Staunch in his resolve to protect a people’s literature, art and culture, and armed with the desire to bring out their history, Jayadhir Tirumal Rao (63) and his team promoted the Gunjala Gondi script, which was on the brink of extinction. Jayadhir and his team, who gave it their all, including investing their own money, hope the script will enable about 60 lakh Gond tribe members, living in six states of the country, to narrate the stories of their lives and times.
When he came to know that only four people in Gunjala village of Narnoor Mandal, Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh were left among those who could read manuscripts written in the Gondi script, Jayadhir, who has an MA and PhD in Telugu, went there to develop and spread the script among community members.
“I served as director of Andhra Pradesh Government Manuscripts Library and Research Institute from 2005 to 2010, where we conducted State-wide surveys for manuscripts in collaboration with the National Mission for Manuscripts, New Delhi. During that time, we got to know of some manuscripts in the Gunjala village. But we assumed it would have been written in Devanagiri or Marathi and did not delve into the details. However, after my retirement, Mesram Manohar, one of the surveyors, informed me that only four members were left who can read the Gondi script. That rang alarm bells for me,” says Jayadhir.
He rushed to Gunjala village to investigate, with a team of three members, and found eight manuscripts in the Gondi script. “Usually, people assume that the Gondi tribe is illiterate. The manuscripts were about the knowledge of seasons, history and the Gondi code of ethics and literature. Finding eight manuscripts on varied subjects in one village astonished us,” says Jayadhir.
After authenticating the script and finding it to be unique, Jayadhir along with his team including V Krishna, professor, University of Hyderabad, G Manoja, professor, Palmur University and others regularly visited the village for a detailed study of the script, opened schools to teach it to community members and developed teaching material—all at their own expense. “I used to travel regularly from Hyderabad to Gunjala village using my own money and I had to take care of other expenses incurred during the work also,” says Jayadhir.
However, after a point, realising that they could not carry on the project on their own, they approached the district collector and the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) to carry forward the task of developing the Gunjala Gondi script.
Jayadhir forged a collaboration between the ITDA and the Centre for Dalit and Adivasi Studies and Translation (CDAST), where he works as visiting faculty. While CDAST gave academic and research inputs, ITDA facilitated printing of the books. A friend of Jayadhir’s, Sreedharmurthy Sreekantam, designed the font of the Gunjala script without charging any amount, he says.
On February 21 this year, the team unveiled the font of the Gunjala Gondi script on the occasion of International Mother Tongue day. The State government facilitated the publication of text books containing alphabets, grammar and numericals of the Gondi script. The language is now being taught in 15 schools in the district.
Upon the team’s insistence, says Jayadhir, the Adilabad district collector sanctioned a budget to construct a ‘Centre for Gunjala Gondi Lipi, Language and Culture’ the same month.
When asked what drove him to work relentlessly on the project, Jayadhir says it was his belief that the people’s literature, art and culture should be preserved that motivated him to keep going. “Andhra Pradesh has 34 tribal communities and none of them has a script except the Gondi community. The script is their self-esteem and we took up the task of preserving it by reviving the language.”
Though no agency has appreciated his efforts till date, he says, it gives him satisfaction when the community members express themselves using the language. “Within six months of learning the script, a 12-year-old boy from the community has penned down 10 stories, a 70-year-old, Kotnak Jungu, has written his autobiography and 80 kids have learnt to write the script. Watching how my efforts help people express themselves creatively, inspires me to do more,” says Jayadhir.