Folk tales and songs of the Great Andamanese are embedded in a newly-launched book titled, Voices from the Lost Horizon by Professor Anvita Abbi. Published by Niyogi Books, the book comes with audio and video recordings of the stories accessible with respective QR codes for each, illustrated by Subir Roy. Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
During her studies in 2003-04, the Padma Shri awardee identified a new language family of India the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years and was the President of the Linguistic Society of India. Excerpts:
Please introduce us to the Great Andamanese.
Andamanese are the descendants of the early Palaeolithic colonisers of Southeast Asia and survivors of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago. They have lived in isolation for a major part of the history of their civilization till Britishers came to the Great Andaman and made its penal colony in 1858. Their language is a generic term representing languages of a family of languages once spoken by the 10 different tribes living in the north, south and middle of the Great Andaman Islands. However, the present-day Great Andamanese (PGA) language is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages, viz. Jero, Bo, Sare and Khora.
What drew your interest towards documenting the Great Andamanese and what eventually led you to start the project?
The topography of the area, its people, their antiquity and scant availability of published material on their language coupled by the fact that my observation in 2003 after conducting a pilot survey of the languages of the Great Andaman that this language is a class apart from the other two languages of the region, viz. Onge and Jarawa. Unlike Jarawa and Onge, Great Andamanese is a moribund language and breathing its last. I was encouraged by my linguist friends to document the language, to unearth vast knowledge buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese, before it is lost to the world. Not only my results of 2003 were later corroborated by geneticists in 2005, those gave me assurance and proof beyond doubt that this group of languages forms the sixth language family of India.
Could you talk about the co-relation between language and environment, especially in the case of Great Andamanese?
The Great Andamanese people were hunters and gatherers till the end of the 19th-century, and their knowledge about the environment is locked in their language which has been extensively documented in the trilingual interactive dictionary and later in the Bird Book that I brought out in 2011. More than 97 names for different birds, 157 names for varieties of fish, about 300 names of flora including many medicinal plants, 6 different names of seashores depending upon their distance and nature, 18 different names of smells and odours. all these indicate that any disturbance of one lead to damage of the other. The language is depleted of this vast information when jungles are uprooted, or tribes are dislocated as words lose context and information. Conversely, due to language loss the present younger generation neither recognises these in nature nor has any knowledge about them. When the tsunami came on December 26, 2004, tribes of the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese saved themselves as their knowledge about the tsunami was intact in their language. They interpreted the patterns of waves and sea churning and ran to a safe place.
Tell us about your challenges during the field work.
When I reached the island immediately after the tsunami, the Andamanese were living in a relief camp in Port Blair in an atmosphere laden with distress and loss. In such a situation, asking anyone to sing was like the antithesis of the life they were living. Secondly, no one remembered any story as they said they never heard any story in their language for the last 40 years. Despite this, Boa Sr., the main singer documented in this book, relented and sang all the songs first with hesitance and later with enthusiasm. Perhaps, singing made her forget her woes temporarily. Later, I had the opportunity to spend time with the Andamanese in the jungle at Strait Island where most of the stories from Nao Jr were elicited. These two are the invisible authors of the book.
What are your key takeaways from the community?
Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language. The Indian government should not paint all tribes of the country with the same paint brush. Hunter-gatherer tribes need to be treated with utmost care and they demand seclusion from the outside world. The idea of merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. ‘Development’ may kill these tribes.