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Photo: Sunaina Kumar
Women of Jad tribe spinning wool in Dunda village, Uttarakhand. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is one of 780 (possibly 850) in India.

Here is a heretical thought from someone who loves language: if practically everyone speaks a different language from everyone else, maybe we don’t need language? One must at least ponder the question of whether there is a better way to communicate with others. I’ve no idea what it could be. Even gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

There is always a need to communicate, isn’t there? It’s a puzzle. Even English, despite its frequent role as the bridge language Esperanto was meant to be, suffers from so many Orwellian uses of common words today, you can hardly trust it to convey what you mean.

These thoughts came to me because of an article by Sunaina Kumar at Atlas Obscura on the amazing array of languages in India alone.

Kumar writes, “In 1898, George A. Grierson, an Irish civil servant and philologist, undertook the first ever Linguistic Survey of India. It took Grierson 30 years to gather data on 179 languages and 544 dialects. The survey was published in 19 volumes, spanning 8,000 pages, between 1903 and 1928. …

“Ganesh Devy was frustrated by this lack of contemporary data, especially the discrepancies he saw in the existing numbers. Since the government wasn’t likely to start on a new survey in the near future, Devy, a former professor of English from the western state of Gujarat, launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The name refers to the fact that it was the people of the country, and not the government, that embarked on this project.

“With single-minded ambition, he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all parts of the country. Since 2013, the PLSI has published 37 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each of India’s languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2020 with 50 volumes. In the linguistic landscape of India, the work done by PLSI is not just pathbreaking, it is crucial in recording and thus preserving the languages of the country for future generations. …

“The challenge of putting a disparate team together with a minuscule budget of 8 million rupees ($1,17,000) — provided by a private trust — to map the languages spoken by 1.3 billion people was enormous.

“ ‘My team was not made of linguists, but people who could speak their own language,’ Devy says. ‘We had writers, school teachers, philosophers, social scientists, some linguists. We also had farmers, daily wagers, car drivers, people who had been in and out of jail. They had an intimacy with their language. Even if it was less scientific, it was authentic.’ These volunteers were asked to record data about the languages they spoke, including the history of the language, its grammatical features, and samples of songs and stories. It was chaotic, Devy admits, but he traveled to every corner of the country to train the team and the final product was vetted with academic rigor.

“So far, the PLSI has recorded 780 languages in India and 68 scripts. When Devy embarked on the mammoth project, even he did not expect to unearth that many. He says that the PLSI could not report on nearly 80 languages for various reasons, including accessibility of a given region due to remoteness or conflict, which brings the estimated total number of languages closer to 850.

“Based on data from the survey, Devy estimates that in the last 50 years, India has lost 220 languages, including some within the last decade. …

“ ‘India has some of the oldest surviving languages,’ says Devy. ‘A language like Tamil has been around for 2,500 years. Some of the tribal languages would be even older.

These languages have survived because they have a philosophical context to them and that philosophy is part of the lived lives of the speakers.’ …

“After mapping India’s languages, Devy, whose spirit is unflagging at 67, has turned his attention to the world at large. His next project is the Global Language Status Report. The UNESCO states that nearly half of the over 6,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. The GLSR proposes to cover the languages of Africa and South America, two regions where languages are fast disappearing without any trace, and where linguistic diversity has not been mapped. …

“ ‘I have been traveling to Africa for a year now and I am not deterred by the scope of mapping 54 countries,’ Devy says. ‘The experience with PLSI was great fun, and I believe if people decide to do something, they actually can.’ ”

More here, at Atlas Obscura.

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Photo: Chhavi Sachdevx/PRI
On weekdays, Afroz Shah (center, in black hat) is a constitutional lawyer. On the weekends, he tries to spend at least four hours picking up trash at the beach in Mumbai.

Here is proof that “one and one and 50” really do make a million. Read about the personal mission of one man in India who put his love for the ocean into action and inspired countless others.

Chhavi Sachdev reports at Public Radio International (PRI), “Mumbai has 72 miles of coastline, some of it covered in mangroves and some of it sandy or rocky — but none of it is clean.

“There isn’t a beach culture here. It’s not a place for gathering and tanning —  more often it’s a public toilet, garbage dump and, sometimes, a free place to hang out. Exercising and running are next to impossible. The litter makes it an obstacle course. There are cows, crows and stray dogs — but there are also a gazillion candy wrappers, chips packages, cookie packages, shoes, bottles, detergent sachets, disposable cups, and thousands and thousands of blue and white plastic bags.

“But when the tide is out, hundreds of volunteers can be seen on their hands and knees — thankfully wearing gloves — and pulling all these things out of sand into a plastic tub. They’re here because of one man who’s basically tackling the trash problem head on.

“Afroz Shah is a constitutional lawyer and a full time ‘ocean lover and a beach cleaner.’ Two years ago, he moved to a beautiful apartment with a view of the ocean near Mumbai’s Versova Jetty. From his windows, he could see the sea, but, also, a disturbing amount of trash.

” ‘There was 5.5 feet of plastic at the northern end of the beach. It had piled up, piled up, piled up. So then I said I must do something,’ he explains. …

“Since Oct. 2015, he’s been clearing trash for four hours every weekend in what the United Nations has called the world’s biggest beach clean up ever. His efforts have inspired others.

“On this weekend, Shah is on the beach with 300 people. He’s in a blue T-shirt and trackpants, muddy sneakers and thick rubber gloves — which were a gift from a Norwegian volunteer. …

“When a TV reporter asks him to stand and answer some questions, he politely asks them to come crouch near him so he can keep working while they film.”

Read more about Shah and the volunteers’ wide variety of motivations, here.

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Art: Sun and Moon
A beautiful book reviewed at Brainpickings and featuring the work of ten of India’s indigenous artists.

Maria Popova, my go-to source for children’s book suggestions, tweeted about the book Sun and Moon in August, around the time of the eclipse.

“In Sun and Moon,” she writes, “ten Indian folk and tribal artists bring to life the solar and lunar myths of their indigenous traditions in stunningly illustrated stories reflecting on the universal themes of life, love, time, harmony, and our eternal search for a completeness of being.

“This uncommon hand-bound treasure of a book, silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai …

“Among the indigenous traditions represented in the book are Gondi tribal art by Bhajju Shyam (of London Jungle Book fame), Durga Bai (featured in The Night Life of Trees), and Ramsingh Urveti (of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail); Madhubani folk art by Rhambros Jha (of Waterlife); and Meena tribal art by Sunita (of Gobble You Up).”

Popova links to WorldCat, a library system, for the book’s publishing details and this description: “Part of everyday life, yet rich in symbolic meaning, renderings of the sun and the moon are present in all folk and tribal art traditions of India. Agrarian societies have always kept track of time by referring to markers in the seasonal variations of the sun, moon and planets. They have also woven wonderful stories and myths around them. Here, for the first time, is a collection of unusual stories and exquisite art from some of the finest living artists, on this most universal of themes.”

Be sure to read the Brainpickings post, here, for more art, more of Popova’s insights, and her ever thoughtful suggestions for related reading.

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Photo: Rajanish Kakade/AP
Amiruddin Shah, the son of a welder from a Mumbai slum, won a spot at the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York.

Even though I know the culture shock can’t be easy for poor but talented kids given opportunities that lift them from slums, I do enjoy these hopeful stories.

Manish Mehta writes for the Associated Press, “The son of a welder from [Mumbai’s] slums had a dream few Indians dared to dream — to dance with the New York City Ballet.

“In a few months, that dream may be a little bit closer as 15-year-old Amiruddin Shah begins four years of training at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. …

“Shah began studying ballet less than three years ago when Israeli-American instructor Yehuda Maor was invited by the Danceworx Academy to teach in India — a country with no special ballet academies.

“Maor happened to catch Shah doing cartwheels and backflips as part of the Danceworx jazz and contemporary dance program for underprivileged students.

“ ‘I had no idea about ballet,’ Shah recalled. He had been dancing freestyle whenever he got the chance — sometimes he was invited to weddings to perform, sometimes he just goofed around with friends. …

“Within 2 ½ years, Shah had nailed his pointe, pirouette and arabesque, ‘which is unheard of,’ Maor said. …

“Maor bought Shah ballet shoes and dance clothes and helped him and another young dancer, 21-year-old Manish Chauhan, win scholarships in June to New York’s Joffrey Ballet School. But they could not secure U.S. visas in time. …

“Now, Shah is trying to raise funds for four years of travel and tuition with the American Ballet Theatre in New York. They have enough for his first year, beginning in August, but have set up a website to accept donations for three more years in the U.S. …

“ ‘I am so excited, but slightly scared, too,’ said Shah, who speaks basic English but used Hindi in an interview with The Associated Press. ‘How would I interact with people? New York is very crowded.’

“One day, he hopes to be a principal dancer in the New York Ballet. And eventually, he said, ‘I want to teach other children who cannot afford to pay for dance.’ ” More here.

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The clouds on Wednesday were amazing here, and to share my photos of them, I first tried to find a cloud poem on Google.  But after reading several that weren’t quite right, I decided to change tack and see what I could learn about languages with numerous names for clouds.

That’s how I came across photographer and journalist Arati Kumar-Rao, who writes at Peepli about clouds in an Indian desert, where clouds are few and far between.

“There was excitement in the air. The horizon was flashing an intermittent neon in the darkness, silhouetting ghostly clouds.

“What are those clouds called? I asked. Chhattar Singh gazed into the distance, as if mining a lost memory. The words began to trickle — hesitant at first, then faster, crowding one another in his excitement. Those were kanThi, he said. And if they consolidate and promise rain, their name will change to ghaTaaTope. If the clouds become very dense, they’ll be called kaLaan.

“That night, the kanThi did not build up. It did not rain.

“Life stirred awake next morning under a pretty-patterned sky — tufts of white trailing in arcs and lines, horizon to blue horizon.

“We sat sipping chai and watching a distant wind ripple through a feathery, fruit-laden khejri. ‘Those clouds won’t rain either,’ I offered.

“ ‘Teetar pankhi’ Chhattar Singh replied. They had a word for this cloud pattern too – a perfect analogy that likened it to the pattern on the wings of a partridge.

“They say eskimos have 40 names for snow. I get that — they are surrounded by snow all year. The people of the Thar have just forty cloudy days in a year — and yet they have as many names for clouds! …

“The area I have been visiting over the past three years, the deep western part of the Thar desert, lies in Jaisalmer district. It is bounded on the north and west by Pakistan, in the east by Jodhpur district, in the south by Barmer district, and in the northeast by Bikaner district.

“The rainfall here is a meager 100-150mm, about a tenth of the national average and a pitiful 2 per cent of the rainfall Kerala and some other of the wettest areas in India get. For the people of the Thar, sighting clouds and rain are events. Memorable. Priceless. Because these moments hold the key to their very existence.” Read Kumar-Rao’s report here. I think you will like how respectful she is of Singh, controlling her instinct to ask a million questions.

My Massachusetts scenes don’t look much like the Thar desert, I know, but maybe clouds are similar everywhere.

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Photo: Chandana Banerjee
Dr. Medha Tadpatrikar found a nontoxic way to burn plastic and produce a cheap fuel for India.

I never use plastic in the oven or the microwave because I know that as plastic heats and disintegrates, it lets off toxic fumes.

So I was a little surprised — but also relieved — to learn that a new process burns plastic waste to generate energy and doesn’t expose anyone to danger.

For the Christian Science Monitor, Chandana Banerjee reports, “In 60 cities in India, 16,876 tons of plastic waste are generated each day, according to data from the country’s Central Pollution Control Board. Multiply that by 365, and you have more than 6 million tons of plastic that end up in landfills a year. …

“Dr. [Medha] Tadpatrikar resolved to find a way to make plastic waste useful. She and Shirish Phadtare started experimenting in Tadpatrikar’s kitchen, trying to ‘cook’ plastic in a pressure cooker to create a practical fuel. ‘Plastic is made of crude oil, and we wanted to reverse the process to get usable oil,’ Tadpatrikar explains.

“After lots of kitchen R&D, some trial and error, and help from engineer friends, this experimenting duo has come up with an operation in the Pune, India, area that benefits the environment in several ways. They are indeed producing fuel, using a process that doesn’t emit toxic gases. …

“ ‘We blew up quite a few cookers in the process,’ says Tadpatrikar, smiling. Later that year, they cofounded Rudra Environmental Solution. …

“ ‘Our two new machines, one that we launched in 2013 and the other in 2015, use up every bit of the byproducts, including the gases,’ says Tadpatrikar, noting that even the leftover sludge can be mixed with bitumen to create roads. …

“The fuel churned out by the two machines is carefully collected in bottles, and it’s sold to people in 122 villages around Pune at a subsidized rate of 38 rupees (53 cents) per liter. It’s a boon for villagers like Nanda Shinde, who can’t afford to buy any other fuel. …

“ ‘In the monsoons, when the wood is soggy, I’d have to burn plastic bags to cook a meal on,’ explains Shinde, who toils in the fields, attends to household chores, and looks after her family of six from the first light of dawn until the last of the evening.

” ‘Now I give my waste plastic to Rudra, and I am doing this so my children will have a cleaner world to live in,” adds Shinde.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Sari weaving at Kanchipuram — a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

One Instagram account I follow is The_Deepaks, which today posted a video about silk weaving that fascinated me. Instagram doesn’t make it easy to share posts, so I hunted around YouTube until I found another video on silk weaving.

The text accompanying the YouTube video is not in perfect English but is worth reprinting. “The saree is an unstitched garment worn by the women India, that reflects the vast aesthetics to suit a women’s need for adornment and cultural identity. It is a traditional wear across India of different styles depending on the region and occasion. Silk sarees (Pattu sarees) are renowned for their intricate work and adds value through Zari work which is considered to be special.

“These are characterized by huge contrast border offers an ethnic look along with appealing color combination, made through the inclusion of checks of varied colors and geometric patterns. Fine stripes as well as checks in both horizontal and vertical manner add to the relish of the fabric. Traditional motifs found are peacock and parrot with colors in mustard, brick red and black.”

Other videos I found bemoaned the dying art of silk weaving. It’s really unfortunate that the sari weavers, inevitably competing with machines, can no longer make a living doing the work by hand.

I wonder if some of them could earn a living teaching Westerners who appreciate handcrafts. I could imagine tour buses full of people coming for courses by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen.

More at Wikipedia, here.

Video: Dsource Ekalpa India

 

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