Mapping Tulu: A rich oral tradition with deep roots in Karnataka

Tulu is a southern Dravidian language that's spoken by 1.85 million people in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Kerala's Kasargod district.
Mapping Tulu: A rich oral tradition with deep roots in Karnataka
Mapping Tulu: A rich oral tradition with deep roots in Karnataka
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When the States Reorganisation Act came into effect on November 1, 1956, India’s internal borders were completely redrawn, with (approximate) linguistic borders demarcating newly linguistic states from their neighbors. This is also when the modern state of Karnataka (albeit under the name Mysore State), formed to represent the rights of Kannada speakers, took shape.

What makes Karnataka unique among India’s larger states (barring those of the Northeast) is the fact that a large chunk of the state’s population (at almost 33%) consists of speakers of minority languages. No other South Indian state has such a large base of minority speakers, and this is something that makes Karnataka quite fascinating from the perspective of linguistic and cultural diversity.

This equation becomes even more interesting due to the fact that many of these communities use Kannada as their literary language, in addition to oral literature in their own tongue. Kannada as a language has a sizeable number (in the millions) of non-native speakers actively taking part in the development and literary cultivation of the language (including three of Kannada’s eight Jnanpith Award laureates).

Of these minorities, the Tulu speaking community (whose members are known as Tuluvas) is of particular interest, since unlike most other minority languages in the state, Tulu speakers actually form a demographic plurality in a certain geographic region.

The oral tradition of Tulu

Tulu is a southern Dravidian language with around 1.85 million speakers according to the 2011 Census, and arguably the best known non literary (ie, not consistently or widely used for literary purposes) Dravidian language, despite having fewer speakers than other languages from the family like Gondi (~3 million) and Kurukh (~2.5 million), both spoken by marginalised ādivasī communities in Central-East India. Even though Tulu is generally not used for written purposes, the language has been recorded in inscriptions as early as 1159 CE and was used to write classical works of literature, the earliest of which, the Srī Bhāgavato, dates back to the mid 1600s.

Tulu is primarily spoken in the districts of Dakshina Kannada (by 48.6% of the population as per the 2011 Census) and Udupi (31.4%), and is also widely spoken in the Manjeshwaram and Kasargod taluks (16.2% combined) of Kerala’s Kasargod district, forming a cultural region often called Tulu Nadu. Tulu Nadu is also home to numerous communities that speak languages other than Tulu, including Byari, Konkani, and coastal dialects of Kannada (which preserve archaic features of Old Kannada lost in inland dialects, including the standard dialect based on the speech of Mysuru and Bengaluru).

Tulu Nadu is a highly urbanized, culturally rich region of Karnataka centered around the cities of Mangalore (39.2% Tulu speaking) and Udupi (52.1%) that enjoys high levels of economic prosperity and also boasts of high human development indicators. It punches above its numerical weight in contribution to the state’s GDP, is home to a number of educational hubs as well as popular Jain and Hindu pilgrimage spots (like Kukke, Mudbidri, Karkala, and Dharmasthala), and has given Karnataka (and India) numerous cultural icons, even a chief minister.

Tulu has a rich oral tradition, reviving folk song forms like pāḍdana, stories, and popular theater (nāṭaka/āṭa), including yakṣagāna. It also has an active tradition of filmmaking, giving it an added cultural presence, with around 5 to 7 Tulu language films are produced a year.

The geography of a language

Interestingly enough, according to a grammatical sketch of Tulu by the linguist DNS Bhat, the limits of the Tulu linguistic area correspond neatly to a set of natural, geographic features in the region.

To the east, the foothills of the Western Ghats form Tulu Nadu’s easternmost reach, while rivers in the region mark its northern and southern limits - the Suvarna (just north of Udupi) to the north, and the Chandragiri (on whose banks the city of Kasargod stands) to the south. This means that parts of Udupi district lie outside this Tulu linguistic area, including Kundapura taluk. After all, political borders, even those of states, don’t necessarily overlap with linguistic ones.

Like any other language, Tulu shows dialect variation, and once again, geographic features serve to define boundaries. The mighty Netravati river (which meets the ocean a few kilometers south of Mangaluru) divides the language into a southern and a northern dialect, both of which are further divided along caste lines, Brahmin, and non-Brahmin. The northern (non-Brahmin) dialect is used as the language’s de facto standard, given that the language’s cultural and economic centers, namely Udupi and Mangalore, are situated to the river’s north.

Co-existance of languages

One defining cultural aspect of Tulu Nadu is the usage of Kannada as a written language by the region’s speakers of varied tongues, including Tulu. Tulu speakers use their mother tongue when they discuss their favorite movies with friends, chatter animatedly at eateries over kōri roṭṭi, and grumble about school at home. However, these same Tulu speakers make use of Kannada for newspapers, school textbooks, literature, and the like. The two languages occupy different linguistic domains of use. Even when Tulu is written, speakers generally use the Kannada script.

In fact, Tulu Nadu’s literary usage of Kannada (along with the local presence of native speakers of coastal Kannada dialects) is what gave rise to the demand for the inclusion of Kasargod district within Karnataka, when states were reorganised along linguistic lines in 1951, even though Tulu and Kannada only dominate north of the Chandragiri (ie, modern Manjeshwaram and Kasargod taluks).

Even today, visitors to the secluded, picturesque villages of Manjeshwaram taluk will discover that Kannada serves as a lingua franca and is the region’s primary written language, with Malayalam usually only serving a secondary role. In a nod to the cultural background of a significant percentage of his constituents, Manjeshwar’s late MLA, Abdul Razzak, even took his oath in the Kerala Assembly in Kannada. Similarly, parties campaign in the region in Kannada.

Exemplifying this relationship between the region of Tulu Nadu, its languages (both Tulu as well as other languages), and its Kannada literary tradition, is the life and work of Manjeshwar’s most famous son, the poet Gōvinda Pai, the first ever Kannada litterateur to be awarded the title rāṣṭra kavi (national poet). Pai was a native Konkani speaker (as his surname indicates) who lived alongside Tulu speakers in Malayalam-speaking Kerala and wrote poetry in Kannada.

Lack of official status

However, despite Tulu’s dominance in Tulu Nadu - its position as lingua franca and status as most common mother tongue of the region’s inhabitants - the language has not been issued an official status in its own homeland.

This is best illustrated by the fact that Mangalore’s official name, Mangaḷūru, is the city’s Kannada name, and not Kuḍla, its name in Tulu, a name that resonates on a much more emotional level with many Tuluvas (since it’s in their mother tongue). This goes for multiple place names in the region, where Kannada forms are official and not local Tulu names.

In addition, although government offices in Tulu Nadu serve a mostly Tulu-speaking populace, they cannot offer them services in their own language.

It’s important for the concept of a linguistic state, although founded on the principle of one land, one language, to include ample room for the development of minority languages and their literature and standardisation, lest we run the risk of slow yet sustained cultural homogenisation. Granting greater linguistic rights to minorities will play a key role in making linguistic states more inclusive of their other, non-official languages.

Without official safeguards in place to ensure the language’s continued survival, some Tulu speakers feel their mother tongue has been left to flounder, relegated to a subordinate position within Tulu Nadu itself, its own homeland.

Tulu activists have been trying to highlight this issue and effect political change by campaigning for the language’s inclusion in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Encouragingly enough, ordinary Tuluvas are joining in too, doing their part to help their mother tongue along. Exemplifying this is a Twitter campaign to bring attention to the language and its lack of official status, a campaign revolving around the hashtag #TuluTo8thSchedule. Recently, the MP of Kasargod brought attention to the issue in the Lok Sabha.

This move, were it to be come to fruition, would mean a great deal for Tulu and Tuluvas. Making Tulu official in the districts and taluks of Karnataka (and Kerala) where it’s spoken by a majority of the population, as well as actively standardising it, developing syllabi for children, and teaching it in schools (something which has already begun, albeit on a small scale) would all help set the foundation of the language’s continued survival, helping it evolve into a language that can service the many needs of its speakers. In addition, it would set the stage for further literary cultivation in the language, giving a fillip to the growth of various forms of cultural expression and even academic writing in Tulu.

Views are the author's own

Karthik Malli is a Bangalore-based communications professional with a keen interest in language, history, and travel. He tweets at @SandalBurn, and posts on Indian languages at @TianChengWen.


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