The Future of Regional Identities in India:
The Case of Marathi Speakers and Maharashtra




IN THE COURSE OF INDIA’S FREEDOM      struggle against the British rule, the prime language question was the facilitation of interregional contacts and the projection of an all-India identity face to face with the rest of the world.  Sanskrit and classical Persian had served as all-India languages in earlier centuries; to these there was a new addition, namely, English.  But there remained a felt need for a language that was both contemporary and native to the Indian soil; hence the candidature of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani.  The situation did not change substantially in the early years of independence, which saw India’s attempts at the stabilising of its unity and the overcoming of the so-called “fissiparous tendencies” inherent in a sub-continental civilization that was claiming to be a nation.  (India is more like Europe than like England, France, or Germany; it is a super-nation, so to say.)


            There has been a noticeable shift since.  The regional identities are felt to be threatened by the wave of an all-India homogenizing rather than be threatening to the cause of India’s unity.  There are those that belittle the regional languages by the side of all-India languages like Hindi or Sanskrit or indeed by the side of world languages like English or French.  In view of this curious turn in the situation, it will be worthwhile to do a case study, say, focusing on Maharashtra and Marathi speakers.  Such a study should help us in assessing the situation in more concrete terms. 


            “How to save Marathi?” has lately been the refrain in many spoken and printed presentations and discussions at popular as well as more serous levels of communication.  Hindi is seen to be pushing out Marathi in cinema and television.  The Marathi usage of the educated as well as the not so educated is seen to be invaded by direct borrowings or translated expressions from Hindi or English.  Again, English is seen to be pushing out Marathi in education.  There is the craze for English-medium schools, good, bad, or indifferent, in city and town, and the decline of Marathi-medium schools in prestige and quality.  The teaching of Marathi in schools has suffered, whether taught as the child’s home language or as the regional language.  Marathi print media feel themselves at a disadvantage as compared to English print media; they have to ‘translate’ language-wise and culture-wise the input from news services and feature services and they are losing the readers from the educated elite.  But is this feeling wholly justified? True, they have more limited budgets and technical resources, but quite often they have better human resources, people that are more responsive in language and culture terms and more responsible in social and political terms.  One has only to compare the features and the readers’ columns in large-circulation weeklies and monthlies in Marathi and the ones in English.  Even where both draw upon non-Indian sources, the Marathi media are often more selective and critical, with a better sense of Indian relevance and contextualisation.  The Marathi-reading silent majority is now noticeably less confused and anxious; it is finally realizing that one does not have to be anti-Hindi or anti-Hindi or anti-English in order to be pro-Marathi or to be oblivious of Marathi in order to have an all-India or an all-world outlook.  The non-Marathi speakers of Maharashtra are in turn waking up to the fact that one cannot call Maharashtra one’s home and yet remain oblivious to or contemptuous of Marathi and what it stands for.


            But then, why should one save Marathi? To save Marathi is to save the language, the literature, and the culture embodied in these two.


            What is culture? Without proposing a formal definition, let me recall a linguistic episode.  Around the turn of the 20th century, some Indians thought of ‘translating’ the concept of culture from the West to their own languages.  Bangla speakers came up with krishti, thus preserving the original agricultural metaphor.  Tagore was not too happy with this choice and consulted Dr. P.L. Vaidya, who taught Sanskrit in Pune and who informed him that Marathi speakers were quite happy with the coinage samskriti made by the historian and thinker Vishwanath Rajwade.  Tagore liked the word, adopted it, and thus helped its India-wide currency.  Instead of making a ‘faithful’ translation, Rajwade  creatively adapted the traditional concept of saṁskāra, the traces good or bad, conscious or unconscious, indigenous or alien left on a person by his experience of the surrounding environment, especially the surrounding human environment. Such traces or impressions admit of accumulation (saṁchita) or loss (lopa) or recovery (sthitisthāpana).  Culture is the totality of saṁkāras.



            Language is an important medium for the transfer of saṁkāras or impressions from the speaker (or writer) to the listener (or reader).  Language is not merely a vehicle of this transfer but it also gives shape to the contents of what is being conveyed; such is the case because the speaker is also conducting an inward dialogue with the self and inducing a like inward dialogue in the listener.  So the growth and development of language goes hand in hand with the growth and development of the culture it serves.  Naturally, the survival of Marathi is important for Marathi speakers.  After all, it is through their own language that Marathi speakers keep negotiating with the impressions they keep receiving all the time from all sides; they will do so from a position of strength and confidence, with a readiness to accept or reject them after due scrutiny.  In consequence, the culture of Marathi speakers will not be by any means the culture of upper-caste Hindi males alone but of all those that speak Marathi.  But then the survival of Marathi and the literature and culture associated with it is important not only for Marathi speakers but also for others, especially other Indians.  U.R. Anantamurti is quite right in exulting in the presence of varied regional cultures within the Indian civilization.  Ethnodiversity is as important for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.


            Literature in the present context is not only poetry and other imaginative texts but also the literature of ideas and debate.  In this large sense, literature is the whole body of texts available to a people which they consider memorable enough to go over repeatedly and share in common.  Of course some new texts keep adding to this repertory and some old texts get subtracted from it.  It should be obvious from the previous discussion that literature is not only sustained by language and culture between them but also it serves to sustain them.


            Language, literature and shared culture all go with a community of people interacting with one another in a sustained manner.  Segregation of people makes for segregation of language, literature, and culture.  Aggregation of people may or may not lead to assimilation and integration, but it certainly makes for diversity in language, literature and culture.




Marathi culture constitutes a distinctive turn taken by the Indian civilization.  As Irawati Karve pointed out, this culture links the North and the South.  In certain respects, we see here a balanced blending of the two (as with practices connected with food, clothing, and housing).  In certain respects, the North dominates a pronounced underlayer of the South (as with the kinship system, folk and cultivated music, mural pictures).  In certain respects, the South dominates but there is pronounced features from the North (as with patterns of clan and caste settlement and intercaste dealings).  But then one must not forget that there are features that render Marathi culture distinct both from the North and from the South.  Thus, thanks to the raiyatwāri system of land revenue, the peasant and the other and the other rural folk are not so abjectly submissive as elsewhere, their spine is very much in place.  In Maharashtra a situation like the Bengal famine of 1942 would have led to peasant riots and the looting of granaries.  The wife, no matter which caste she belongs to, never does obeisance to her husband.  Bride and groom are honored as the divine couple at the time of the wedding, this is never completely forgotten in later life.  The struggle between Brahmanic or Vedic culture and the Sramanic or non-Vedic culture works creatively in Maharashtra.  In the pattern of worship the relation between the worshiper and the worshipped is a relation more of friendship and mutual involvement than of abject surrender and respectful distance.  The access to the sanctum is relatively free and certainly not graded according to the quantum of monetary offering.  The holy men are there, but there are no comfortable gaddis inherited through kinship or initiation.  In the devotional literature, there is a strong current of philosophical cogitation, social satire, and social protest.  In the North, Kabir remained an isolated and possibly frustrated rebel; he is the one Northern saint singled out in Maharashtra for special honor across sectarian divisions.  The Indian Awakening (1820-1920) took a distinctive form in Maharashtra.  Among other things, it led to the rise of the prose of ideas and debate in Marathi.  There was a critique of religious tradition, for example, was bhakti debilitating or invigorating? Can the Brahmanical lore hold its own in the modern context?  Should conversion to Christianity uproot one’s Indian identity? The awakening of the oppressed, be they the Dalits, the women, or the exploited workers of farm and factory (1920-70), is significantly more self-aware, more forthright, more self-sustained than elsewhere in India.  Other parts of India have often thrown up natural scientists whose personality stands split between laboratory rationalism and everyday obscurantism; not so in Maharashtra.


            How and when did the Marathi language come into existence? First, one must not forget that language constantly changes over time—not too rapidly so as to disrupt communication between grandparent and grandchild; its pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar evince steady drift and occasional sudden shifts.  Secondly, language as spoken by a small population over a limited area may come to be spoken over a large area occupied by a large population, thanks to population growth and migration.  Inevitably, regional varieties arise and along with them regional identities.  Thirdly, the Marathi language, like Marathi culture, shows a blend between the North and the South.  The base of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar is Indo-Aryan (or Indic) and thus Northern, but these are all permeated by a Dravidian and thus Southern underlayer; the sentence tones, for example, are more like Kannada or Telugu than like Gujarati or Hindi, there is a larger proportion of Dravidian elements in Marathi vocabulary than in Gujarati or Hindi, and many verb roots have a negative form (dei ‘he gives’.  Nedi ‘he doesn’t give’), which is a Dravidian habit.  Finally, after the decay of cities (4th to 10th centuries of the Christian Era), there was a partial restoration of cities and city culture (11th to 15th centuries CE).  These developments also contributed to the regionalisation of the Indian civilization as it exists today.


            The rise of the Marathi language and literature was not without problems.  Earlier, we spoke of the contemporary sense of marginalisation of Marathi in relation to Hindi and English.  This is not exactly a novel phenomenon.  Marathi has all along faced challenges of this kind.  In Mediaeval Marathi literature, bhakti poets like Jnaneshvara, Mahadamba, Ekanatha contended with the challenge of Sanskrit.  There was even some scholarly and hagiographic prose by members of the Mahanubhava sect.  Later, with the founding of svarājya by Shivaji (17th century), came the move to free the language of administration and political manoeuvring of the overload of Perso-Arabic vocabulary.  Shivaji promulgated texts like Rājyavyavahārakosha (a lexicon of statecraft) and Ājñāpatra (a compilation of standing orders) and thus brought about a substantial reduction of the Perso-Arabic borrowings (from 85% in 1628 to 6% in 1728).  We have already mentioned the replacement of Sanskrit and English by Marathi in the prose of ideas and debate in the course of the Indian Awakening.  There are two interesting consequences of this sustained struggle for the identity of the language and its literature.


            First, the language, the literature and the culture have thrived from the challenge they faced.  The language has freely borrowed from Sanskrit; this is seen not only in poetry in the learned mode, but also in poetry in the popular mode addressed to the not so learned or even to the wholly illiterate.  The modern prose of ideas and debate (19th to 20th centuries)  was variously modeled in its syntax and diction on the discursive prose styles of Sanskrit and English.  If Marathi borrowed freely from Perso-Arabic and English, it often did so by translating rather than direct borrowing: so hukumnāmah becomes ājnāpatra, style becomes shaili, culture becomes samskriti, movement (social, political) becomes calval (this being a recycling of a word which earlier meant motion and locomotion in a living body).


            The literature in the learned mode includes a fair number of free adaptations (anuvada) from or of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata; a small number of close translations (Vaman’s renderings from Bhartrihari’s Shatakatrayam), and the magnificent transcreation of the Gita? (Bhāvārthadipikā, popularly called Jnāneshvari).  The bakhar chronicles (17th to 18th centuries) are a cross between Sanskrit prose rājaprashasti and Persian tavārikh.  English has been the source of literary forms like the essay, the novel, the lyric, or the so-called ‘social drama’ (plays of contemporary life rather than myth or history).


            The drawing of nourishment extends beyond language and literature to culture.  Significantly enough, the vocabulary of law and justice was borrowed from Perso-Arabic and, later, from English and this marked a departure from the old-style vyavahāra justice based on dharmashāstra traditions.  The vocabulary items from Perso-Arabic such as haus, mauj, khyāli, khushāli, tabiyat, aish, ārām, dosti, janānā reflect newer ideas about lifestyle and human relations.  Humour as distinct from simple clowning or mockery, love as distinct from the erotic, modern science and technology as distinct from natural history and craftsmanship, ideas of social and political justice and modern business as distinct from statecraft and mercantile lore came through English.  Even as Sanskrit was looked upon as a treasure-house of tradition to be plundered, English was seen as the treasurehouse of modernity to be plundered; in either case the motivation was the spread of enlightenment.


            One only hopes that this capacity to draw nourishment from tradition and modernity and from outside contact is sustained without any let-up in the maintenance of identity and the retention of the specific strengths of Marathi.


            The second consequence of the sustained struggle of Marathi for recognition probably shaped the Marathi speakers’ peculiar attitude towards the Indian civilization and society and towards the Marathi-speaking culture and society.  On the one hand, Marathi speakers have a strong sense of being Indians.  Let calamity strike anywhere in India, and volunteers and funds from Maharashtra would be among the first to reach there.  (I am speaking of times when private effort had a place in disaster management.)  Migrants from all over India have converged on Maharashtra, in particular on Mumbai.  They feel welcome.  Migrants from Maharashtra have spread to various parts of India—not only to neighbouring regions but even to distant regions.  They have identified themselves with the region, learned the language, and made their contribution: Paradkar to Hindi, Deuskar to Bangla, Kalelkar to Gujarati, Bendre to Kannada are the names that readily come to mind.  In mediaeval bhakti poetry, Namdev, Eknath, Tukaram, Ramdas have written poems in Hindustani or Braj by the side of Marathi.  In the 20th century there have been Marathi translations from other Indian languages.  And yet there is a strong sense of pride in the heritage of Maharashtra, in its literature and language.  If  Indians from other regions make the error of ‘pushing’ the people of Maharashtra, taking their acquiescence for granted, there will a strong reaction. Marathi is not a ‘poor relation’ of Hindi, not the ‘local lingo’ to be patronized by English maniacs, this is the message that strongly comes across.     




Diversity is a value in life.  Living organisms variously work out their survival in interaction with their environment; the different species are differing working equations mediating this process. That is what biodiversity is all about.  Within the human species, different societies offer different cultural equations: each way of life makes its own precious contribution available to the rest of humankind.


             The survival of Marathi must not be a bare hand-to mouth survival but a full-blooded survival.  The Marathi identity as seen in language, literature, and culture will be desi and modern at the same time, enriched by the tradition enshrined in Sanskrit and other classical languages like Pali or Arabic.  Substantive content will be balanced by substantial form.  Let responsible, creative authors meet responsive, transcreative audiences.  Let there be translations from and to Marathi.  Let the immigrants and the emigrants figure as bridges of harmony and not as irritants and problems.  Let there be adequate institutional support both for the nurturing of identity and for the sharing and mutual learning between different identities.


            Let the administrator and the businessman, the creative thinker and artist and the political activist and leader draw a moral from this.  Regional identities in India are not something to be tolerated for their nuisance value but something to derive strength from.  The glory of Indian civilization lies in the way in which it enriches and stands enriched by the regional cultures.




*          The author has retired as professor of Linguistics from the center of Advanced Studies in Linguistics, Deccan College, Pune. Dhananjay, 759/83 Off Bhandarkar Road, Lane No. 6, Pune—411 004.