Begin typing your search above and press return to search.

A Voice for Minority and Endangered Languages

A Voice for Minority and Endangered Languages

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  30 March 2019 11:51 AM GMT

In Conversation with Educationist and Eminent Bishnupriya Manipuri writer Dr. Smriti Kumar Sinha

Our Bureau

Born in 1959, Dr. Smriti Kumar Sinha stands for minor and endangered languages and has been working in this direction for the last three decades. Presently Dean of Engineering Sciences, Tezpur University, he is considered as a leading and dedicated short story writer from Assam in Bishnupriya Manipuri langauge. A former researcher at SAP Research Lab, France, he did his Ph.D from IIT and is the founder of computer science department of Tezpur University.

Till date Dr. Sinha has published 30+ short stories in Bishnupriya Manipuri. He has to his credit three collections of short stories published in Bishnupriya Manipuri. Dr. Sinha’s short stories are translated into Assamese, Bengali, English and Kannada. Bengali translations have been published in India and Bangladesh. Dr. Sinha had earlier received the Geetiswami Memorial Award, 2010, instituted by POURI (Bangladesh) and the Dilip Sinha Smriti Puraskar in Hailakandi, Assam.

Dr. Sinha strives for creating quality literature in Bishnupriya Manipuri. He thinks that peer recognition of quality literature in an endangered language enhances the prestige value of the language. For a moribund language like Bishnupriya Manipuri, it is a fresh lease of life. The mélange team entered into a discussion with the ace writer recently. Following are excerpts.

  1. Please tell us about your childhood and growing up memories.

Ans: I was born and brought up at Bekirpar, a village 22 kms away from Silchar in Assam. The village is known for its good taste in literature, culture and education. I feel privileged of being rooted in a family humbly devoted to art, culture and literature. My father Late Aswini Kumar Sinha was a dramatist of repute and he has won the Assam Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1967. He was a strict director as well. Under his direction I appeared more than 200 times on the stage in different roles in different productions. He pushed me on the stage with a begging bowel when I was only eight and ended up playing the role of Oedipus in the classical Greek tragedy under his direction. All my siblings are also actors and acting is our family hobby. This apart, my elder sister, Shanti Sinha, is a short story writer, my younger sister Niti Sinha is a poet and my younger brother Shakti Kumar Sinha is now a well-known artist based in Guwahati. My mother Debokanya Sinha is the host of these in the family. My father was also a good choreographer, trained along with Manipuri dance exponent Guru Bipin Singha under Guru Rajkumar Senarik Singha. Naturally I’m an admirer of anything creative in these domains from childhood.

  1. Please give a brief outline of your educational career?

Ans: I had my primary education in 145 No. Bekirpar LP School established in 1895. Actually I was christened ‘Smriti Kumar’ by LP school teachers taking my photogenic memory into account. Since my first name sounds feminine, they added ‘Kumar’ to make it masculine. I was told that the name given by my parents was something like ‘Swapan. I did my schooling from Lakshmi Charan High School, Kabuganj and graduation with Physics honours from Guru Charan College, Silchar and M.Sc in Physics from Gauhati University. After graduation I was in a dilemma as what to do next. Dr. Bani Kumar Sinha, a professor of operation research, IIM, Calcutta was my neighbour in the village and an alumnus of the same LP school. He advised me to study Computer Science as he was with the discoverer of the digital computer, Prof. Mauchly and Prof. Eckert while he was doing Ph D in Pennsylvania University. It was like a fairytale for me. For the first time I heard that there is some machine named Computer which is changing the world. When I came to Gauhati University I saw the computer physically in the Computer Centre in Physics Department in 1984. The Assam agitation was at its peak, our classes were irregular and we plunged into the agitation. The historic Assam Accord was signed and normalcy restored. When the Dept. of Computer Science was started with a post-graduate diploma course, I enrolled myself in it.

It was a turning point in my life. I’m privileged to have ideal teachers all throughout my career. Actually my teachers shaped my career— respected Karna Singh and Tanu Singh in LP school, mathematics and science teacher Debadutta Sinha and poet Chandmoni Sinha in high school, Prof. Haripada Bhattaharjee, Prof. Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, Shaktipada Brahmahary and others in College and Prof. Malay Dutta, my computer guru, physics gurus Prof. K M Pathak, Prof. D K Choudhury, Prof. H L Duwarah. Finally, my research guru Prof. Gautam Barua of IIT Guwahati who guided me in my Ph D and gave the final touch to my career. Of course, I received the Ph D degree from Tezpur University and not from IIT Guwahati.

  1. How did you get interested in literature?

Ans: I have been an ardent reader of literature from childhood. There was a good village library in Bharati Sangha, near my home. I studied important works in world literature in that library. I studied works of Maupassant, Gogol, Chekov, Pearl Buk, Edger Allan Poe and prominent short story writers in Indian literature through the books of National Book Trust in original or in translation before I passed the 10th standard. However, I never dreamed of being a poet or a writer. I studied science. Mathematics is my preferred language.

My homecoming happened out of a social need. During my student days in G. C. College, Silchar, one fine morning I was depressed over the plight of the literature of my mother tongue, Bishnupriya Manipuri, an endangered language struggling to survive. The corpus of poetry was matured enough. Works of Madan Mohan Mukharjee, Brojendra Kumar Sinha, Dhananjay Rajkumar, Senarup Sinha are qualitatively on a par with any regional literature In India. Fiction, however, was trying to structure itself. Barring some stories by Indra Kumar Sinha and Brojendra Kumar Sinha, there was hardly any story to take into account. I decided firmly to write novels and short stories only in my mother tongue.

The main aim was to revitalize the moribund language, enhancing its prestige value by producing high quality literature on a par with other Indian regional literature. The basis of my confidence is that if this small community can gift India and the world a beautiful classical dance, Manipuri dance, why can’t it gift a quality literature? Both are the outcomes of the same thought process. Of course, by Manipuri I mean both Bishnupriyas and Meiteis. In the last thirty years I penned 33 short stories, three short story collections and a novel.

In fact, I reached my goal when my two short stories found place in Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, breaking the 8th schedule barriers— ‘Fish of a Dead River’ translated by Subhojit Bhadra and ‘God for a Night’ translated by Ramlal Sinha. ‘Seducing the Rain God’, a collection of fourteen short stories translated into English by Ramlal Sinha and published by Niyogi Books, New Delhi made the stories Internationally available. The stories have also been translated into Assamese, Bengali and Kannada. Next short story collection in English translation is almost ready for the press, but the title is not finalised.

Of course, the spark of activism for Mother tongue was implanted in my heart when I was 10 years old. I witnessed the Bishnupiya Manipuri Language movement, one of the longest known agitations for our mother tongue. A long procession was passing through my village with festoons and slogans. Famous singer Suranath Sinha was heading the procession with awakening songs, the villagers were joining the growing procession heading towards Silchar town. When my elder sister Shanti Sinha was jailed, I was furious and composed my first revolutionary poem. That spark was transformed into a guiding torchlight when I was in College and still now.

  1. You are on a mission to document certain episodes of Bishnupriya Manipuri customs and their language. How did you get interested in this direction and what has been your journey so far?

Ans: Yes, the recurring themes in many of my stories are our ethnicity. Diving deep into our folk beliefs, folklores, folk culture of our community I have been trying to structure my plots and present to readers a universal expression. ‘Seduing the Rain God’ is based on our oldest known rainmaking folksong, ‘God for a Night’ in on the role conflicts, confusion and embracement of a little Krishna in Rasoleela, ‘Lilavati’ is on the conflict of astrology and astronomy of great mathematician Bhaskaracharya II, ‘In Search of Immortalizing Herb’ is on the folk belief that the dark spots on the moon are the shadows of the herbs consumption of whose leaves makes a man immoral and remain evergreen. It is a lore-science binary. I tried to show that both scientific and folk beliefs have important roles to play in society. If science encroaches upon the entire space, we will lose the beautiful creative imagination and our childhood fantasy. If folk belief does it then we will lose rational thinking. My science training taught me to think logically, structure plots by construction and deconstruction, my upbringing in a village helped me to be au fait with our folk beliefs, culture and the language better.

  1. Due to the onslaught of globalization and technology, many indigenous cultures are dying a slow death. Since you are an academic yourself, what do you feel is the solution forward?

Ans: It depends on how you look towards globalization and technology, which are inevitable. Yes, with the advent of digital technology, especially Internet and services over Internet, the world is heading towards homogenization in terms of languages and culture. The Internet may be used as a means for cultural and linguistic aggression. It is a threat to indigenous languages and cultures. Moreover, there is a political threat of digital colonization. At the same time, it is an opportunity as well for indigenous cultures and languages. We should not forget that Internet and Web technology is a strong alternative media. Indigenous languages and cultures have almost no space in the mainstream media. They get unlimited space in platforms like youtube, facebook, twitter etc. to express and share their creative expressions in literature and culture in their own languages. This is a platform that encourages heterogeneity and autonomy. With the advent of UNICODE and related language technologies the threat of linguistic imperialism is transforming into an opportunity in digital media. Take the case the Bishnupriya Manipuri language and the culture. There is no space in the mainstream media — no TV channels, no publisher, no cinema, etc. The literature is solely banking on the ethic press. Today we have youtube channels, Websites, online journals, blogs, discussion groups in facebook, twitter, etc. We have a large number of articles in Wikipedia. The content in this alternative media is shared among the target audience instantly with almost no cost. Digital media is like a blessing for an indigenous community like us where the mainstream media is not commercially viable. What is required is proper social planning and auditing on how to use this new media. The danger is there is no gatekeeper, no ethical controller. The pace at which artificial intelligence, especially machine learning and robotics is growing it may turn into a Frankenstein.

  1. You are presently working as a dean. How has been your experience in TU like?

Ans: Tezpur University was started in 1994 with three departments— Mathematical sciences, Computer Science and English and Foreign Languages. It’s an outcome of the Assam Accord. Prof. A. K Borkakoti joined as Professor in March 1994 and started the Mathematical Sciences department. I joined in May 1994 as a lecturer and started Computer Science department and Prof. Abu Lais joined later in the same year and started English and Foreign Languages dept. As founding faculty members we had greater responsibilities. Before that I was working in the Department of Computer Science, Gauhati University as a programmer. In addition to starting a new department I was given the responsibly of developing the computer culture in the offices. Our first VC Prof. K. M. Pathak was a visionary. He had the vision of developing a modern science-and-technology-based University in Assam. And his vision has been translated into a reality today. Today, Tezpur University is among the top five Universities in the country having world ranking. The University itself is the proof of concept that we the people of Assam have the intrinsic capability and talent to build a world class University if we have commitment to our State, develop a positive work culture and work in unison. Subsequently I was promoted to a reader and then to a Professor. In addition to my teaching and research, I am presently working as the Dean, School of Engineering and Director, Digital Learning Centre and looking after online courses on SWAYAM in Tezpur University. In the meantime, I also worked in SAP Researh LAB, South France for a year as a researcher. During my stay there, I produced one European and two US patents and a couple of research papers with my students and colleagues there.

  1. Please tell us a bit about your family.

Ans: I’m fortunate enough. My wife Sunanda Sinha, the first critic of my stories, is also induced to write short stories and I’m her critic in turn. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. My daughter Ilina Sinha, B. Tech from NIT, Silchar, has started writing poems, my son Tathagata, completing B. Tech from Tezpur University this semester, is yet to take up creative writing. Both of them are interested in doing serious cinema on my stories. I along with my wife, my brother and sisters have a plan to join them. Our family hobby may come back in a new avatar. My father is no more and we have to take his legacy forward.

Next Story