How puritanism is hurting the cause of Odia

By Shyamanuja Das* 

Once, in an Odia tweet, I used the word saamil.  Soon, I started getting quite a few responses that (politely) asked me to use some pure Odia word instead.

Till then, I had never thought of saamil as a non-Odia word. But the kind of reaction I got is not unique. It is pretty common.There’s a tendency among a section of our youth—usually in their 20s and 30s—to go back to the Utopia of a ‘shuddha’ or ‘pure’ Odia. So, an antarbhukta should have been the right word for them, instead of saamil.

But you cannot just blame them. Their stance is probably a reaction to the extreme bastardization we often see in Odia television channels that use Hindi/Urdu words like chunab and khulasa, when there are not just accepted but common words available for these. Odia film names go a step further—Love you Hamesha, Mo Dil Kahe Ilu Ilu, IshqTu Hi Tu.. .either Odia words are not capable of expressing those feelings or it is cool to use non-Odia.

Those filmmakers or media anchors have nothing against Odia. It is probably derived from the feeling that the youth connects to Hindi and English more easily than Odia.

Unfortunately, that is not entirely incorrect.

And that is not a situation to be proud of. But what is the solution?

Will battle-cries against media and film makers help? Can you force teenagers to converse in Odia among themselves?

No, you cannot; because a disease cannot be cured by treating the symptoms. You have to treat the disease itself.

Why do TV channels use this kind of language? Why do films use this kind of titles? Why don’t teenagers converse in Odia?

Because they feel it is not cool. It is not fashionable.

To be sure, no amount of sermonizing—whether you do that by quoting Shakespeare or Meher—will help. Trying to discredit them or scoff at them will make them drift away further.

There is no option but to make them feel Odia is not so uncool.

The only way to do that is by shunning Puritanism. Puritanism has manifested itself in two ways that has led to the new generation’s alienation from Odia language.

First is the attitude—refusal to adapt. Today, the world is more global. There’s more acceptance of foreign cultures, ideas and there’s fertile cross-cultural exchanges. Odisha—and much of India—have a young population who want to be part of that global mainstream. Trying to hold them back leads to two things—one, a sense of rebellion and two, a doubt whether our language and culture has anything that can stand up to the world. Both lead to loss of faith and love for your own language.

The second way Puritanism manifests itself is that it creates a purist ‘high culture’ and tries to label everything else as fringe or unimportant. So, the culture itself becomes highly diglossic. There’s no other state in India that is as diglossic as Odisha, not just in language but across the cultural space—in films, in literature, in music and so on. While there are the internationally revered Jayanta Mahapatras or Sitakanta Mahapatras in Odisha, few Odia poetry books (other than those prescribed as text books) can today sell enough to even recover production cost. While Odia art cinema and Odia filmmakers are well appreciated in the film festival circuit, the state of affairs in mainstream Odia cinema is pathetic, to put it mildly.

In effect, in all spheres of cultural activity, we have created two parallel streams—one high culture and one low culture. We are satisfied being recognized and appreciated outside for that high culture while we do not give a damn about what happens to the one that is aimed at most of our masses.

It is not that this phenomenon exists only in Odisha.  But nowhere else is the gap between the two as wide as it is here.

This lack of respect for change, experimentations and adaptations mean that modern popular culture does not enjoy the kind of attention that it does in states like say West Bengal, Maharashtra and in a highly folk-culture rich state like Assam.

While the popular target of criticism is government—that is the political class and bureaucrats—I will argue that it is our creative class that has failed to influence public taste. Some of them—across different cultural spheres—are among the best in their fields nationally and even globally. But they have remained, by and large, satisfied getting the recognition outside without doing anything substantial to take their creation to the masses—or at least broaden the reach slightly more among their own people.

It is important to remind here that the situation was not always so in Odisha. Not too long back, a few cultural leaders actually took it upon themselves to cultivate the collective taste of Odia masses, and succeeded to a great extent. They effectively fused Odia traditions with liberal borrowings from the best of creative work across the globe resulting in a highly dynamic cultural content in Odisha.

All of us are only too familiar with these geniuses and their work. Today’s language purists would be astonished to see how liberally Fakir Mohan borrowed from Arabic, Persian and English both in terms of language and ideas even while sticking to the pure Odia themes and use of a lot of colloquial words. Another such great writer was Gopal Praharaj—the man who gave us our first full-fledged lexicon of Odia language.  Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik, who modernized Odia music, built on the traditional Odissi music even while doing numerous experimentations, inspired by music from everywhere, including Bollywood. Pandit Balakrushna Dash, who combined the teachings from Odissi maestro Gokul Srichandan, Hindustani legend Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and numerous Bengali composers including Timir Baran, with whom he worked, was another such great creative soul. Gopal Chhotray, who came with a solid stage background but used the new medium of radio effectively, single-handedly took the best of Odia literature and folk theater to drawing rooms of average Odia families. Last but not the least was Akshaya Mohanty, the man who borrowed from Ghalib as well as from the man on the street; who knew the pulse of the people but did not get carried away.

The common characteristic among all these was that they actively chose to tread this ‘balanced’ path without restricting themselves to a few elite consumers of their art or going completely berserk with just creating stuff on demand.

We badly need such people, if we have to make Odia cool again.

Any culture and language that want to remain in a shell will remain in a shell. While Odias have been a bit conservative—to the extent they love to preserve the tradition—they have also been flexible and open. Kavisurya chose a word like ‘Samjhai’ to make a point about the importance of mother tongue. To me, it seems like he was making a subtle point—that love and respect for mother tongue is not synonymous with rigidity and Puritanism.

This over-zealous campaign for shuddha Odia—where we use Kolabhikalaka for laptop and Antarjala for Internet or where the use of a word like saamil is scoffed at—is not a solution to but a catalyst for further alienation of the young from the language and culture.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and in no way reflect that of

The writer is a tech editor, researcher, data journalist and also writes on music and culture. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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