Chilli city

2010-11-15 00:00

INDIAN languages have existed in large numbers in South Africa, mainly in Natal, since the arrival of indentured labourers in 1860.

With the indentured labourers came the languages that they spoke — from the south of India chiefly Tamil and Telegu. Malayalam and Kannada did not survive the generations as the number of people who spoke these languages were too few. From the north of India came a variety of Indo-European languages including Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Magahi, Kanauji, Bengali, Rajasthani, and Braj. These were related in varying degrees to Hindi, the main official language of India since independence in 1947. These dialects, through the years, evolved to form one South African vernacular, usually termed Hindi.

From 1875 onwards, smaller numbers of Indians, with trading backgrounds, arrived in Natal, establishing languages such as Gujarati, Konkani (originally a variety of Marathi) and Meman (a variety of Sindhi), which are still spoken today. In addition to these languages, people of Hindu background used Sanskrit as their prestigious religious language, while Muslims looked to Arabic as theirs.

Early borrowed words from languages of Natal are extremely interesting as they capture something of the mental struggle to become familiar with the new environment, its people, culture, languages and customs.

Professor Rajend Mesthrie, in his book Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics, said that South African place names proved to be tongue twisters to the first generation of Indians, who modified them to suit the phonological and semantic structure of their own language.

“Thus the Afrikaans suffix ‘burg’, meaning town, seems to have been identified with the Bhojpuri word for garden, ‘bhag’, which is also a place-name suffix in India. Hence Johannesburg became Jobhag, meaning Joe’s garden,Pietermaritzburg became Mirichbhag, literally garden of chillies, which one might want to link with the persistent myth presented to the immigrants that Natal was the fabled land where money grew on chilli trees,” said Mesthrie.

A few words from Fanakalo also passed to Bhojpuri.

“Notably the most common word would be bagasha, meaning to visit, and coined from Zulu ukuvakashela,” said Mesthrie.

Many South Africans of Indian descent, however, believe that they are speaking Hindi when they are actually speaking Bhojpuri.

According to Bisraam Rambilass, former head of Sanskrit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Bhojpuri was originally spoken by people in and around Bhojpur, a village in Bihar. The name was later applied to the dialect spoken in the greater part of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and the surrounding areas.

Most of the indentured labourers from North India who were dispatched to countries such as South Africa, Mauritius, Trinidad, Surinam and Fiji, came from these parts of India and spoke Bhojpuri.

Rambilass, also the president of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha and principal of the Westville Hindu School, said the dialect was thought to be on its deathbed several years ago in South Africa.

However, the revival of chutney music has been heralded as the saving grace of Bhojpuri.

Rambilass said chutney music, a type of Bhoj­puri folk song, used to be dismissed by the youth as old-fashioned.

Now it has led a revolution in South Africa and around the world as many are dancing to the tune of chutney music.

“It is so good, and in a way strange, to find that a language regarded as crude and boorish, a dialect held in disdain as a sign of poverty and backwardness, has now acquired a new-found status,” said Rambilass.

The Bhojpuri that emerged in South Africa is a mix of different dialects spoken in those parts of India that the settlers came from. Words have also been borrowed from English and African languages.

The Bhojpuri spoken by Indians in KwaZulu-Natal today is a strain of the dialect peculiar to this part of the world.

“It coined a special name, Naitali, for things born in Natal and specific to this community — in this instance for the South African Bhojpuri that evolved in Natal,” said Rambilass.

But at the turn of the century, Bhojpuri and the religio-cultural scenario of the Indians in South Africa did not look promising.

Preachers from the Arya Samaj from India played a leading role in promoting formal Hindi in South Africa.

“This emergence of formal Hindi and the prominence given to it made it prestigious or elitist. It became the mark of the cultured and well-bred. The locals began to feel embarrassed about the Naitali they spoke. This dialect began to seem vulgar and carried the connotation of associations with poverty. The community now faced the prospect of having to learn “proper” Hindi, which was not its natural language, and forsake Naitali, the language that was both natural and dear to it,” said Rambilass.

The consequences, he said, were disastrous — no literary contribution of any worth was made to the growth or development of Naitali. While this may not have been a premeditated intention of those who promoted formal Hindi, we can safely say it resulted in Naitali being relegated to insignificance.

Fortunately, with the emergence of chutney, numerous musical bands came into being and the future of Bhojpuri seemed intact. These bands became fashionable at weddings and were in such great demand that some charged exorbitant rates and demanded advance bookings.

“The rhythm of these songs took on a Western, disco style and tempo. The lyrics carried the traditional refrains, with some adventurous additions that often bordered on the outrageous. Although very few, including the singers and performers, understood the lyrics, this nonetheless proved no impediment to the growth of this genre of folk music.

“This resurgence signals a ray of hope for the salvation of Naitali. All chutney did was rekindle in the community a love for its real linguistic and cultural roots. In its own strange way, a culture that was dying cried out so that someone could hear it and attempt to resuscitate it.

“It is the people’s affiliation with this particular culture that has to be identified, acknowledged and put to good use,” said Rambilass.

“It is the Naitali language and culture that the community relates to and will be attracted to. In this culture that has evolved on the soil of South Africa lies their South African identity and the home of the community.

“If we are able to nurture and rekindle an interest and pride in Naitali, then in it may also lie the future of formal Hindi,” said Rambilass. “We owe it to our forebears to give new life to their dreams,” said Rambilass.


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