Semi-English

“I have been thinking about how history plays an important part in re-defining and re-designing our present. I am interested in representing my reality, and for me reality is like a barber’s purifying stone left in water, the water is murky even when it looks clear. ‘Someday is today’ is not just about discrimination based on colour, it is about caste, language, clothing, lifestyles - not just in society, but also the kind of discrimination I and my fellow artists face occasionally within Bombay’s art scene. ” - Nikhil Raunak

Right until the 19th century,had ben the language of the court.  Adopted by various rulers, for more than seven centuries, Persian had received court patronage. The East India Company who had become de facto rulers of India, under a puppet Mughal emperor in Delhi had also adopted the language in its dealings with the natives. It was only after the revolution of 1857, when India passed into the hands of the British Crown were there serious attempts to replace Persian with English. By then a camp creole had arisen in the camps of the soldiers - Urdu was primarily an Indian language which had loan words from Persian, Arabic and Turkish, brought together with Indian grammar and punctuation. At Partition, in 1947, Urdu was made the national language of Pakistan, and words of Sanskrit origin were expunged from it, while in India we adopted the devanagari script and Hindi became fairly absurd with the introduction of sanskrit words that were to replace things commonly described as the Railways, Airport, University, and others. By the time of our Independence English had effectively replaced Persian as the official language of the government, ending many centuries of use and was taught purely now in village schools run by Muslim Moulvis, if one studied to become a traditional Yunani or Greco-Arabic Doctor or came from a family of Poets and learning.  

An Introduction to the Maithili dialect of the Bihari language as spoken in North Bihar  By George A. Grierson Published by Asiatic Society, Calcutta - 1909

An Introduction to the Maithili dialect of the Bihari language as spoken in North Bihar. By George A. Grierson .Published by Asiatic Society, Calcutta - 1909

Hindi soon became an imposition on a majority who did not share the same enthusiasm as the lawmakers in Delhi. Even today, our Prime Minister is unable to read or write in the Devanagari script because he belongs to an age group that did not study Hindi at school. Hindi was mutually intelligent to the languages of the North and easily understood by people from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and the neighbouring states around Delhi. But down in the deep south on the peninsula of the subcontinent in states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, anti-Hindi movements began that would at times result in riots and dismissals of state governments for their opposition to implement the teaching of Hindi in schools. Many states - in the West, East and the South of the country - preferred English for its neutrality rather than accept the imposition of a language they saw no reason to call their own. The federal government was sensitive in measuring the popular sentiment and it included a long list of scheduled languages and each state was to have its own list of recognised official languages which may include Hindi or English.  

'Geographical Distribution of Languages in the State of Bihar' Modified and Drawn on Digital Copy by Nikhil Raunak 2013

A lack of similar sensitivity across the border lead to the formation of Bangladesh after a long and bloody civil war. India aided the Bangla people and Pakistan was split into two halves. India today in the same vicinity fights similar aggressions with people determined to ascertain their cultural sovereignty which includes the recognition of their languages. The Indian sub-continent is one of those geographies which has the highest number of languages that face extinction. Works of many contemporary Bangladeshi artists often refer to the inheritance of a national identity based on a language and a script. The poet to the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is notably the noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore. But his poetic assertions of unanimity based on language do not sit well in this region. This year, a 100 years since he won his Nobel Prize, Sri Lanka is just about able to emerge from a genocide it inflicted on its own people, the minority Tamil speakers, whom it sees as aliens. While Bangladesh is still putting its devils to rest as it tries those responsible for the heinous war crimes during the civil war.    

Language Politics have had various resonances around India. In the erstwhile Bombay Province, Marathi was the reason to rally for the reorganisation of the states. The 'Samyukt Maharashtra' or 'United Maharashtra' movement united the Communists and the right wing parties such as the Shiv Sena. When the state of Maharashtra was finally formed, a JJ School of Art alumni, Bal Thackeray then a young cartoonist working for India's widely read newspaper - the Times of India,  began a party that would champion the cause of the 'sons of the soil' and popularise the use of Marathi. It was the 1970s and labour unions in Bombay were rallying for better wages, but the Shiv Sena was brought in to quell the strikes and the workers were rallied around the fact that their language was in trouble by migrating populations that came to find work in Bombay. Any opposition was violently crushed.

By the 1980s the ruling Centre-aligned party, the Indian National Congress, had warmed up to its space in the arena of language politics. A new measure was brought within schools, 'Semi-English' was introduced - English was now to be taught as an additional language within government schools and Marathi would be the primary language for education. The state's SSC board which regulated school education certified schools in urban areas which were privately run or by missionaries to administer English medium education. These schools charged higher fees often many times more than what state funded municipal or village schools charged - the English classes in these schools were conducted by teachers inept at teaching the language.

Though Marathi has had a rich tradition of translations from other languages, you will find important texts of french philosophers, poets and autobiographies of artists carefully translated, they do not suffice a modern education. There are not enough books in medicine, engineering, accounting or even art history, that are translated each year into India's vernacular languages so as to act as alternatives to an English education. The need for English grows despite a downturn in the outsourcing market - which required young graduates who could mimic Australian, British and American accents.  

Sachin Bonde is the son of a primary school teacher in a village in the Yeotmal district of Maharashtra. His mother-tongue is Marathi but like most Eastern Maharashtrians he speaks Hindi fluently and has been able to pick up the rare Gormati, the language of his neighbours who are the nomadic wandering people of India - the Banjaras. He has studied English since a young age. Bonde is very articulate with his views on politics. Each day he surveys English and Vernacular dailies studying them in detail. His work is archaeological in nature often reclaiming objects from history layering them to criticise the betrayal of Politicians. He felt betrayed when he found himself in the JJ School of Art, where the Art History curriculum had no Marathi reference books. He found the libraries of Bombay ill-stocked, they had discontinued collecting since the last few decades. The Art History professor wrote extensive notes for the students in Marathi, explaining each period of change in great detail. But that did not suffice the need for students such as Bonde, who found that often in lectures, discussions, or when they read reviews in art journals, English eclipsed other languages. A language taught to them in the lacklustre format of Semi-English.

'BDD Chawl' Etching Triptych, Mangesh Kapse 2013 

Mangesh Kapse was fated by Bollywood - his friends would call him 'Natha'. A character from a popular film where a team of villagers defeats a group of British Colonials thus saving themselves from paying taxes during a drought. 'Natha' is a pet name often given to someone who is unattractive and short. Kapse, for his first annual show at the Sir JJ School of Art makes a large body of paintings depicting erotica that he engages in, challenging the narrow parameters of physical attraction and lust. He too finds speaking in English a strain, his father a school dropout - but someone educated in an earlier period - though a clerk in a government office often officiates for his seniors for he is fluent in English unlike the rest.  

Both Kapse and Bonde are featured in Nikhil Raunak's first solo exhibition. Nikhil Raunak, about 5 years ago, found himself in the JJ School of art. He was there to study, undecided as to what his future held. The decision to become an artist was opposed by his father, who saw it as a profession of privilege, something a soldier’s son could not afford. His father had chosen a life in the army  when men as young as 16 were recruited to fight an aggression by China in 1962. He asked his son to leave his home. Nikhil, finding his relationship with his father authoritarian,  began working in restaurants and through the support of his sister was able to pay his fees and rent for school. But this introduction to the city, was not uncommon to the many he met in his art school. He was now a migrant from the impoverished state of Bihar in a city that had come to be dependent on his fellow Biharis, but still unwelcoming of their migrant presence. Though discrimination in the city was not ethnicity specific. It was divided many times over, by class and caste, and also geography. Most students in the JJ School of Art looked forward to working as assistants in artist studios, assisting on Bollywood sets, or working as commercial artists or art school teachers. A career as an independent artist was hindered by a certain pessimism. The academic syllabus, and a few teachers encouraged students to act as craftsmen, working on commissions rather than pursuing careers.

 

'An artist who cannot speak English is no artist, 1994' - MLADEN STILINOVIĆ ,born in 1947 in Belgrade (RS), lives and works in Zagreb (HR) 

A career was hindered if one did not speak English, and English as a language had been discouraged by regional governments, hindering an entire generation’s ability in the language. There are few translations into vernacular languages of texts on art history. The access to language is often dependent on one’s caste and class, and the ‘Art Scene’  becomes a platform of this discrimination by not accommodating artists from divergent backgrounds which is natural in a country like India. Nikhil speaks of his own personal experience with disarming honesty. He extends the narrative of his disinclusion, extending its story to discuss disinclusion far from himself, in time and place.

  

Thus Sachin and Mangesh find themselves as part of a video which is accompanied by a script - one of Nikhil Raunak's several invented typography for English, and is the last subtitle of the video that discusses the problem around language, the efficacy of articulation, and ultimately about in-equal opportunities that arise from inequally-valued ways of sharing an artistic thought. There is a complex typo-map that helps you decode the subtitles, mimicking the difficulties artists often face with English.