In an age where regional languages are rapidly losing importance in the Indian society thanks to the omnipresence of English, Swati Raje’s work comes as a gigantic boon to the preservation and enhancement of regional languages. A prolific writer, journalist and author of award-winning children’s books, academia and activism are in Raje’s blood. In 2008, she established Bhaashaa Foundation, an organisation which works towards the strengthening of regional languages through innovative community-based projects like mobile libraries, book corners in hospitals, teacher training programmes and storytelling festivals.
This month, BnP converses with Swati Raje about Bhaashaa Foundation’s interesting and holistic way of approaching language preservation and why this cultural reclamation must begin with children.
The scope of Bhaashaa’s activities is awe-inspiring. Tell us, what drove you to establish this foundation?
I worked as a journalist in Sakal from 1987 to 2001 and subsequently wrote television series for a few years. Over the two decades, I witnessed the newspaper and book-reading population transition into a glued-to-the-television generation. I could see that reading was taking a backseat, especially in cities. As veteran stalwarts in the writing industry retired, there didn’t seem to be enough young writers to replace them. After I quit journalism, I did my Masters in Marathi literature and M. Phil in Children’s Literature. I travelled extensively outside India where I realised how powerful the movement for children’s literature was. I felt strongly about preserving Indian regional languages and India had tremendous scope for such a movement.
Language has to be brought into practice in order to preserve it. But it is difficult to do so with older people who are set in their ways linguistically, and hence it is necessary to start with children. This is essentially how Bhaashaa Foundation came about.
From mobile libraries to book corners to help kill time constructively at queues, Bhaashaa’s projects are unique and community-based.
I believe that a library is not limited to a room full of books. I prefer calling a library as any place where a person is in the company of a book. We started mobile libraries to reach out to children and get them interested in reading through well-researched, interactive activities. At hospitals and clinics, queues are often long and kids get restless and cranky. The ‘Read While You Wait’ book corners come to their rescue by providing them with a good distraction and also getting them interested in books.
Bhaashaa explores language not only through books, but also through audio visual platforms like storytelling festivals, plays and films. How does this help our young audience?
With the advent of digitalisation, children’s attention span has reduced. To keep things interesting, we had to think innovatively and bring in audio visual elements. At ‘Katha Yatra’, the country’s largest story festival, we go beyond normal story reading and also explore stories through dance, drama and puppetry. Then we also organise ‘Yaksha Prashna’, an inter-school quiz competition developed after tremendous research just like our other activities. At the ‘Chitrangan’ festival, we focus on bringing regional, national and international children’s films to our young audience along with arranging interactive sessions with the directors. These events not only entertain children but also create love for our regional languages in them.
Language acquisition is a process that merits constant research and development. How do you think we can improve the way children learn languages today?
In India, language is not given as much importance as science and mathematics. Hence we started conducting teacher training workshops in rural and urban areas to develop language teaching abilities. Our workshops push creative thinking which goes hand in hand with language. Students are also given scientifically developed learning material which complements their school curriculum. Through research and micro-development, we need to constantly reimagine and reinvent the process of language acquisition.
You are a regular at international conferences and national seminars on language and literature. How have these impacted your work at Bhaashaa?
It is essential to have dialogue at the global level to keep up with international trends and learn from one another. These conferences help us in our pursuit of creating an academic framework for our activities. Once we conducted a workshop in Maldives where the teachers drew picture stories with giraffes and zebras, animals that are not native to the country. We urged them to instead imbibe their stories with elements present on the island itself, like corals and sea life, which children can instantly relate to. It was a success. We need to realise that when it comes to languages, it is essential to think local before we think global.
Talking about local culture, you have written several books like ‘Paus’, ‘Pravas’ and ‘Rasta’ for children. How is children’s literature in India developing, according to you?
I believe that the local cultural context needs to be more visible in children’s literature. For example, the poem ‘Ye re ye re pausa’ (Please let it rain) would probably relate better to children in India where rainfall is not abundant always, rather than ‘Rain, rain go away’. Local languages often have certain expressions which pertain only to those regions, expressions which this generation does not come across because they don’t read that kind of literature anymore. That said, I strongly believe that we need quality children’s literature in India, something that our publication house Bhaashaa Multimedia strives to bring.
Give us a sneak-peak into Bhaashaa’s future plans.
We are planning to roll out the e-journal “Bhaashaayan”, a peer-reviewed magazine which aggregates the wonderful content generated during our activities. We also aim to start story building workshops for parents this year. I am happy to say that we launched India’s first regional language Olympiad, the Marathi “Bhaashaa” Olympiad, in 2015. Plans for conducting this event in other regional languages in different states are in the offing. We also aim to build more libraries in the rural areas of Maharashtra.
Sounds wonderful! As a parting shot, tell us which other languages you would like to learn.
I have already started learning Bengali and wish to learn Urdu too. Besides, Spanish is on my list as well and I simply adore Spanish literature. And lastly, although I am fluent in English, I would like to get to know the language more intimately.