Odiyen Lakshmanan on his efforts to revive different tribal languages

The Coimbatore-based tribal rights activist has collected more than 100 tribal stories as a part of his mission

Since last year, Odiyen Lakshmanan has visited 14 tribal settlements across Coimbatore, collecting and documenting stories of the community. “I have been working for tribal rights for the past 15 years. The kids from these villages go to Tamil medium schools and now speak a mix of Tamil and their native language. When I visited Rayaroothupathi village early in 2020 to distribute storybooks, I asked them to narrate a story in their mother tongue to me. I was shocked at the amount of Tamil influence in their language.” says Lakshmanan.

The incident motivated him to start project Noolal Ezhuvom, to revive tribal languages. Lakshmanan now works with 150 children in 15 villages around Coimbatore, Erode and Salem. “These stories are also now broadcast in the US through the American Tamil Radio channel,” he says.

So far, the team has collected around 100 stories across the Kurumba, Irula, Kota, Urali, Toda, Paniyar, Malayali and Kattunayakan tribes. The stories are about tribal beliefs, history and tradition. Eight volunteers from the community help him in the process. “They are parents or youngsters from the locality. We encourage kids to find stories from their elders and to write them down. Since none of these languages has scripts, they record it using Tamil alphabets.”

Once the stories are written down, the team records the children narrating it, for the radio.“Though the story is in the tribal language, it has similarities to Tamil. So it not difficult for the audience to understand. In addition to this, a brief of the story and the community is also given, during the telecast,” he says. The volunteers make arrangements for the children to listen to their stories broadcast on the radio. “They come together every week for this. It boosts them to find more stories,” he explains.

One of the parents, N Valli from the Irular tribe of Anaikatti says, “We don’t even have a name for our language. With each generation, its usage is coming down. It can even be forgotten in the coming years if not preserved,” she says. B Meghla, a student who has collected two stories says, “The last story I heard was about the friendship between ducks that lived in a pond in the forest. It is exciting as I get to learn new words in my language. I can’t wait to listen to my story on the radio,” she says.

Lakshmanan now plans to bring out a book. “Each story will contain brief information of the respective tribe and of the child who collected it. I hope to launch it soon.”

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