Govardhan Panda is a driver at the sub-collector’s office in Jeypore in the Koraput district of Orissa. He has had a formal education only up to Class X but that hasn’t stopped this 58-year-old from becoming the go-to man for information on Orissa’s many tribal languages. In fact, this unconventional scholar, with his contributions on four languages (Bonda, Didayi, Gadaba and Olar), has been one of the many contributors to the state’s volume for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI). “He is a true organic intellectual of language learning,” says Mahendra Kumar Mishra, the PLSI state coordinator for Orissa. The state has reported a total of 40 languages, the major languages being Santhali, Kuvi, Kurux and Soma (apart from Oriya).
As the sub-collector’s driver in the district, Panda would often have to act as an interpreter for the government officers. This sharpened his interest in local languages and cultures, something he has written about in his book the translation of which, Vanvasis of Orissa: An Analytical Study, was published in November 2012. With several other books to his credit, Panda makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the armchair scholarship of certain PhD scholars. “Three of my books have been criticisms of such scholarship produced on Orissa’s tribals,” he says. A 2002 book on the Bondas, for instance, was littered with many wrong words in Remasham, the language of the Bondas. “I wrote to the authorities concerned and they wrote back agreeing with me. The book was written by scholars who had never even visited the locals,” he adds. Panda also debunks the claim that Sanskrit is the only language to have a third number besides the singular and the plural—the dwivachan. “Certain tribal languages like Remasham, Gadaba and Parenga have it too.”
Panda’s next focus is a book on the Kuvi language, spoken by the Kondhs. “That name should actually be changed to Kuvi or Kui,” he hastens to add. “Kondh has actually come to mean someone stupid in Oriya. It’s a corruption of the name Kondalu (hills people) that Telugu assistants accompanying the British officers first gave these people,” he says. “The Kondhs are hardly stupid.”
Like Panda, there are several others, including primary school teachers, shopkeepers and clerks, who have worked to gather field data for the survey. This is in sync with the PLSI character of a bottoms-up approach that seeks to liberate language scholarship from the clutches of academicians. “The PLSI documents languages as they are lived through the voices of its people, not the way it is documented in academic texts by linguists,” says Mishra.
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