Growing up in India, the myriad of distinctive cultures has always fascinated me. From an early age, I would be intrigued for hours watching religious processions on the streets or watching a Hindu Priest performing Yagnas to mark an auspicious beginning. My parents would make it a point to take their children to offer prayers at our community Gurdwara as often as they could. I would carefully observe the Kar Sevaks performing ministrations, volunteers preparing Langar to be served to the Sangat (congregation). Everything would seem like clockwork, tasks performed with utmost care and with such poise. Despite the million questions flooding my mind, my heart would somehow, feel at ease, just being a part of it.
I graduated as an engineer from Punjab University with no background in linguistics or translation. Punjabi being my mother tongue, my instinct was to grasp the colloquial essence of the place. It was interesting to observe tiny differences in the way certain words from the same language would change phonetically or vary, albeit slightly, in meaning from region to region. All those years growing up I would believe that every language would bear similarity universally but suddenly I was exposed to a new horizon which changed my understanding. After four years, I graduated from university, learning a culture.
Post-university, I landed my first job in Delhi, a city with an assortment of intricate cultures. Delhi, with its rich and diverse history, has witnessed great changes in its cultural development throughout time. You could find people from every part of the world living in Delhi; I’ve met Israelis, Afghans, Japanese, Vietnamese, you name it. Despite having smaller communities, people have adapted themselves here. They speak the common language of the masses, they understand the nitty-gritty of the commoners, and I believe it really helps them amalgamate with the culture. What I really find overwhelming is how a city can offer something to everyone, from every background, should people choose to understand each other. During my time here, I would venture out to specific corners of Delhi to find new cultures. Well, to be honest, it was the thought of tasting foreign delicacies that actually drove me, but let’s settle on ‘cultures’ for now!
I stumbled across Wikitongues by chance. I was looking for some volunteer work since I had some free time at hand. After carefully reading about the project and the community, my first thought was “If there’s anything that can expose me to new varieties of food, this is it”. Ludicrous? I know! But think about it: every culture has its own identity and more often than not, cuisines are known to represent a culture. Ergo, silly me nonchalantly signed up!
I dusted my once abandoned DSLR, packed my gear, and set out to have some interesting conversations with people. My first interview was with an old friend who, to my own surprise, was staggeringly overjoyed to be filmed speaking his native tongue (Maithili). His excitement knew no bounds; he’d start talking and break midway to steal glances of approval from his baffled wife who was clearly amused by his antics. It took us several takes to record a conversation in a single shot! Fun times!
And of course, the effort was equally rewarding for my appetite. I was invited to join them on their customary Sunday afternoon Mithila meal. How could you say no to that! ;)
While heading back home that very afternoon, I saw two housemaids enter the premises to go about their routine work. I couldn’t make out the language they were conversing in, so I gently approached them and explained, showing them my gear, what it is that I am trying to do. It was their blissful moment, of having a carefree conversation as if nothing else around them existed at that moment, that I really wanted to capture. They were hesitant at first, but eventually decided to give it a shot. I hadn’t even set up the camera when they began talking, happily unaware of their surroundings once again!
It was another colloquial dialect of Bengali which they spoke I was later briefed, but it was more or less limited to their small cluster of families who lived together. As if suddenly realizing a foreign presence overhearing them, both of them scurried away without a warning, rendering the recording incomplete. While I was despairingly re-packing my gear, one of them came back and in broken Hindi, apologized for their sudden disappearance. She was kind enough to help me understand the basic context of what they spoke but I couldn’t gather much of it. She smiled amiably, watching me fidget with the translations, and went back to her work. Interesting day, I thought!
One week later, I overheard one of my colleagues at work speaking on the phone in Garhwali. It took some coaxing to get him on board but I did get a short introductory video out of him. By this time, I was virtually looking out with my heightened sense of “hearing phonetics”, to find a way to capture it on camera. Everything seemed befitting! Over the course of the next 2 months, I had recorded oral histories of four different languages and dialects. Some encounters during my travel wouldn’t be entirely fruitful; people would be interested wouldn’t want to be recorded on camera. While their decision is completely understandable, I did happen to find a certain keenness in their demeanor to understand more about Wikitongues and its projects.
When I signed up to volunteer with Wikitongues, I wasn’t certain of the kind of role I’d choose to begin with. Considering my work schedule, I thought recording videos would be easiest. It was only when I began filming, I started appreciating this effort while interacting with people, bearing a new-found perception about languages and cultures. I feel that realizing the essence of age-old cultural traditions and how they have shaped the world that we live in today, makes cultural preservation absolutely indispensable. Being associated with Wikitongues has greatly channelized my belief into following my responsibility.
I firmly believe in the socio-cultural responsibilities that we as humans should proudly adhere to. Each one of us is born into an independent culture, a thriving community, which teaches us the essence of belonging, not just for ourselves but for the greater good of humanity. Despite being widely varied, every culture teaches us to be responsible for one another, one generation after the other.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” A tiny effort on one’s part might seem insignificant on the whole but with passing years, it might be all that remains of a culture. Every little bit helps!
Thanks to Kristen Tcherneshoff.