I came across a copy of an old letter in my personal archives dating back to 21 November 1974 which I had addressed to the then Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. As we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the national television, it is a refreshing coincidence! What did I write in that letter?
I drew the attention of the then Prime Minister to the fact that, whereas French and English then got 29 ½ hours of air space on the television, the Indian languages combined (Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and Gujarati) got only 6 ½ hours per week. The percentage of total transmission per week for Indian languages was 22% pitted against 78% for European languages, principally French. On the radio, the situation was not so bad, but bad enough too. The six Indian languages shared 4 ½ hours of transmission per day as against 12 hours for French and English, here too overwhelmingly by French. In terms of percentage of total radio transmission for oriental languages statistics showed 28% as against 72% for European languages, here again massively French. As for Kreol and Bhojpuri, there was no space practically at all. That was forty years ago.
After decades of incessant battling to gain a space for Indian languages both in the formal educational sector and at the MBC-TV some justice has been done.
I remember in 1965 when the national TV was introduced, an Indian film used to be shown piecemeal, that is 15 minutes per week! And that too against ferocious opposition from some quarters. So you had to wait for long weeks to watch the complete movie on the TV.
Even today when I watched the MBC Documentary Film on the 50 years of television, I could not help reminiscing when viewing the amount of occidental films that were projected, which proves me right.
With succeeding governments, and the silent or silenced majority finding its voice from time to time, in timid protests, the Oriental languages did get gradually adequate air space both on TV and Radio. Likewise, the improvement in the introduction of teaching of Asian languages in the formal educational sector has been achieved with the pioneering efforts of educators, trade unions, social activists and thinking public. Gone are the days when Hindi and other Oriental languages were being taught in garages, stores or sheds and Oriental language teachers treated with disdain.
However, things should not be taken for granted. For overzealous new mandarins and policy makers in a bid to outshine their predecessors may do collateral damage to acquired rights and legacies which UNESCO enjoins us to protect.
The Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth himself paid dearly for his championing of the cause of the language issue in 1995. He knows what I am talking about. The Director General of the MBC surely remembers his crusading years of 1982-83 when due recognition to certain acquired rights was being denied, including linguistic representations at various levels. How difficult and gruelling it has been to fight for, achieve, acquire and maintain all these rights.
Likewise, we are happy that Sir Victor Glover, and other well-meaning personalities moved for the creation of the English Speaking Union four decades ago in line with the mother body, based in the UK and with which the umbilical cord is still tied, positively though. Despite the lack of funds, good work has been done over the years in encouraging students in debates, essay writing, public speaking and elocution contests and gaining confidence in expressing the language in a nation riddled with all types of complexes.
Much awareness has been raised in the public. One should not forget that English has come to stay as the global language of communication of ICT and science, despite its colonial roots. However, despite our laureates’ glorious achievements which we celebrate with pride for their dedication, brilliance and pursued efforts of diligence, hard work and sacrifice, we cannot help lamenting the level of English of those at the middle and bottom levels.
In the wake of the creation of the English Speaking Union, other Speaking Unions were created by different governments. One should not erroneously be made to think that Speaking Unions have been created by Acts of Parliaments to dish out some crumbs to political friends or cronies. There are many self-respected people who work for a cause and champion or pioneer its mission with dignity.
The budget allocated to these bodies is so meagre and inadequate. Yet much work has nonetheless been done by all. One must therefore think carefully before tampering with these institutions in a bid to curb expenditure or suit political caprices.
Two plus two does not always equal four. They have been established and maintained at great costs, sacrifice and voluntary efforts. Each government who is a signatory of the UNESCO Convention of 2003 is bound to protect and provide adequate funds for the furtherance of its tangible and intangible cultural heritage including its linguistic and artistic expressions.
One is happy to note how the Ministry of Tourism has together with the Ministry of Arts and Culture, annually promoted and successfully organised the Kreol festival for over ten years now. But for God’s sake let us not introduce such aspects of imported elements which do not suit the country’s ethos and way of life such as the Brazilian carnival in the mere expectation of providing titillation to tourists. We are a unique cultural hub and should be able to draw upon all our rich and diverse heritages, with equal opportunities. UNESCO does warn of the danger of exposing our preserved cultural elements to the threat of modernity and tourism. That does not mean that our artists should not innovate and be creative. Far from it.
Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO says: “The world is exhausting its natural environment: let us help its cultural environment to flourish. The effort involves the implementation of more vigorous public policies.” She adds: “The most pressing need is for capacity-building as the main lever for the implementation of the 2003 Convention (of which Mauritius is a signatory)… in the firm belief that the intangible cultural heritage has a central role in the construction of peace and sustainable development.”
Therefore, these bodies that have been created by Acts of Parliament should be empowered adequately to function and fructify the above objectives of UNESCO. They should be given enough freedom to operate and produce artistically and literally without undue administrative hassles. Of course, regulatory measures such as audit will automatically bring checks and balances.
Moreover, there are a number of safeguarding measures that the UNESCO Convention enforces upon each Government Party. Are these bodies then encouraged and adequately equipped to carry on these safeguarding measures to promote, preserve and disseminate the intangible cultural heritage of the country? Over the years so many cultural aspects have disappeared.
So many artists have been silenced through lack of adequate funds, support and encouragement. One must remember that man does not live by bread and butter alone. His soul needs to be properly nurtured so that his psyche is not broken or shattered. He needs breathing space too. UNESCO warns against the disappearance and destruction of the intangible cultural heritage.
Likewise, it is viewed with apprehension that the Salon International du Livre “Confluences” has been shelved. We hope, the new government will have its own brand of International Book Fair to encourage reading and exchange of ideas and thoughts with interaction with world-renowned writers, poets thinkers and publishers. Though the “Confluences” was somewhat lopsided in the choice of invitees, publishers, writers and journalists, yet it was a commendable initiative with some merits.
As Lindsey Collen author and activist so rightly points out (l’express 9 February 2015) half the population is afraid to enter a bookshop. And if people do so it is merely to buy textbooks. I have personally seen how parents are at a loss or intimidated when they enter a bookshop. At least at a Salon International du Livre, they will have the leisure to move around and have exposure to books, without being unduly in awe. They are so used to so many commercial salons these days – of furniture, home accessories, clothings, jewellery – then why not books?
It is consequently alarming that one wants to do away with what has been painfully acquired: the TV channels dedicated to Tamil, Telugu, Mandarin, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Kreol. Are they on the verge of disappearing? Is there a growing threat to these channels? The Bhojpuri Channel of 24/7 is the only existing one outside India. We know how PIOs are struggling to maintain, by their own private means and more often inadequate, radio and television transmission in Hindi and Bhojpuri in the West Indies and South Africa where Governments are not that disposed politically towards them.
It is being rumoured that there are too many song and dance items on these channels. Songs and dances are good safety valves in a world oppressed by tension and stress. They are good relaxing and entertaining items as well as preserving and giving expression to our intangible cultural heritage. But that should not be all, of course. In any case, music is as old as not only humanity but space. Have we not heard of the Music of the Spheres? Then why not good entertainment in a country more and more caught in the infernal spiral of domestic violence, and other societal white and black crimes?
Of course to make these channels profitable, attractive and viable, more talents and innovative, creative brains should be involved with effective and efficient capabilities but also with attractive incentives. But for God’s sake, let our acquired rights not be tampered with. Beware the ideas of March.
* Published in print edition on 13 February 2015