Can a project’s success be judged on the basis of its never being completed? Yes, if it’s a living archive of the world’s most complex countryside. Rural India is in many ways the most diverse part of the planet. Its 833 million people include distinct societies speaking well over 700 languages, some of them thousands of years old. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India tells us the country as a whole speaks some 780 languages and uses 86 different scripts. But in terms of provision for schooling up to Class 7, just 4 per cent of those 780 are covered. Most Indian languages are mainly spoken by people in rural India.
The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India lists 22 languages whose development the country’s government is obliged to promote. Yet, there are states whose official languages fall outside those 22, like Khasi and Garo of Meghalaya. Each of six Indian languages is spoken by 50 million people or more. Three are spoken by 80 million or more. One, by close to 500 million. At the other end of the spectrum are unique tribal languages spoken by as few as 4,000 people, some by even less. The eastern state of Odisha alone is home to around 44 tribal languages. The Linguistic Survey reckons that close to 220 languages have died in the past 50 years. Saimar in Tripura is down its last seven speakers.
The same diversity characterises rural India’s occupations, arts and crafts, culture, literature, legend, transportation, and other fields. As the Indian countryside rushes through an extremely painful transformation, many of these features disappear, leaving us poorer. There are, for instance, probably more schools and styles of weaving in India than in any other single nation. Many of these traditional weaving communities face real collapse, which will rob the world of some of its greatest gifts. Some unique occupations – professional storytellers, epic poem singers – are also in danger of extinction.
Much of what makes the countryside unique could be gone in 20-30 years. Without any systematic record, visual or oral, to educate us – let alone motivate us – to save this incredible diversity. We are losing worlds and voices within rural India of which future generations will know little or nothing. Even as the present one steadily sheds its own links with those worlds.
There is surely much in rural India that should die. Much that is tyrannical, oppressive, regressive and brutal – and which must go. Untouchability, feudalism, bonded labour, extreme caste and gender oppression and exploitation, land grab and more. The tragedy though is that the nature of the transformation underway more often tends to bolster the regressive and the barbaric, while undermining the best and the diverse. That, too, will be documented here.
THIS IS WHERE Stories, of Hope! COMES IN
Stories, of Hope! (SoH) will be both a living journal and an archive. It will generate and host reporting on the countryside that is current and contemporary, while also creating a database of already published stories, reports, videos and audios from as many sources as we can. All of SoH own content comes under the Creative Commons and the site is free to access. And anyone can contribute to SoH. Write for us, shoot for us, record for us – your material is welcome so long as it meets the standards of this site and falls within our mandate: the everyday lives of everyday people.
The use of many libraries and museums in India has fallen, more so in the last 20 years. This was compensated by the fact that what you can find in our museums, you could also find on our streets: the same miniature painting schools, the same traditions of sculpture. Now those too are fading. Library and museum visits amongst the young are more rare than routine. However, there is one place future generations the world over, including Indians, will visit more and more: the Net. Internet access, particularly broadband, is low in India, but it is expanding. It is the right place to build – as a public resource – a living, breathing journal and an archive aimed at recording people’s lives. The Stories, of Hope! Many worlds, one website. More voices and distinct languages, we hope, than have ever met on one site.
It means an undertaking unprecedented in scale and scope, utilising myriad forms of media in audio, visual and text platforms. One where the stories, the work, the activity, the histories are narrated, as far as possible, as far as we can manage, by rural Indians themselves. By tea-pickers amidst the fields. By fishermen out at sea. By women paddy transplanters singing at work, or by traditional storytellers. By Khalasi men using centuries-old methods to launch heavy ships to sea without forklifts and cranes. In short, by everyday people talking about themselves, their labour and their lives – talking to us about a world we mostly fail to see.