We proudly announce that Dr. G.N. Devy has graciously accepted our invitation to deliver the inaugural lecture of P.P. Gomathi Memorial annual lecture series on Thursday, 16th February 2017 at 11.30 AM in Mangaluru, at St. Aloysius College Auditorium. The subject he would talk on is ‘The Question of Knowledge – how knowledge as an institution evolves, how it changes from century to century and how it is facing a crisis in our time’. It should give us, especially the students and the teachers, an idea of the intellectual and cultural challenges facing us, for they are the people who ought to keep the torch of knowledge burning. Needless to say, this question is the mother of all questions. Without knowing what knowledge is, we would end up knowing absolutely nothing.
Instead of breaking into a conventional type of introduction, listing the positions Dr. Devy has occupied, books and papers he has already published, projects he has undertaken and still pursues, countries and universities he has visited, and awards and honours he has so far received, we would love to repeat here what Prof. Shiv Visvanathan, the celebrated social scientist who knows Dr. Devy intimately, has said about him: “Devy is a strange kind of original. He is not a lonely thinker or even part of a department of lost causes”.
Shall we add, not one to choose to sink indulgently in a plush job in the cloistered comfort of a university for the rest of his life? What else should one say of a Professor of English in a renowned University, already the winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, resigning his job at the age of 45 to live with tribal people to learn about them; that too through their bhasha, their dialect! Why bhasha? We would explain it rather this way: As thinking beings, we all crave certitudes. Where we don’t have them, we divine them. We habitually create memes. Human memory is a typical case in point. By manipulating memory, or getting manipulated by it, we objectify the past as fossilized history. Then we manipulate the past to objectify the present. At the centre of all these obsessive activities is the language, written as well as oral. Only by understanding language in all its forms, all languages, even languages with extremely limited vocabulary and usage, can we hope to understand ourselves, and redeem our memory; not only memory as our past, but even our present and our future. Dr. Devy had this vision of the centrality of language in human life and culture dawn upon him quite early in his life.
In a still more revealing observation, Prof. Visvanathan says that it is boring to see Dr. Devy “as a noun”, which, he says would make him “sound like a conventional professor, a professional literary critic, a concerned activist”, though he is definitely all that. He goes on to say that Dr. Devy is much more interesting “as a verb”: “He is a travelling fact, a collection of conversations and friendships. If Devy as a noun represents the official dictionary definition of Devy, as a verb Devy represents meaning in use. In a linguistic sense, he is the sum total of his conversations with Mahasweta Devi, Bhupen Kakkar, Karan Grover, Dilip Chitre, A.K. Ramanujan and U.R. Ananthamurthy. It is out of these conversations that emerges another Devy, the Devy of thought experiments, a Devy obsessed with deconstructing hegemony.”
[To see Prof. Visvanathan’s article, The pundit and the babu ]
His ways are of a quiet and self-assured person. But his soul has always been restless, the way creative people’s are. Orthodoxy and conventionalism are not words that would describe him even remotely, nor is arm-chair scholarship. The one caution we would like to give ourselves here is that Dr. Devy may be stereotyped only at our own peril.
While we wait for this to sink in, let us remember that deconstruction, very much like conversation, is not a stasis but a process. Reminiscing about Mahasweta Devi on her passing away at the age of 90, Dr. Devy had said that when he met her first, she was 72 and was already a legend; “already more of an idea than a person”. [For a report, please click me ]
Quite true! A person is a freeze that will soon become a fossil, whereas an idea will endure and inspire for ages to come. Dr. Devy would be only 67 this August. The works he has already undertaken, one of which, incidentally, was started with Mahasweta Devi, have already spawned so many inspiring ideas that would endure for many more generations to come.
He is indeed a verb in action, a process, an evolving idea. As our wont is not to embarrass anyone, least of all Dr. Devy, we would only say that one day he would find his observation about Mahasvetha Devi returning to him quite deservedly! [If you would like to read about the relationship between them in Dr. Devy’s own words. [ here is the link to his article, The Adivasi Mahashweta]
The word ‘returning’, incidentally, brings to our mind a returning Dr. Devy himself has done. He had received Padma Shri in recognition of his work with denotified and nomadic tribes education and his work on dying-out of languages – what he calls ‘phonocide’, the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award (2000) for his work with denotified tribals, and Prince Claus Award (2003) for his work for the conservation of the history, languages and views of oppressed communities in Gujarat, besides the Sahitya Akademy Award (1993) for his 1992 book on literary criticism, After Amnesia. In the case of most others of his calling and calibre, the awards they received would be mattering more. But, in the case of Dr. Devy, the award he returned would define him better. In 2015, he returned the Sahitya Akademy Award as a protest to highlight his “concern and anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion” in our country. The number of ‘eminent writers’ who did it, a measly 26, it may be noted, is pathetically small when compared to those who chose to keep it. [For a list, please access:]
While all recipients have almost uniformly cited their concern over the muffling of freedom of expression under the new government, Dr. Devy’s returning of the award had an additional, disturbing personal connect. Just three weeks before Dr. M.M. Kalburgi’s killing at Dharwad, he had been there to deliver the first V.K. Gokak Memorial Lecture. Prof. Gokak, a fierce fighter for every kind of human freedom, was himself President of the Akademi from 1983 to 1988. The happening together of the lecture at Dharward in the name of Prof. Gokak, the murder of Dr. Kalburgi, a fellow recipient of the Akademy award, a few weeks later, and the deafening silence of the Akademy over it and similar other murders was what drove Dr. Devy personally to the obvious decision. It may also be a point of additional interest here: Dr. Devy and his wife, Dr. Surekha, a former professor of chemistry at Maharaja Sayajirao University, handed over the two institutions founded by them to Adivasi communities, left Vadodara and moved to Dharward for good in 2016.
Even a cursory look at Dr. Devy’s life and publications would convince us that in the midst of all his multifarious interests and areas of work, he too has been evolving incrementally into an idea. He inspires. He is enduring. He should have known what he was saying about Mahasweta Devi, for they were close acquaintances and had together founded the Denotified & Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group. How can we hazard a conventional introduction for a man and a ‘meaning’ that are still evolving!
Here we would have preferred to end this introduction, if we may call it so, but for the convention of mentiong some details about Dr. Devy’s life and work. Born in Bhor near Pune on 1st August 1950, he had his post-Matric studies at Willingdon College, Sangli, and then at Shivaji University, Kolhapur, from where he took his Ph.D on Sri. Aurobindo’s poetry. Ever since he began his career as an English teacher in Maharaja Sayaji Rao University at Vadodara, he has travelled a long, long way. Starting as a literary critic, he became a passionate linguist, which incidentally led him to the study of tribals’ lives through a study of their dialects. That in its turn led him first into the mapping of all Indian languages, and then into a project of mapping the languages of the entire world. Stupendous is the only word that comes to our mind to qualify Dr. Devy’s works.
One of Dr. Devy’s defining early works, After Amnesia: Tradition in Indian Literary criticism (1992) is a call to the Indian intellectuals, who are the products as well as the protagonists of knowledge, which in its turn is a product and a vehicle of language, to re-read our colonial past. Concerned about the so-called ‘crisis in Indian literary criticism’, he identified its cause as issuing from our colonial experience that had produced a false sense of inferiority, distorting the whole understanding of our past and blinding us to our rich tradition of literary criticism. That syndrome he called ‘amnesia’. From there he proceeded to construct an “authentic historiography of Indian literary criticism” to serve as a launching pad for reclaiming our true past. It gives us immense pleasure to note here that Dr. Devy, even after coming so close to ‘Nativism’, did not slip into revivalism, an indulgence many other scholars who had studied India’s past had failed to resist. Instead of traversing further along that treacherous path, he chose to break away and delve into India’s living indigenous traditions. That was how, when, and why he decided to resign from his Professorship and take to the daunting task of field studies.
To what this extraordinary decision led him is a saga that could have been lived only by a few. Based in Vadodara, he started and oversaw a new and ambitious survey of Indian languages, known as People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) under the auspices of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, an institution he only had started. In completing this work between 2010 and 2013, he had the help of Bhasha, his Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Action Group which he had cofounded, and about 3000 people working in various capacities. It was a ground-breaking study. As against the total of 122 languages listed by 2011 census, it identified 780 living languages and hinted at a 100 or more they might have missed. It also found that around 220 languages have gone extinct in the last five decades as the census of 1961 had recorded 1100 languages in all. It also forecasted that another 150 could vanish in the next half century as their speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues. The 35,000-page survey is being released in 50 volumes, the first of which was brought out on Sept. 5, 2013, to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. More than half the volumes are already published, and the final volume is expected to be out by 2019. This is a gigantic project, much bigger and thoroughgoing than Sir George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923) – material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century. [For more details, please access: Indigenous languages ]
About another significance of the study, Peter Austin, a linguistics professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London has said: “Much of the work on language diversity is being done by academics. Ganesh Devy’s work is a big contrast to that because he is working at the grassroots level”. To read India becoming graveyard of languages, an interview with Dr. Devy, Feb 22 2013, please access: India becoming graveyard of languages: Ganesh Dev]
Dr. Devy has now moved on to a still more ambitious project: a global study of languages, called the Global Language Status Report (GLSR), with the collaboration of linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, folklorists and indigenous activists across the world. It is aimed at a state of the art diagnosis, prognosis and treatment to save not only the endangered languages but also the traditions contained in them. He hopes to enroll the services of more than 3,00,000 experts in related fields for this study and bring out all the volumes by 2030. [To read Meet Ganesh Devy, the man who is out to map the world’s linguistic diversity, by G Seetharaman, Economic Times, Jul 03, 2016, please access: Meet Ganesh Devy, the man who is out to map the world’s linguistic diversity]
We know that we cannot do justice to the true accomplishments of Dr. Devy in this apology of an introduction. So, reluctantly, as discretion demands, we conclude this by thanking Dr. Devy once again for accepting our invitation.
Founder Trustee, P.P.Gomathi Memorial Education Trust