During my early growing-up years in Patna of the newly independent India in the 1950s, Magahi or Magadhi was the language of communication in my house.
My grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts spoke to each other and us children in Magahi. We also spoke to visiting relatives in Magahi.
We talked in Magahi even to those who were married into our or our relatives’ families, for marriages were not only within the same caste but also within the same language. A match was never fixed between a boy or girl from our families with a Bhojpuri- or Maithili-speaking girl or boy, because with the language, the culture changed, making the marriage inharmonious.
We had a joint family then. Gradually we broke up into nuclear families. Today hardly any of us speak Magahi, though some of us can.
The language of communication in our nuclear families is Hindi. My mother, uncles and aunts, who lived for several years after the joint family was scattered, always spoke to us in Magahi. My older sisters spoke to each other and us in Magahi. It is so rare for two members of my old family now to talk in Magahi.
I have never ceased to wonder why we banished Magadhi from our homes.
Songs for every occasion
When I look back upon my growing-up years, it is hard for me to find any fault with Magahi. It had no disability as a vehicle of communication. There were no emotions or arguments you could not express in Magahi. You could write poems and stories in Magahi.
There were songs in Magadhi for every occasion — seasons, sowing, harvesting, festivals, worship, marriage, married daughter’s farewell, childbirth and so on. My grandmother, mother, and aunts knew a number of these songs and sang them often with or without the aid of musical instruments.
Banter was the common form of humour among members of the family, but the women would sometimes raise it to the level of poetry and burst into a song to tease a target. For instance, a young daughter, who had been waiting for months for her husband to come and take her to her marital home, was needled with a song like this one, causing laughter:
Piya piya ratike piyear bhelai dehiya
Logwa kahe pandu rog;
Gavna ke logwa maramiyon na jaane
Gavna na bhelai more.
(Waiting for my beloved, I have turned pale. People say it is jaundice. They do not know what the pains of waiting for the husband for months can do to a woman.)
Women and men in my family often summed up situations crisply in Magahi proverbs.
I remember my grandfather once telling me, when he came to know I had developed friendship with someone who was untrustworthy, “Keep away from him. Paturia ke pireet, balu ke bheet (Building companionship with a whore is like building a wall with sand.)”
Where did Magadhi and Kaithi go?
And all in my family could write Kaithi, which was the script for Magadhi. While women wrote letters in Kaithi, my grandfather and father could read and write documents in Kaithi. The British had made Kaithi the script for the law courts in Bihar. All property documents were in Kaithi.
Where did Magadhi go? Where did Kaithi go? I can’t find them even in a corner of my house. Nor in the houses of my brothers, sisters and cousins. Hindi, riding the horse named Devanagari, has taken over our homes. And it has thrown Magadhi and Kaithi out of the window.
It is not only our homes. Millions of homes in the central parts of south Bihar including the districts of Patna, Nalanda, Gaya, Arwal, Nawada, Aurangabad, Jehanabad, Sheikhpura and Lakhisarai — the Magadhi homeland — have been victims of Hindi expansionism.
The urban homes have been surrendering to it in increasing numbers. The rural homes are struggling to establish a coexistence of Hindi with Magadhi, but not succeeding in a big way.
Education is proving a curse to Magadhi. The better-off classes are moving to Hindi, even to English. “If you ask me, it is the lower classes with low literacy like agricultural labourers who are keeping Magadhi alive,” says Uday Shankar Sharma, the former chairman of the Magahi Academy, the institution set up by the state government to promote the language in Bihar.
What an epic tragedy it is! What was once the language of the Magadhan court is today a vassal of Hindi!
Related: Hindi vs ‘dialects’
Buddha’s sermons, Ashoka’s edicts
During the time of the Buddha, the vernacular in the region was Magadhi Prakrit. The Buddha preferred to give his sermons to people in Magadhi.
Some of the edicts of the Mauryan emperor Asoka are in Magadhi. And Hindi, which emerged in medieval India as a hybrid of Persian and dialects around Delhi only during the Sultanate period, claims Magahi to be one of its dialects!
The earliest known written literature in Magahi goes back to the eighth century, whereas Hindi’s earliest works are of the twelfth century, 400 years later.
The earliest known works in Magahi were written by the 84 Siddhas, the tantric masters in the Hindu and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions who were practitioners and gurus at Nalanda.
Some of the writings of Sarahapa and about a dozen other Siddhas are still available. There are Jain poetry works such as Karpoor Manjari and Chandaleha in Magahi.
In the medieval period, there were a number of itinerant mendicants, called ‘jogis’, who sang songs in Magahi critical of the Brahmanical culture. The most famous among them were Gorakhnath, Machchindranath, and Gopinath.
Grierson and Magahi
George Grierson, an ICS officer who deeply studied the local languages, folklore, and cultures during his postings in Bengal and Bihar in the late 19th century, observed: “There are many popular songs current throughout the area in which the language (Magahi) is spoken, and strolling bards recite various long epic poems which are known more or less over the whole of North India.”
Grierson especially mentioned two of the epic poems, the Song of Gopinath and the Song of Lorik. He even published a translation of the Song of Gopinath in the Asiatic Society of Bengal journal in 1885.
According to Bharat Singh, the head of the department of Magahi at Magadh University, a poet named Surajdas wrote the Ramayana in Magahi in 1480, much before Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi.
There were 18 Ramayanas, two Qurans, and three Bibles written in Magahi. Magahi words are found in Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Jayasi’s Padmavat and Kabir’s works.
The language whose words were used by such great masters of poetry must have been known far and wide beyond its homeland. According to Grierson, people over a very large geographical area of Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, and Odisha had used Magahi over centuries as the language of communication and literature.
Yet Hindi calls it its dialect. The Magahi promoters do not like it when Hindi makes that claim. They say Magahi is a language with its own history, literature, script, grammar, folklore, folk songs and folk theatre. Much of its literature and folk songs might be oral, but that does not take away the literary values from it.
‘Magahi is a river that makes Hindi richer’
Despite Hindi’s imperialist approach, the Magahi promoters do not have a hostile attitude toward it. They want both the languages to co-exist. They lament why Hindi imperialists do not accept that Magahi only makes Hindi richer with its vocabulary and linguistic and literary creativity.
The Vishwa Magahi Parishad, a global organisation of Magahi speakers, expresses the symbiotic sentiment in a Magahi couplet:
Hindi he Bharat ke bindi
Lok bhasa singar he;
Hindi he sagar to bhayya
Magahi sarita dhar he.
(Whereas Hindi is the ornamental mark on India’s forehead, the vernaculars are the nation’s adornment/ Whereas Hindi is the sea, Magahi is a river that makes it richer.)
However, Hindi imperialism would give no room to Magahi.
Magahi’s demand for its inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution has been opposed by them for years.
Although two or three MPs have raised the demand in the Parliament over the past decade or so, their speeches have been brief, superficial, and perfunctory. Both the politicians in power and in opposition in the state have avoided making the demand a big issue. They have even been indifferent to the total dormancy of the Magahi Academy.
Magahi continues to grow
However, despite the opposition of Hindi imperialism to its promotion, despite the lack of political support, Magahi continues to grow.
The growth owes itself largely to individual efforts in the absence of institutional support. Ram Prasad Singh, a college teacher, travelled for months to collect hundreds of lok geet, folk songs sung in villages and towns of the Magahi homeland, and published them as a book (Magahi Lok Geet Ke Vrihad Samgraha). Uday Shankar Sharma, former Magahi Academy head, also went to near and remote villages to collect folk songs, a hundred of which were published in a book (Magahi Manjusha).
More than 100 writers are today actively producing poetry, fiction, satire, treatises, travelogues, and plays in Magahi.
The first novel in Magahi titled Sunita was written a hundred years ago. The second, Fool Bahadur, came out in 1928. The first treatise (prabandh kavya) was published in 1938. The first satire in Magahi was written about 40 years ago.
It is the spirit, enthusiasm, and vitality of the growing number of writers and the Magahi missionaries like the Ram Prasad Singhs, Uday Shankar Sharmas, and Bharat Singhs that keep the hope alive that Magahi is not going to die. No matter how much Hindi might dream of it happening.
(This is the second article in a series on the serious challenges Hindi faces from the languages it calls its dialects)
(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and the author of “The Battle for Bihar”)