Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Language Remembered

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

(This post was sent to us by Aarabi Veeraraghavan. Aarabi is a dancer who lives in Madras and raises a fur child and a human child with her husband. She also drinks ridiculous amounts of tea. Visit her blog or follow her on Instagram.)

Illustration : Henu
One of my most enduring memories of childhood is of summer night power cuts and gathering around taatha to hear stories. Stores of Gods, demons, fantastical creatures and times long gone. Stories from his childhood that became a part of ours. Stories that asked questions and stories that provided answers. There was a story for everything and not all were stories we wanted to hear. I remember being particularly upset about one where wasted food goes back to the earth goddess to sob. 

Then, there were the terrible tales that the children told each other. About ‘mandiravaadis’ and ‘bhoochandis’. Words and memories that I haven't revisited or heard in a long time. Words that remind me of a magical childhood and a world that I hope to share with my toddler in some way. As parents we spend a lot of time trying to create a ‘magical’ childhood for our children. The magic, however, is in doing nothing, it is in listening and sharing. It is in keeping things simple. When was the last time we spent an entire afternoon just sitting around and sharing stories with our children with no planned ‘activity’? 

As with a lot of things, these stories and words from our childhood are also not easily translatable. While it is essential to be able to communicate in your mother language, it is in the telling of stories that you discover the poetry and rich imagery inherent in the language. Remembering a story in my grandfathers voice with it’s vast and descriptive vocabulary brings back memories of playing dress up in my grandmothers nine yard silk sarees and cuddling up with Amma (and more stories) for bedtime. A magician and a ‘mandiravadhi’, though technically the same, are not quite the same. They practice different styles of magic, as a five year old me was very convinced. One lived in the world of Arthurian Legends and the other in a little thicket on the banks of the Cauvery. A fair lot is definitely lost in translation. 

Language, memories and personal histories are, to me, too intricately woven together to separate. I had no idea that I was inheriting my grandfathers love for language and literature while I sat on his lap listening to him. On the contrary, i thought i hated the language. I presumed that reading my Enid Blyton’s and wanting to eat a scone for tea were the beginnings of my creative process. All those hours I sat in Tamil class at school, listening to a particularly brilliant teacher and struggling with the grammar of the language, thinking I cannot wait to be done with having to study the language, what I was doing was to begin to fall in love with the language without quite realising it. It took me many decades to understand that the beginnings of my creative process indeed lay in those stories and Tamil classes. 

Today, as a Dancer, I find myself using my mother language as a medium to engage with my practice. Every time I read a stunning piece of poetry or an evocative line of prose, it inspires and touches my choreographic process. I think that my ability to access the imaginative scope of my mother language has been the beginning of my own artistic practice. For, language brings with it memories, context, cultural references and history.

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