Interview with Mrs Sarita Boodhoo 
Chairperson, Bhojpuri Speaking Union, Mauritius

“Language essential for retaining one’s roots”

Ms Sarita Boodhoo has been a champion for the Bhojpuri language in Mauritius for over three decades. In August 2012 she was appointed chairperson of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union by the Ministry of Arts and Culture. Three decades back she had set up the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute as a private initiative. Author of several books, educated in Calcutta’s Lady Brabourne College, and widely travelled across the globe, she spoke to India Empire’s Sayantan Chakravarty about the importance of retaining one’s ancestral language, especially for the Indian Diaspora whose linkages with the country of origin becomes more distant with every new generation
Sitting on stage during the Vishwa Bhojpuri Sammelan at Rishikesh

On enactment in Parliament…
The Bhojpuri movement gained its right momentum in 2010 when the Bhojpuri Speaking Union Bill along with similar bills for the Creole and Chinese languages were introduced in the Mauritius Parliament. By enactment, the bill became law on May 31, 2011. It was a momentous occasion for the Bhojpuri movement and a great fillip to the preservation of the Bhojpuri language. Earlier, Bhojpuri was a lingua franca and taken for granted, but now it has been empowered by an act of Parliament and also notified in the gazette. The act aims to promote and disseminate the literary and cultural values associated with the language. Now, officially, the rich heritage of Bhojpuri as a language and culture will be preserved.

On the role of Government of Mauritius and UNESCO…
I was appointed by the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Mauritius. But now I’m also involved with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources since Bhojpuri language has been officially introduced in school curriculum along with Creole. The interesting part is that Hindi is officially there as a language and most of those who take up Hindi are from the Bhojpuri background. It was always a challenge for us to promote Bhojpuri because with modernization and urbanization children would inevitably take to the language of the market. Bhojpuri was not a language of the market. It was seen more of a rustic language, a language of the older generations if you like. May be children found it a little infra dig to speak it. But now that it has received an official status, there is a new momentum, a new energy. It has invigorated many to take up the language of their forebears. The UNESCO also gives particular attention to languages that are under threat of disappearing, at present there are almost 7,000 of them. UNESCO has taken a decision to safeguard both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and all Governments, including that of Mauritius that are member states, have signed a convention to this effect. They are empowered to bring measures in place to promote, preserve, educate and use the media effectively for protecting a disappearing language. All this combined has given Bhojpuri a distinctive position. NGOs like ours were waiting for such an opportunity for a very long time.

On how the course content will work…
Under the aegis of both the Ministry of Art and Culture and the Ministry of Education and HR the text books have been prepared by the Mauritius Institute of Education and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. Initially, children get oral guidance at the junior most classes in school. These include learning of proverbs, songs, colours and audio-visual exposure. Such dissemination is an important aspect of pedagogy. They dance and sing to communicate. They soon get the idea that this is not just a Dadi-Nani (maternal and paternal grandmother) language, but has a rich heritage. To our advantage, the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation has introduced a 24-hour Bhojpuri channel. This has galvanized many local artistes to come forward and present on camera topics such as life of women, gender issues, legal issues, cuisine and culinary choices, empowerment of youth, sports. All these are coming through on the Bhojpuri channel. We have fusion with the Bhojpuri media in India through Doordarshan. The possibilities of promoting Bhojpuri are wide ranging. There are Bhojpuri films every day on television now. The messages that we get from the local people are indeed very heartening and positive. 

On her mission in India…
I have written extensively about Bhojpuri, its roots and origins. It does have its roots in Bihar, but then Bihar is a huge state with many languages. I strive to go deeper and deeper into the Bhojpuri belt. From my historical learnings, I have found that Bhojpuri has been prevalent in 26 districts in north India. After the abolition of slavery, the plantocrats were experimenting with indentured labour in different destinations around the world. This experiment proved rich and fertile in terms of producing wealth. It became successful in Mauritius and it was later taken to other sugar colonies by the British empire. The French and Dutch also had agreements with the British for supply of such labour. The ones who emigrated from India, left with very little material, but with plenty of oral tradition that they retained deep inside their psyche. They left India to escape British oppression. My great grandparents must have been part of this great escape. The beauty is that even after nearly 200 years of separation from the ancestral land, and in spite of hostile environs, they were able to retain and maintain this tangible and intangible heritage.

On her engagement with India…
I studied at Calcutta because I was always fascinated by geography. I was the recipient of an Indian Government cultural scholarship. There was a choice of studying at the Presidency or at Lady Brabourne, and I chose the latter. My father had wanted me to do my higher studies in England, but I chose India because at school I was hugely impacted by the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. His work on Gora greatly influenced me. I wanted to be in the land of Gora. I travelled to Shantiniketan. I met Jagjivan Ram in 1983 and earlier had met Swami Krishnanand Ji in the 1970s. They influenced me. This time I visited India on the invitation of the Bhojpuri Vikas Manch of Jaunpur.

June 2013

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