last month".

I have never met Pandit Raghunath Murmu or read his biography. I hope a good biography does exist by now. But I knew him by his works and by legends about him. He was known for his knowledge of a large number of languages. He certainly knew Santhali, Ho, Mundari, Oriya, Bengali, Sadan and Hindi. Possibly he knew many more. He has certainly given a lot of thought to the problem of scripts. He was confronted with Santhali being written in Bengali, Oriya, Devnagari and Roman scripts. He found none of them satisfactory for his language. And so he invented a new script for Santhali called OL Chiki. He cut his letters in wood himself and printed them on his own press at Rairangpur. He printed several books to help Santhali people to learn to read their own language. I have met one very tall and handsome Santhali person travelling all over Jharkhand and propagating OL Chiki. He was dressed in green and had a white strip across his shoulder on which OL Chiki letters were printed. He used to sing beautifully "Bono Jangalo Bhora Amaro Jharkhando”.

Ol Chiki was recognised by the West Bengal govt. in 1978 for the instruction of Santhal children at the primary stage. When Guru Gomke (the' Great Teacher' - the title of Pandit Raghunath Murmu) was reportedly asked by the former Maharaja of Mayurbhanj, to cease propagating the script because it was divisive ' the Guru was said to have replied that he would gladly do so ' if the Maharaja would see to that the Oriya script was also abandoned!'

I don't know the reasons and logic Pt. Murmu had for the invention of his script. I can only tell how I came to appreciate his efforts. I believe this may throw some light on the vexed question of scripts in India. "India is a home of 10 syllaberies ( scripts) that are used by dominant national groups. Thesse are:

Devngarari (Hindi, Marathi, Nepali & Sanskrit and as link script officially for the whole country), Assamese, Bengali, Oriya, Telugu, Tamil, Mal ayal ayam, Kannada, Gujrati and Panjabi.

For more than hundred years some voices have been heard for a common script in India. Apart from Devnagari and Roman, several attempts have been made to modify them or even invent new scripts as a common script for India. All these attempts have failed miserably. There is also a lot of energy for imposing Devnagari script on scriptless languages, that is mainly Adivasi languages. They have usually been using Roman script mainly due to the efforts of Christian missionaries in the field of education among Adivasis. For Santhali, it was P.O.Bodding a missionary, who introduced the Roman script as a common script for Santhali spoken in different states. It is however worth remembering that Christian missionaries have also taken a lead in standardising many Indian scripts, preparing and publishing their grammars and dictionaries.

Pandit Raghunath Murmu invented and printed in his own script more than 30 years ago. Recently I have even seen a new script for Ho language. I also understand that they have developed software for using these scripts on a computer. Since they are all alphabetic scripts, it is easy to design a software for them.

Will the Adivasi use these new scripts or will they use one of the existing scripts? It is for them to decide. Different historical conditions will probably evolve a different solution for each language and region. Below I will describe how I came to appreciate Pt. Raghunath Murmu's position.

I belong to the dominant/ powerful national groups in India. However being Kannadiga, I belong to a somewhat middle position. Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi & English etc are more powerful groups. So I ended up learning the languages of the dominant groups viz. English, Hindi, Marathi and Bengali. My knowledge of my own language, Kannada is poorest.

I began, like many others, to think that India should have one common script either Roman or Devnagari. The arguments for either of them are quite powerful and many good people who are interested in the subject have taken one or the other position.

Then I came across "Nagri Lipi Parishad" and their journal "Nagari Sangam". I became a life member and so for the last 1 0 years I have been reading their views which mainly support Nagari as a link script in India. Most of the articles try to prove the superiority of the Nagari script, many authors advocate adoption of Nagari as common script for India and some even voice for Vishwa Nagari for the whole world, since, in their opinion it is the best script! As I read the journal, I began to think that if the Nagari script is all that great why don't all the Indian nationalities (like Maharashtrians) adopt it? Over time the reasons became clear to me. They can not undo their written and especially the printed history. They have much to lose and little to gain. That is how B.C. Roy, the then Chief Minister of W. Bengal put it - "If the whole country wants to adopt Bengali script, I have no objection" meaning to say that we Bengalis will never change our script. The irony is that it was a Bengali, Justice Mitra, who in 1898 first began the Ek Lipi Parishad proposing a common script for India . It is also poignantly brought out by Sindhi Sahitya Parishad, which repeatedly rejected Devnagari script and retained their Perso-Arabic script. Their logic was that Sindhi Hindus today are land less people and if they lose their script also they will lose their cultural heritage of the great Sufi saints.

Contrast this with the tragedy of Panjabi. The Indian Panjabis changed their script from Perso-Arabic to Gurumukhi. Now many important Panjabi writers have stopped writing in Panjabi and are writing in Hindi. They have been cut off from their own literary tradition of Bulle Shah and other Sufi saints. They are also cut off from their Pakistani brothers and sisters who continue to write Panjabi in Perso-Arabic. Only the T.V. with its shallow culture gives them a bridge.

The story of Outer Mongolia is also very instructive. When they joined the Soviet Union, they changed their ideogrammatic script to Cyrillic (Russian) alphabetic script. After the break of the Soviet Union, they have gone back to their original script. They have got a UNESCO grant to transliterate important literary efforts during the soviet period into their original ideogrammatical script.

So changing script is not such an easy matter. Today no one will change his script to another script, no matter how wonderful the other script is. They can do only at the cost of losing a lot of their cultural heritage and identity.

But what about scriptless societies, that is Adivasi languages? This is where dominant scripts like a Roman, Nagari, Bengali etc. are trying to impose themselves with apparently rational arguments. As a general rule, most societies today when adopting a new script, when they had no previous script will go for an alphabetic script. In India it means Roman. Or they will invent their own script like OL Chiki, which is also alphabetic. What are the reasons for it? Can one script be better than others? Are syllaberies (Indian scripts like Nagari, Bengali etc. ) are superior to alphabetic ( Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic) or Ideogrammatic scripts (Chinese, Mongolian, Korean etc. ) ?

The most lucid work on this subject that I've read is by Anthony Burgess in his "Language Made Plain". What is a script? It is a tool that converts language from a temporal (time) mode to spatial (space) mode. When we speak, our thoughts are expressed one after another in time. When we write it is converted to space. We can go backward and forward, where as speech is, as the wise old saying is, 'like an arrow, once released, it does not come back.' So think before you open your mouth!

There are three kinds of scripts in the world - ideogrammatic, alphabetic and syllaberies. All evolved independently and in different regions.

Pictograms in Egypt and in their more evolved form ideograms in China and Korea. Alphabets in West Asia (Arabic) and syllaberies in India. Outside India there is only one syllabery, that is in Japan, which has all the three systems!

Now each system has its advantages and disadvantages. The great advantage of ideogram is that it is not phonetic. So people using different languages can use the same script! That is how China remained united over the centuries. There won't be any need for translations if the whole world were to adopt it! In a limited sense the world has adopted it in the form of mathematical symbols like plus, minus, multiplied by, divided by and so on. In most cases the Roman numbers 1,2,3---0 also are used universally and are ideograms!

The disadvantage is of course the large number of ideograms, nearly 4000 in Chinese, that you have to learn. Modem Chinese has reduced it to 400 or so. Still they could not have typewriters and till the computers came in the seventies all Chinese, Japanese and Korean correspondence was hand written. That is why they have such a wonderful tradition of calligraphy and why the computer revolution quickly took place in these countries.

The advantage of syllaberies is that they are the most phonetic scripts. This allows a new reader to pronounce correctly. It is particularly useful when you are a foreigner to that language. The disadvantage is that it is also a difficult script due to its half letters and vowel signs (matras). Secondly being so true phonetically can also cause problems due to problem of standardization of spelling. The same word is pronounced differently in different regions of the same language and therefore it is spelt differently.

Alphabetic scripts historically did not have vowels to begin with. Vowels got added on and thus they are not fully phonetic and have some glaring irrationalities. Indians never tire making fun of English spellings and quoting George Bernard Show who left a large sum of money for spelling reform in English.

The great advantage of alphabets, particularly that of Roman is its simplicity. There are only 26 letters, three are no half letters, vowel signs and so on. The greatest point is their adaptability to machines. Even with computers, it is not easy to use Indian syllaberies or ideograms on computers. These are the main reasons why so many "script less" societies prefer Roman/alphabetic scripts.

So where does this leave us? Anthony Burgess said that most of the irrationality of English spelling is due to the fact that Roman script is suitable mainly for Italian language! This is the clue. Scripts are like dresses. While we can we can wear the dress of any culture, we are comfortable only in our own dress. There are no superior or inferior dresses. Each is suitable for that culture or for that work. Similarly any language can be written in any script, but it is best expressed in its own script. That is the logic of OL Chiki.

Development of various scripts for different languages followed the requirement of the particular language. Furthermore, a script is also a part of the effort to define and assert one's identity. 'A language is mother, a script is father', says a tribal leader.

It is of course for the Santhalis to choose their script. Different Santhalis living in different parts of India may use those dominant scripts. But in Jharkhand 01 Chiki may find its place of pride. That will be the best tribute that the newly confident Jharkhandi can pay to Guru Gomke Pandit Raghunath Murmu.

Email: vijayendrat@yahoo.com

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Published in Frontier, Sep. 29-Oct. 2, 2002, Kolkata.