Jul 062017

Mitchell, Lisa. Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009. pa281


Reviewed by:

Muhammed P

Ph D Scholar,

Department of Cultural Studies,

The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.


What makes someone willing to die for a language? This is the question Lisa Mitchell’s anthropological study, Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue sets out to explore. Looking at the event of Potti Sriramulu's well-publicized fast-unto-death, which resulted in his death after 58 days of fast, and the subsequent protests, Lisa Mitchell tries to show how language has become a new foundational category.

How the nature of the relationship between the language, the land and the people have changed over time and how ‘mother tongues’ have become markers of one’s identity, is a parallel, yet closely-related theme that runs through the book. The book also looks at the multiple narratives on events that followed Sriramulu’s death, including the incident where four young people were shot dead at Nellore railway station during a protest march, to exemplify how various threads were collapsed into a single one – that of the collective passion of a people for a separate state for Telugu-speaking people.

Even though Sriramulu's death is the central event in the discussion apropos the formation of a separate Andhra state, Mitchell's narrative does not begin with his dramatic 1952 fast. According to her, not only can Sriramulu's passionate commitment to language not be explained by beginning our historical analysis from 1952, but it also cannot be explained by examining his relationship to the Telugu language in isolation.

The themes discussed in the book are reflected in the title of the book and on the cover picture. Eight chapters, including an introduction, a conclusion and six individual chapters on various dimensions of the issue the book deals with, are connected in a ‘linear’ narrative.

The “Introduction” lays out the major issues that the author addresses in this book, prime among them being the new emotional commitment to language. How language has become a legitimate basis, and perhaps the only one, for collective identity in post-independence India is a major question. She introduces issues that she would deal with in subsequent chapters – close attention to technological changes in transportation and communication, the restructuring of political power, and shifts in patronage, pedagogy, and the production of knowledge to trace the creation of a new role for language as a foundation for the reorganization of knowledge and practice in southern India.

In the first chapter, titled “From Language of the Land to Language of the People: Geography, Language and Community in Southern India”, Lisa Mitchell looks at the change in the relationship between language and territory. She does so by analyzing the subtle change in the prefaces of the first and second editions of Gurujada Sriramamurti’s Lives of Poets, which came out in 1893 and 1913 respectively.

In the preface to the first edition of Sriramamurti's book, there was an appeal to “those attached to the language of the Telugu country” whereas the preface to the second edition, which was published 14 years after Sriramamurti's death, appeals to “those attached to the Andhra language”. Mitchell looks at this shift from a language of the land to language of the people. She argues that “territory no longer formed the primary locus for identifying linguistic differences”. She adds that “by 1913, evidence suggests that languages were no longer primarily associated with places but were increasingly imagined as inalienable attributes of people”. Language was no more seen as a feature of the territory and it was around this time that the word matr bhasa (mother tongue) was introduced into the Telugu language.

In the second chapter, titled “Making a Subject of Language”,  Mitchell looks at how, by the twentieth century, Telugu language came to be personified elaborately and how it began to be imagined and described as having a life of its own. From then, acquiring a life history and family tree, Telugu language became personified as Telugu Talli or Mother Telugu. To substantiate her point that language had become an explicit marker of shared identity, Mitchell argues that in Gurujada Sriramamurti's book, Lives of Poets, the emphasis is not on the works of the poets but on their lives. What he does by this is to project those poets as ideal representatives of the Telugu language. She sees Sriramamurti's book as “one step in the larger cultural transformation that ultimately enabled the recognition of a biographic life of the Telugu language by the early twentieth century”. This transformation happened through various stages such as the shifts in patronage and technologies of circulation which facilitated the imagining of a wider audience of Telugu users; the adoption of new styles and literary techniques for narrating the lives of human beings; the introduction of chronological ordering; the conversion of histories of multiple poets to the history of the language; and the production of a full-fledged biography of a language as possessing a life of its own.
Mitchell looks at the event of the erection of a statue of the goddess Telugu Talli in August 2002 in front of the Andhra Pradesh Secretariat in Hyderabad as an attempt to understand the continuing emotional attachment to Telugu language among people who take pride in their linguistic identity. She says that this statue has come to stand for the personified Telugu language, its speakers and the territory that is defined by the use of Telugu language. She notes that the inscription on the goddess of Telugu Talli is in English and not in Telugu.  It is not the use of Telugu, but the idea of Telugu that matters, Mitchell argues. What this shows is that from a medium of communication, language has become a marker of cultural identity. Mitchell says, "Actual knowledge of a language is not essential for language to be seen as an attribute of someone's identity today." The assertion of a language as the natural basis for one's identity also requires the distancing from other languages. Language, as a foundational category, makes people of one language differentiate from people of other languages.

The third chapter titled 'Making the Local Foreign: Shared Language and History in Southern India' looks at what constitutes a shared language. Even when the speakers of the same language face unintelligibility because of dialect variations, they are all connected by a shared language.  The author argues that ''mutual intelligibility has been displaced as the criterion of what constitutes a shared language by invocation of history and common origin of a language."

Mitchell looks at how various scholars looked at the question of foreign words and the notion of pure Telugu. The notions of the local and the foreign have been very significant in the process of linguistic identification. Even now, many newspapers would not want to use even English words. Following the Sanskrit Vyakarana tradition, four categories of language analysis meant for identification and differentiation were framed by the scholars of Telugu in the nineteenth century. They were tatasma (the same as it), tadbhava (of the nature of it), desya (of the country or region) and gramya (of the village). The fourth category was an addition that Telugu scholars made to the Sanskrit vyakarana tradition. However the category of the foreign was absent in pre-colonial Telugu grammar. The kind of language analysis based on these four categories have been crucial in the construction of the notions of the local and the foreign. The idea of foreignness was emerged with the dominance of the ideology of historical origins and derivations.

Through three examples, the author shows how the notion of the foreign was inserted into language analysis. The first one is the rewriting of Telugu grammar by colonial administrators such as Alexander Duncan Campbell and Francis Whyte Ellis. The differentiation of words into desya (native/local) and anyadesya (foreign) was a shift that they brought into the language analysis. The second example Mitchell gives is that of the colonial administrator Charles Philip Brown's struggle to define the term anyadesyam. In 1840, he glossed the term anyadesya as local whereas in an 1857 publication the same word is defined as foreign. The third example is concerned with the notion of 'pure Telugu'. Pure Telugu was defined by the above mentioned colonial administrators as desyam-the words that belong to the land. It is this move of inventing a pure Telugu that makes the category of the foreign conspicuous. The author argues that the meta-linguistic movements in Telugu made new categories available which were responsible for the emergence of linguistic identities.

The next chapter, titled 'From Pandit to Primer: Pedagogy and Its Mediums' looks at the nineteenth century practice of educational intervention and the place of language as the most valuable object of study. The chapter focusses on the emergence of language as a new object of attention and intervention. The shift from learning language in use to learning languages as discrete and separate objects was evidenced by the replacing of pandits by printed primers and text books as ways of acquiring a language. Mitchell argues that learning language was not the explicit goal of learning and acquiring varied linguistic skills in formal or informal education. Linguistic competency meant being able to use language. However, soon there is a shift evident towards seeing languages themselves as objects of study.
In the shift from pandits to primers, the ability to memorize was relegated to an inferior position as printed texts became, to use Marshall McLuhan's term, extensions of man. The author argues that “printed textbooks did not simply replace the manuscripts which preceded them, but that they occasioned an entire restructuring of the meanings, practices, participants, goals and agendas related to the process of becoming educated.”

The book shows that in 19th century south India, the pandit's aim was to impart as much as he knows to his disciples. What the pandit expected from his students was an exact replica of himself. Whereas the teacher's role was to develop language skills in children and his agenda was not to replicate himself. The agenda of the school teacher was to teach something that was laid out in text books. 

The author says that the shift from pandit to primer as the organizing principle of educational content needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the larger historical conditions of the nineteenth century.  According to her, Christian missionary activity, administrative decisions made by colonial administrators, the new demands of colonial employment, the advent of printing in south India, and the establishment of educational and literary societies all had effects on educational practice in the Madras Presidency and on experiences of language. As a combined result of all these, textbooks began to replace pandits and textbooks were thought to be helping the quality of students' language usage.  She then goes on to give examples of two major Telugu primers and says that for most people education became synonymous with mastering the primer. She also shows that memory or the skill of remembering lost its importance in the aftermath of the introduction of print technology. Avadhanam, the skill of remembering many different matters, became no more a central value necessary to the preservation and transmission of knowledge-a shift from a practice to a mere performance. These changes meant a shift from mere literacy to cultural literacy which facilitated the making of language the foundation stone for language-cultures.

In the fifth chapter titled 'From the Art of Memory to the Practice of Translation: Making Languages Parallel', the author looks at how the objectives of education began to be defined along linguistic lines. It became necessary for students to acquire a more general basic knowledge of specific languages. Learning the grammar of a language became a prerequisite for doing things with language. By twentieth century the very meaning of being literate has undergone a radical change. Earlier, people used various languages for various purposes: Sanskrit for religious ablutions, Persian for official purposes, etc. However, by twentieth century different registers of the same language come to replace the various languages. There was also a change of perception that what one can do in a language can be done in any other language. This led to the idea of universal translatability.  By this time literacy began to mean the knowledge of the mother tongue. Mitchell traces three specific aspects of this shift towards the mother tongue. Instead of using languages to do things, language itself was made as discrete objects of study. The introduction of dictionaries which preoccupied with the notion of purity and origin resulted in the representation of languages as separate yet equivalent. The third aspect she points out is that the practice of translation has played a significant role in making languages appear to be parallel and equivalent to one another.

The author identifies three locations or domains in which the transition of language as separate, discrete and parallel objects takes place. They are the domains of study of language, lexicography and translation. The changes in these domains make Telugu no more a unique medium but a marker of socio-political identity and foundation for political and cultural authority.

The sixth chapter, titled 'Martyrs in the Name of Language? Death and the Making of Linguistic Passion' examines the events that took place around 1952, when Potti Sriramulu died and violence erupted in various parts of the present day Andhra Pradesh and the Centre's subsequent act of declaring a separate state for the Telugu-speaking people. She looks at how the violent events in the wake of Potti Sriramulu's death were read by Andhra movement leaders, historians and journalists. They saw it as an evidence of the coming together of the people's passion over the issue of linguistic statehood. However, Lisa Mitchell offers a reading against the grain to show that multiple narratives were collapsed into a single narrative of the formation of a separate state.

Lisa Mitchell offers various narratives about the nature of the movement and the events that took place in the wake of Sriramulu's death. According to many people, the Andhra movement became a mass movement only after the death of Sriramulu. Some people express the opinion that the movement became a mass movement with the eruption of violence. She finds problem with such a view that the participation of the masses was often seen as a law and order issue. The four boys who died at Nellore were not regarded as active participants or freedom fighters by many of the elites. Mitchell shows that the deaths of the four people at Nellore and similar deaths in other parts of the state got any mention only when they supported the larger narrative of the swelling passion of the masses for a separate state. She offers multiple versions of the stories about the four boys died at Nellore. Various newspapers had various narratives; the relatives had another narrative, etc. Finally, she shows how these four boys were appropriated as martyrs and the dead bodies of the three boys were not given to the relatives. What happens is there that they become part of the larger narrative of collective passion and all other narratives are sidelined.

The book's concluding remark is that it is the many shifts in the representation of and relationship to language that occurred in the 19th century that make the reading of the violence of 1952 as evidence of the unified passions of the masses for a separate Telugu-speaking state. The author shows how the emotional attachment to a language is something historically situated. Looking at the formation of three new states in 2000 and the similar demands for new states in contemporary India, she argues that it is development and governance, rather than language, the key word in the debates about the formation of new states. Even within the Telangana movement, the issue of language had become less significant and the issue of economic development had become more prominent.

As Mitchell pointed out in the introduction, the language movements in India were not separatist or secessionist as they were in the Europe. The nascent Indian state was not ready to entertain any secessionist demands and any demands for separate states needed to have popular support. It is here that language became the only legitimate foundation for political assertion. Her work is an attempt to understand the historical changes that made it possible for people to unite on the basis of a shared linguistic identity and also to show the devotion, pride, etc. people felt towards languages that went into the making of a mother tongue.

Unlike scholars like Bernard Cohn, Mitchell's analysis is not on colonial practices in relation to languages. In fact she starts from where Cohn has left off. An important feature of this book is that the author looks at the Nellore incident, which was subsumed under the larger narrative of 'collective passion' of the masses, more closely to offer against-the-grain readings. She asks how we can explain the presence of lower class and lower middle class people if the Andhra movement was a middle class movement. Why had those present during the agitations chosen to be there, and how could the discourse of attachment to language so easily come to be accepted as accounting for their presence? How has the idea of an emotional commitment to one’s mother tongue displaced other possible explanations for the large-scale events that occurred in the wake of Potti Sriramulu’s death in December 1952? The book is successful in answering these questions which the author stated as the aim of the book.

This book is the result of many years of research the methodology of which include detailed ethnographic studies, archival research, etc. For Lisa Mitchell, the research for this book also meant making Telugu one of her 'tongues' if not mother tongue.  Some of the tools the author used are personal interviews, discourse analysis, etc. An Anthropologist by training, Lisa Mitchell subjects a wide range of historical materials and literary materials as part of her analysis. Newspaper reports, official documents, personal records, pamphlets, etc. have been analyzed in this study. The sources that informed this study are mainly from Sanskrit, Telugu and English.

Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue is a valuable asset to the corpus of studies about linguistic identities and state/nation formations, adding to the contributions made by scholars such as Sumathi Ramaswamy, Paul Brass, etc. This book, which has drawn heavily on Benedict Anderson's concept of 'imagined communities', also helps us to understand the limitations of Anderson's thesis in understanding the origins of nationalism in south India.

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