A tale to tell: How Irula children preserve tribal folktales, mother tongue

It’s not phones, but storytelling in their native tribal language, and on radio, that is giving confidence to these children.

Many tribal kids are choosing to spend time listening to stories from their elders.

R Nisha, a Class X student from the Irular community in Semmanarai village near Kothagiri in the Nilgiris district, told a story about honeybees in her mother tongue – the Irula language – in July 2021.

The story that she learnt from her grandmother was one of their community folktales and it spoke about the importance of being united. Weeks later, Nisha and her parents were on cloud nine when the story was broadcast on American Tamil Radio.

Since then, Nisha has started spending more time with elders in her village listening to folktales. She has also started narrating imaginative stories in the Irula language along with her friends.

Not just that, children like S Susheela, a Class V student from Alamaramedu village near Anaikatti in Coimbatore district, are no longer reluctant to converse in their mother tongue of Irula with friends and family members in public places. Until a year ago, Susheela preferred conversing in Tamil than in her mother tongue even with her mother for fear of getting mocked and ridiculed.

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“Even now, people ridicule me for speaking in the Irula language. But it does not bother me. Because I received a lot of appreciation from everyone, including my teachers, for telling a story in the language. And when it was broadcast on radio, we all listened to it together. For several days, the poster which had my picture and information about my story, was stuck on the school notice board,” she says.

N Thirumoorthy, a resident of Semmanarai, reveals: “We have been seeing a similar change in almost all children in the village. Earlier, they were interested only in watching TV and using mobile phones. But now, this has changed and many kids are choosing to spend time listening to stories from their elders. Not just that, the children have also become confident and are writing their own stories. They are speaking confidently in their native language in front of others like never before.”

Also read: Meet Kerala poet RK Attappadi, the toast of his Irula tribe

Thirumoorthy, who has been volunteering to record the stories before sending them to the radio station, added that he learnt to speak his mother tongue fluently only after he started working with the children. “Earlier, I used to understand the language but could not reply,” he says.

These are some of the results of an exercise carried out by Odiyen Lakshmanan, a writer and collector of Irular songs, along with volunteers.

“The actual aim of the exercise is to preserve tribal languages, words and culture through stories. As it is important to develop the language among children, I started encouraging kids – up to Class XII – to tell stories in their mother tongue,” he explains.

“Over a year ago, when we had decided to launch the exercise, we concentrated only on Irular children. We had asked the children to come up with stories in their mother tongue by asking their grandparents. We also helped them by providing story books in Tamil and the children were asked to translate the Tamil stories into their native language. As we started to collect a good number of stories from the children, a friend who was working with American Tamil Radio offered to broadcast the stories,” Lakshmanan explains.

As word spread, people from other tribal communities across the state started approaching us with stories in their native language and we started accepting them, he adds.

“When I expressed practical difficulties in visiting each village to record the stories, residents came forward to help me. Now, they record the stories on their mobile phone and send them to me, and they are then forwarded to the radio station. Sometimes, I record the stories as the children speak on phone. We don’t insist much on the quality of recordings but we do insist that the stories be at least of two-minute duration,” Lakshmanan says.

Pointing out that most stories are unique, he said the tales speak about the history, culture, lifestyle and occupation of the different tribal communities. “Sometimes, children come up with stories that are long forgotten,” he adds.

Also read: Folk artists stir up Mollywood, revive the musical identity of a tribal hamlet

So far, the exercise has led to collection of more than 150 stories in different tribal languages, of which, 71 stories were broadcast on radio. Stories were collected from multiple tribal settlements in the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Tirupur, Tiruvannamalai, Tiruvallur, Salem, Erode and Kanyakumari districts.

Lakshmanan is planning to compile the tales and release them as a book. “We are planning to release it within the next six months. The stories will be in Tamil, English and tribal languages. As there are many unique words in tribal languages, we are planning to compile them and release a dictionary,” he says.

“We wanted to preserve both the language and stories. Most tribal stories are not written and passed on from one generation to another orally. That’s why I decided to take the exercise forward when Lakshmanan told me about it,” says N Suryanarayanan, a volunteer with American Tamil Radio, which has an audience in America, Canada, Malaysia and Tamil Nadu.

Explaining that they have been broadcasting the stories during children’s time, he said they have drawn a lot of positive response from the public. “Before broadcasting a story in a child’s voice, we would give its gist in Tamil to make it easy for the audience to understand,” he says.

A story is originally broadcast on Fridays, then repeated on Wednesday for the children to listen along with their friends at school.

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