First words

Pratham Books launches a publishing project to promote Indian tribal languages


The cover of an ‘Adikahani’ book
The cover of an ‘Adikahani’ book

The first words a child learns are usually in the mother tongue. In the case of tribal communities, children would learn the language through the oral tradition, by interacting with the family and the community, since they had no script to work with. At school, however, they would be taught in the language of the mainstream—a difficult transition.

Bangalore-headquartered Pratham Books hopes to change this. On 27 June, in an initiative aimed at encouraging mother-tongue education, it launched a series of bilingual books called Adikahani. To start with, this 10-book series has been published in Odia and the languages used by four tribal communities in Odisha (Kui, Saura, Munda and Juanga), in the Odia script. “They are the first-ever books for the reading pleasure of children in these languages,” says Manisha Chaudhry, editor, Pratham Books.

Pratham has used the bilingual format to bring out English and Hindi versions of all the books. Urdu and English, and Marathi and English, formats are in the works.

Since the books are being published under an open licence, anyone can translate them into another language. In fact, two books have already been published in the Tamil and English format.

Around 250 languages have been lost in the last 50 years and around 850 languages are presently spoken in India, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India published in 2013 by the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (BRPC), which documents the languages and heritage of tribal communities. India also leads in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with 197 Indian languages listed as endangered.

Modest attempts have been made in the past by governments, not-for-profits and publishers to make children learn their mother tongue at the preschool level. The Odisha government, for instance, runs a programme under which teachers and Anganwadi workers interact with and teach preschool children in their own language.

“Well-intentioned policies often come to a halt due to a lack of meaningful learning material,” says Ganesh Devy, a linguist and founder trustee of the BRPC. There have been attempts by the Union government to devise an early childhood care and education (ECCE) curriculum, but these have focused mainly on translating mainstream manuals into tribal languages. “This is not always suitable because tribal cultures have a different conception of nurturing a child,” says Chaudhry.

The Adikahani series, for children aged 8-12, is by first-time authors. The initiative began taking shape when a writing workshop was organized in Bhubaneswar in July last year by Pratham Books and IgnusERG, a group of professionals who work to develop education modules and curriculum for students of preschool and upper-primary levels, along with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a funding body with an interest in mother-tongue education.

“Tribal languages are full of imaginative stories and poems,” says Devy, who believes that educating a child in the mother tongue has emotive and cognitive value—it enables a child to process what is taught much better.

“It all began when we were trying to develop curricula and reading material for early childhood education using tribal cultural resources,” says Subir Shukla, principal coordinator, IgnusERG. Not enough material was available. Many of the people from the communities seemed to have forgotten most of the old fables.

Shukla says they looked for people who were 50 years old or above, had worked in the non-profit sector, or were teachers. They were trained for six-eight months in writing stories. Finally, 18 of them, all tribals who were associated with the ECCE, were selected to execute the project, using the Odia script to write stories for children in their language, rooted in their culture or in memorable incidents and animals.

The next hurdle was illustrations. Not many artists from the tribal communities are trained or commercial artists.

New Delhi-based Gopika Chowfla and her design studio stepped in here. “We did not want to impose our own perceptions,” says Chowfla, “so we held a workshop with the tribal artists to train them for book-ready illustrations and collect raw material to develop afterwards in our studio.”

Eventually, they used Saura mural art for the illustrations. The art form is common to the four tribes covered, though they speak different languages. The main challenge, says Chowfla, was to put the illustrations in a story-board format with a visual language, since this was an unfamiliar format for most of the artists.

The books will be distributed through non-profits, primary schools and other partners. And they will be available in libraries for children to read. Around 1,000 copies will be given to Odisha’s state tribal department, which runs several schools.

The books are priced at Rs.35. Bilingual editions can be bought from

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