Who is the father of Malayalam language, music composer Sarat asked noted playback singer KS Chithra recently during a television musical reality show in which both are judges.
“I don’t know the father but I know the mother of Malayalam,” Chithra quipped. “Who’s that?” asked Sarat. “Ranjini,” she replied, pointing to the ebullient presenter of the popular programme.
The judges and the studio audience broke into laughter. The viewers, too, enjoyed Chithra’s banter. It is possible to espy a prophetic element in it. For, Ranjini is one of the young television presenters who use an admixture of Malayalam and English, which may well be the language the next generation of Malayalis speaks.
In the last century, spoken Malayalam had undergone change, helped by the spread of education and appearance of mass communication media like newspapers and films. The print media influenced the spoken language most. Television having emerged as the most popular medium, it now has greater ability than the press to shape the spoken language.
It is natural for a living language to undergo changes. It will be unrealistic to try to freeze it in a particular form in the name of maintaining its purity. However, those who love the language have a duty to watch on the trends and do what they can to ensure that the language evolves in a manner suited to the needs of the society and does not move away from the traditions of the native speakers. That does not seem to be happening.
Leading writers regularly express concern at current trends and voice anxiety over the future of Malayalam. However, they have not put forward, singly or collectively, any proposals to arrest the undesirable trends.
The proposals being canvassed by the literary and political establishments are directed more at establishing the glory of Malayalam than at promoting its healthy evolution. The demands for grant of classical status to the language and setting up of a Malayalam university are examples.
The Central government having recognised Tamil, Telugu and Kannada as classical languages, Kerala is the only southern state whose official language does not enjoy that status. Also, Malayalam is the only major Dravidian language without a university to foster its growth.
One reason why Malayalam’s claim for classical status has received short shrift is that it is of comparatively recent origin. Until a few years ago, it was projected as a modern language by playing down its ancient association with Tamil and playing up its more recent link with Sanskrit.
Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, the putative father of Malayalam language, composed his masterpiece “Adhyathma Ramayanam” as recently as the 16th century. The late Dr K Ayyappa Paniker, while hailing “Ramacharitham,” believed to have been written by Sree Veera Rama Varma, who ruled Travancore in the closing years of the 12th century, as the oldest extant classic in Malayalam, had conceded that it was in an early form of the language “which appears to be almost indistinguishable from Tamil, except perhaps for a linguist”.
Neither classical status nor a university bearing its name can save Malayalam if it is not able to meet the needs of the people. Television channels’ increasing resort to English even for names of programmes is but one manifestation of the widespread feeling about its inadequacy.
The state government is committed to the use of Malayalam for all official purposes, but it still transacts much of its business in English. Malayalam has a low rating as a medium for acquisition of knowledge. Since English is seen as the key to upward mobility, more and more parents are putting their children in schools where that language is the teaching medium, sometimes paying fees that are beyond their means.
This year enrolment in schools under the state system was 115,000 less than last year. The fall is attributable in part to the drop in the number of children in the school-going age group as a result of the decline in the growth of population. But it is also due in part to children shifting to other systems.
From 2003-04 to 2009-10, enrolment fell from 1.6 million to 1.3 million in government schools and from 3.0 million to 2.8 million in aided schools. During the same period, enrolment in expensive unaided schools imparting education in the English medium rose from 270,000 to 365,000. It is for the government and scholars to devise measures to enhance the appeal of the mother tongue. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 28, 2010