Ganesh Marandi was 15 when he discovered his fascination with Santali literature, language and poetry at an indigenous village fair when he stumbled upon a magazine called Sili. Marandi decided to submit poems and articles to this magazine published in the Purulia district of West Bengal in the Santali language, hoping to see his work published, not knowing at the time where his writings would take him two decades later.
“My journey started from there,” says Marandi.
On November 14, India’s Sahitya Akademi, the country’s national academy of letters, will award Marandi, 36, the Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2022 in Santali language for his book Hapan Mai in the poetry category. Each year, the Akademi awards an Indian author for the most outstanding book in that language, published in the five years preceding the year of the award.
Telling Santali folk tales
pronounced Hopon Mai in Santali, Marandi’s book name means “younger sister” and is a collection of over 100 nursery rhymes and poems written in the Ol Chiki script, with illustrations. “Children create an imaginary world for themselves and they also have their own way of interpreting the world around them. They are curious about the unknown and wonder about things like ghosts and spirits. One of the aims of my book is to introduce children to Santali culture and heritage,” says Marandi.
In his work, Marandi says he took mythological characters and other popular characters from Santali folk tales and introduced them through children’s poems, in the same way cartoons are used to render mythology and relevant and interesting folk tales for children.
After the publication of Marandi’s book in 2016, Durgacharan Murmu, a physical education teacher at Deoli Pahargora High School in Para village, Purulia district, bought a copy of Hapan May for her two children, both under the age of 10. “The book reflected the children’s curiosity: ‘why are the mountains so high?’, ‘why does the sun set?’, ‘how can we see the stars?’ It answers many questions that a child may have in their heart. It has beautiful verses, so children like to recite it and they learn at the same time,” says Murmu.
For Murmu, it was important that his children be introduced to the Santali language and literature from an early age. “Santali is our mother tongue and it is important that the early years of a child’s education include teaching the language,” he says.
For the Santal community, seeing their children begin education in their own language from the earliest years is important because many of Murmu’s generation and that of his parents who enrolled in public schools across the country learned in the dominant local language which was different from the language spoken at home. This has resulted in at least two generations of Santal students across India dropping out of school in large numbers due to a combination of inability to cope with the different teaching media and a lack of resources and assistance available for indigenous students seeking an education in India. .
“These days, there is a lot of diversity in Santali’s children’s literature. When I was a child, there were fewer books on Santali literature and language, and we could only buy them at indigenous village fairs,” says Murmu. In comparison, introducing Santali literature to his children has become easier due to accessibility and the greater number of works available.
We should do more
There were a few Santali-language writings focused on children’s literature after the 1980s, but Santali authors interviewed for this report said that was not enough. In its early years, Santali literature and poetry focused on themes such as social development, social empowerment, and education, as community leaders believed these were necessary for emancipation, progress, and equality and community awareness. “These subjects were obviously for adults, so children’s writing was ignored,” says Marandi.
In 2003, the 92nd Constitutional Amendment Act added Santali to Schedule VIII, which lists the official languages of India, to the Constitution. This addition meant that the Government of India was obligated to undertake the development of the Santali language and allow students who sat for school level examinations and civil service entrance examinations to use the language. This recognition gave new impetus to the development of Santali literature and poetry, as it created space for more original work that was needed for comprehensive programs in all educational institutions.
The Sahitya Akademi has been awarding prizes for writings in the Santali language since 2004, in four categories: poetry, literature, prose, the fourth being a mixture of poetry and prose, a format called champion in Santali. “The history of Santali literature and poetry is very rich and diverse, but it is very little known, even in the community, due to the low level of education,” says Dr. Ratan Hembram, director of the Santali department from Vidyasagar University and a member of the advisory board of the Sahitya Akademi.
The invention of Ol Chiki script by Pandit Raghunath Murmu in 1925 further improved Santali literature and poetry. “Before Ol Chiki, we used to write Santali using Roman script but the pronunciation was not accurate and this would have a big impact on the quality of the work. Sometimes it completely changed the meaning of the word. Santali literature and poetry experienced rapid development thanks to Ol Chiki,” says Dr. Hembram.
spread the word
During her day job, Marandi teaches English at the government-run Mudali RNM High School, where about 60 percent of the students are Adivasis. In the village of Chatu where this school is located, the majority of families are also Adivasis. When Marandi students found out about his award on social media, word spread quickly.
Just as school is about to start the day, dressed in her white uniform and her hair in pigtails, 11-year-old Barsha Hembram traveled an hour from her home in Radhanagar village to the Mudali RNM high school. “Hapan Mai is interesting. I liked reading this book. It contains many attractive illustrations that made me want to read it. I also gave it to my friends to read,” says Hembram. Standing next to her classmate, 12-year-old Aparna Manjhi has no more to add but mentions that she also read and enjoyed Marandi’s book.
Educators like Marandi who work with Adivasi students in village schools are knowledgeable about the many challenges these students face. But these awards don’t just affect the author. “Students see that because I write, I won this award. It can inspire them to pursue literature for themselves. I also come from a rural background and now that I have succeeded, it allows them to believe that they too can dream of achieving a better world through education and writing. It gives them hope because we – these students and I – come from the same background. They think ‘If he could do it, so can we,’” says Marandi.
Returning to Maheshnadi, a small village in Purulia district, state, comprising only 54 families where Marandi was born, few people understand the importance of Bal Sahitya Puraskar or what the award means for young authors and writers Santali from the community who hope to pursue literary studies and poetry. “My parents and the village elders don’t really understand literature, whether it’s published in Santali or Bengali. They also don’t include the price. My father studied a little but my mother did not study at all. Despite his basic education, my father doesn’t really understand this price,” he says.
But for now, inspiring the students of Mudali RNM High School is enough for Marandi. He is busy writing his next book, this one, on children’s literature in Santali.