An innovative Santhali script
By Dr Kailash Kumar Mishra
I had the opportunity to visit the Santhal Pargana region in Jharkhand, a newly constructed and Janjati-dominated state. Teachers, students, peasants, leaders and the common masses in the Santhal Janjati community expressed their happiness on the decision of the NDA government in getting the Santhali language included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution along with Bodo, Maithili and Dogri. They have struggled hard to get their language included in the Eighth Schedule. The one man who has been instrumental in creating the entire atmosphere is the late Raghunath Murmu, affectionately called by the Santhals and other neighbouring Janjatis as Guru Gomke (most respected teacher). Their language, Santhali, belongs to the Munda (or Mundari) branch of Ausio-Asiatic Language family. Efforts of the late Murmu cannot be explained without talking a little about this Janjati.
Jharkhand is home of 31 Janjatis. Santhal, the largest group of the Munda family and second largest Janjati of India, constitutes the biggest Janjati pockets in the state. Though the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand is considered to be the heart of the Santhal area, this Janjati also lives in Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal, and subsists primarily by doing rice farming. Some sections of their population live in the tea gardens of Assam and earn their livelihood by plucking tea leaves.
The Santhals live like children of Nature with their surroundings: the dales, the mountains, the rivers, the green forest, the springs, the groves. They are fond of songs and dance, love, fun and frolic and simple food and drinks. It is the principle of pleasure that dominates their thinking and being. Eat, drink and be merry is their motto in life. After a hard day'stoil, the Santhals immerse themselves to the brim under the magical spell of music and dance. The entire Santhal village vibrates in the sweet melody of their songs and colourful dance of their community. They worship their deities for receiving their blessings to get peace and prosperity. The benevolent spirits are propitiated with sacrifices to pacify their anger. They solemnise their festive occasions for the cause of these gods and propitiate them with music, songs and drinks. They perform different kind of dances to the accompaniment of the religious love and social songs and music in accordance with the characteristics of the ceremonial occasion in which they participate. The Santhal songs and dances are woven together and cannot be seen in isolation. Their songs and dances are communal in nature where men and women participate together.
After a hard day'stoil, the Santhals immerse themselves to the brim under the magical spell of music and dance. The entire Santhal village vibrates in the sweet melody.
The late Raghunath Murmu was born and brought up in Rairangpur region in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. He was a very creative, inspiring, innovative and brilliant Santhal since early childhood. He wanted to create a sense of cultural pride and strengthen the original Santhali identity among the Santhals of all regions. By way of inventing the Ol Chiki script, he provided appropriate writing symbols to the Santhals of all regions. He first conceptualised the script in the 1920s and gave it a final shape in the 1940s.
Rameshwar Murmu, a Santhal himself, presents two myths regarding the origin of the Ol Chiki script. One is that it originated with the creation of the earth. Before this, lighgtning created fire in the sky from which the first letter ?A? originated. With the formation of earth, ?at? appeared. The first five characters, in this way, appeared from the first basic elements, namely, earth, water, fire, air and sky. This concept is very close to the Hindu thoughts in which ?Om? is held as akshar Bramha, the Supreme Being.
The late Raghunath Murmu, an educated Santhal, has followed some principles: first he sorted out the vowel sounds, which came to be six in number. Then he sorted out the consonants, which came to be 24 in number. As consonants cannot be pronounced separately, he combined each vowel with four consonants in such a way that each combination gave some meaning. He shaped the symbols according to the meaning of the pronounced sound of each consonant as well as the vowels. He derived symbols mainly from Nature, the physical environment and everyday life. The relation of Santhals with ritual drawings is also noteworthy.
Though there are 30 characters in the Ol Chiki alphabet, six of them are designed in such a way that each of them represents two sounds, if used in reverse order. Therefore, practically 24 letters are to be learnt. Each symbol has a meaning and the symbol corresponds to the pronounced sound of the letter. Moreover, the symbols have some pictorial quality derived from the natural as well as physical environment. In this way, the alphabet has been helpful for easy transmission. Since the process of writing is also simple, it needs no special way of transmission even by children.
Pandit Raghunath Murmu pleaded strongly that since the Santhals were spread over Jharkhand, Bihar, West Begal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Assam, the regional scripts were not suitable for their language and thus the communication barrier could not be overcomed. The Ol Chiki script is the only medium to establish links between the people of the community. His emphatic and bold arguments proved very convincing to the Santhals. He published his book in the Santhali script. A printing press was established to publish a fortnightly, called Sagen Sakam, in Santhali. An unprecedented enthusiasm overtook the Santhals. The educated Santhals learnt the script by themselves to spread the message. Since the people knew the language, it became easier for them to learn the script through the key book Tribhasi and they could read other books too written in Santhali scripts without much difficulty. Pandit Raghunath Murmu had earlier published his famous drama Bidu Chandan in Oriya and Bengali scripts which highlighted the ancient culture of the community with a new message to embark upon the voyage of learning. The drama was staged in the rural Santhal villages to inspire the youth to learn the Santhali script. Pandit Raghunath Murmu composed folk songs to spread his ideas. This marked the beginning of a new trend in Santhali language and culture.
The All India Santhali Writers? Association has made an attempt to enlist the Santhali writers of the country. The booklet published by the Association reveals that the Santhals have so far produced around 100 Santhali writers, most of whom have published their writings after India'sIndependence. It indicates that the Santhals did not see the light of education during the British regime. Consequently literacy among the Santhals is at a very low level and there are very few readers of Santhali literature even now. The Santhali writers do not get much patronage from the readers. Their books also do not find place in schools and government libraries because of obvious reasons and which is another handicap for Santhali writers.
With the inclusion of Santhali in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, the writers and scholars of this language will get some opportunities to get known to the people and a new wave of creativity will shine in the Santhal world. The second largest Janjati of India in this way will be directly brought to the mainstream of the society and a new cultural awareness among the youth will be created.
(The writer is an anthropologist associated with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi.)