Maithili in the digital space
MITHILESH KUMAR JHA
THE digital world presents a unique challenge to languages like Maithili. In India, the digital presence of many well established and recognized modern Indian languages has been minimum. They encounter a stiff challenge from ‘global’ English. Since the ICT (information and communications technology) revolutions in India, a massive shift has taken place from the ‘native’ and mother tongues to a slightly standard, hence prestigious, ‘national’ and ‘international’ or ‘global’ language. This poses a serious threat to India’s linguistic diversity. In contrast to widely held beliefs, the digital space reinforces the practices of domination and subordination that exist in the ‘real world’ of languages. One could even argue that the digital world accelerates the processes of domination and homogenization. If unchecked, it could pose a serious existential threat to the minor languages.
Maithili has a rich literary tradition. However, its modern trajectories have been a chequered one. The previous century and a half have seen Maithili struggle for recognition as an independent modern Indian language.1 Thus, the question of modern Maithili is intertwined with the question of identity and struggle for its recognition. Literary pursuits in Maithili, therefore, become, at the same time, a conscious political act. The publication of novels, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of literary pursuits have become markers of defiance against the classification of Maithili as a ‘dialect’ of Hindi.2
Although Maithili has achieved ‘official’ status and recognition as an independent language, in popular discourse it is still considered a ‘dialect’ or ‘variety’ of Hindi. It is not used as the medium of instruction in primary schools despite repeated demands from its speakers. Caste, class, and intra-regional biases further obstruct its growth. There is a little scope that the digital space will empower Maithili enough to overcome these formidable challenges. However, the way forward for languages like Maithili is not to shun the digital world but to engage with it creatively and actively. Like in the real world, success in the digital world will depend on its speakers’ endeavours.
Maithili, an Indo-Aryan language, has its script – Mithilakshar or Tirhutta.3 It is also written in Kaithi, Newari, and Devanagari. However, since the early decades of the 20th century, Devanagari is predominantly used even though there has been a relentless demand for the revival of Mithilakshar. Maithili is one of the twenty-two scheduled languages recognized by the Indian Constitution. It is spoken in North Bihar (in India) and the Terai region in Nepal. In Nepal, it is the second most widely spoken language after Nepali and recognized as its second official language. However, there has been a long and hard battle for Maithili’s recognition as an independent language in India. According to the Government of India’s Census report, 2011, it has more than 13.58 million speakers.4 Maithili faces many challenges despite being recognized by the PEN (1948), Sahitya Akademy (1965), and in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution (2004). It is not yet recognized as an official language in Bihar, although the neighbouring state of Jharkhand recognized it in 2017.
Maithili, in comparison to other North Indian languages, is distinct. Its first prose, Varnaratnakar,5 was written in the 14th century by Jyotirishwar Thakur (1294-1348). This text describes the society, culture, politics, flora, and fauna of Mithila. Vidaypati (1350-1448) is Maithili’s most illustrious poet. His influence could also be traced to modern Bengal, Orissa, and Assam. Rabindranath Tagore started his literary pursuits by imitating Vidyapati’s style.6 Vidyapati’s songs are so deeply embedded in the lives of Maithils that they survived orally for more than five centuries before its compilation in the 19th and early 20th century.
Since Vidyapati, there have been uninterrupted literary productions in Maithili. In modern times, G.A. Grierson’s (1851-1941), Maithili Chrestomathy and Grammar, Chanda Jha (1831-1907), particularly his Nachari and Maheshwani, Babu Bholalal Das (1897-1977), Bhuvaneshwar Singh ‘Bhuvan’ (1907-1944), Harimohan Jha (1908-1984), Baidyanath Mishra ‘Yatri’ aka ‘Nagarjun’ (1911-1998), Kashikant Mishra ‘Madhup’ (1906-1987), Surendra Jha ‘Suman’ (1910-2002), Ramanath Jha (1906-1971), Mayanand Mishra (1934-2013), Kanchinath Jha ‘Kiran’ (1906-1988), Lily Ray (b.1933), besides many others, have immensely contributed to the growth of Maithili language and literature.
Maithili and Hindi share a love-hate relationship. Maithili Hit Sadhan (1905), Mithila Moda (1906), and Mithila Mihir (1908) also carried articles and columns in Hindi. A special issue of Mithila Mihir’s Mithilank (1936), edited by Surendrnath Jha ‘Suman’, discusses this interrelationship threadbare. The book Vidyapatike Deshmei published in the 1950s reassess these antagonisms.
It was when Maithili was classified as a ‘variety’ or ‘dialect’ of Hindi that Maithili speakers fiercely opposed it. Hindi, however, is regarded as a language of opportunity and status. In comparison to Maithili, Hindi magazines and newspapers have a larger circulation. Still, people in the region are conscious of and vocal about Maithili’s distinct status. They fiercely oppose attempts to appropriate Maithili literary figures or their works.
As mentioned above, Maithili has its own script – Mithilakshar or Tirhuta. It is similar to Bengali and Assamese. These languages are considered sister languages having a common origin. However, due to the unavailability of print technology in Maithili, Maithils adopted Devanagari script in the early decades of the 20th century. Later, a Maithili font was created using Bangla’s font. However, these and several other attempts to revive Maithilakshar or Tirhuta have by and large failed.
According to Devnarayan Yadav, former director of the Mithila Sanskrit Research Institute, Darbhanga, more than twelve thousand Sanskrit manuscripts in the Mithila region are available in Mithilakshar.7 It shows that Mithilakshar was widely used and popular earlier. Mithilakshar is still in use on ceremonious occasions and symbolically on public platforms such as railway stations and other public institutions in Mithila. However, in print it is highly unlikely that it would replace Devanagri.
Digitalization holds a great promise of reviving and promoting Mithilakshar. Microsoft and other tech agencies are involved in preserving and promoting the world’s languages and their scripts. In this direction, a Unicode for the Maithili font has been created and approved.8 It has solved the discrepancies associated with various available Maithili fonts. One had to install the specific font of a document one wanted to read/print. Unicode has solved that problem.
The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Pune, Government of India, also developed software for a Maithili font in 2014. It is based on Unicode. The Centre regularly updates this font. There have been similar attempts in Nepal and India to develop and popularize Maithili fonts. Many of them claim to have developed Maithili fonts in 2003 and 2004.9 A committee was recently set up by the GOI10 for the preservation and promotion of Mithilakshar. Several online groups, particularly on social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and other web-portals,11 are promoting Mithilakshar. Their activities have grown manifold since 2015. Online classes and workshops are regularly held. There has indeed been a phenomenal rise of language enthusiasts in recent decades promoting Mithilakshar. Still, Devanagari is widely used in Maithili publications.
Maithili’s digital presence started in the early 2000s and has proliferated since 2010. In proportion to the number of speakers, it now has a sizeable digital presence in all formats and on all platforms – audio-video, journals, magazines, newspapers, discussion forums, apps, fonts, and software. The digital space does provide a wider online base for Maithili writers, intellectuals, speakers, and language enthusiasts. Maithili’s first digital presence was the blog, Bhalsarik Gachh, in 2000 on Yahoo Geo Cities by Gajendra Thakur.12 Now there are innumerous blogs, groups, and online news/magazine portals. A few prominent and active among them are – Videha, Katek Ras Baat, Mithimedia, E-Mithila, Maithili Jindabad, Mithila Mihir, Hello Mithila, Esamad, Mithila Samad, Maithili Times, Anchinharakhar, Samachar Mithila, Mailorang, Mithila Mirror, Mithila Live, Mithiladarshan News. They have also bridged the divide between the Maithili diaspora and Maithils living in the Maithili-speaking region. In other words, the digital space has brought Maithili speakers, writers, intellectuals, artists together.
Mobile internet has truly democratized the digital space. In Maithili, too, many speakers are connected to the digital world through mobile phones. WhatsApp has become a major source of content creation in Maithili. Vinay Jha is attributed to having created a font for Mithiakshar typing on mobile phones in 2019.13 WhatsApp and other apps related to Maithili have truly revolutionized the modes of communication. The first app related to Maithili was created in 2013.14 There are now more than a hundred apps, with a few having more than fifty thousand downloads.
The Maithili Machan and Madhubani Literature Festival,15 started by Savita Jha Khan, have creatively used the digital space to bring various facets of Maithili language, culture, and tradition to one platform. In the last few years, it has done a commendable job in promoting Maithili literature in and beyond Mithila’s border. Maithili Machan also hosts a book exhibition at the annual Delhi International Book Fair and provides a platform to Maithili authors and writers, experts, and intellectuals to discuss the challenges facing the language. They regularly host online talks and panel discussions. They now have dedicated YouTube channels, websites, and social media pages to showcase their events and achievements.
In a very short period, by a skilful combination of online and offline modes of organizing events, Mithila Machan and Madhubani Literature Festival have done a commendable job in promoting Maithili language and literature.
The Maithili Patrakar Group is an apex organization of journalists from the Maithili speaking regions in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Nepal.16 They are committed to the betterment of the region by highlighting issues ignored or sidelined by the governments and mainstream media. They organize a Mithila Mahotsav in the Press Club of India, Delhi, to highlight the rich tradition and culture of Mithila. However, they are hardly active, and their website provides few details except for the Mithila Mahotsav.
Videha is the first Maithili fortnightly e-journal published under the able editorship of Gajendra Thakur. Unlike many other Maithili web portals and e-magazines, Videha has attained a milestone by consistently publishing its issues since its inception in Jan 2008. The 318th issue of Videha was been published on March 15, 2021.17 Gajendra Thakur started one of the first acclaimed Maithili blogs, Bhalsarik Gachh.18 He also played a critical role in providing digital content for the opening of Maithili Wikipedia in 2014.19 In this endeavour, many groups and individuals from Nepal have also played a vital role.20 Maithili Wikipedia has close to ten thousand user accounts and more than thirteen thousand articles as of March 2021.
Videha provides an excellent platform to new and emerging Maithili writers, the most notable among them are Jagadish Prasad Mandal, Rajdeo Mandal, Umesh Paswan, Munnaji, Ashish Anchinhar, Chandan Kumar Jha, among others. It has created a vast archive of important works – past and contemporary – in Maithili. They are freely available for download in pdf format. Videha also provides links to various important portals associated with Mithila and Maithili.
Another significant contribution of Videha is to archive every community’s songs, culture, and literary traditions. In that, it has systematically countered the usurpation of Maithili and its ‘legitimate’ representation by a few dominant castes in Mithila. Videha has done a yeoman service in the preservation and promotion Mithilakshar. All its fortnightly journals are available in Mithilakshar, besides Devanagari and Braille. Many books are also available in Mithilakshar. Mithila Darshan, Mithila Darpan, Ghar Bahar, and many other print magazines and periodicals are also using online platforms, particularly social media, to reach a wider audience.
Since 2013,Mithila Mirror has contributed immensely to Maithili’s professional journalism. Its founder, Lalit Narayan Jha, has played a critical role in showcasing Maithili language, literature, and culture. He now has a YouTube channel – Mithila Mirror. Its coverage of the last flood and other social-political issues affecting Mithila have been widely appreciated. This channel has more than 123 thousand subscribers, and many of its videos have more than a million views.
Rajni Pallavi’s YouTube channel (since 2008) has been a milestone in showcasing the rich heritage of Maithili songs. Similarly, Ganga Maithili’s, Neelam Maithili’s, Mithila Darshan’s, Mithila Machan’s, and Pravesh Mallick’s YouTube channels have attracted millions of Maithili’s speakers. Audio-video songs of celebrated singers like Harinath Jha, Kunj Bihari Mishra, Rambabu Jha, Sunil Jha ‘Pawan’ available on YouTube have reinvented their image among the millennials. It has reignited their love for the language and culture. Similarly, short films, videos, and songs on Chhath, Holi, Durga Puja attract wider acclamation for singers like Vikash Jha, Madhav Rai, Kanti Prakash Jha, and other cine stars.
Maithili Thakur is a sensation in today’s Maithili-speaking region and beyond. Shloka’s versatility has a different appeal, particularly to youngsters. Their phenomenal success in recent years is also due to their digital presence and instant access for millions of viewers. Maithili Thakur has contributed to more than one genre of Maithili songs. She also sings in other Indian languages. Shloka’s rap songs enthrall the audience far and wide. They have created a new audience for Maithili songs. So has the classical singing of the Mallick Brothers (Prashant and Nishant Mallick). They have revived the Dhrupads of Darbhanga Gharana. YouTube videos of these stars have attracted many viewers. They have become great ambassadors of Maithili language and literature in the digital space.
Maithili cinema’s growth has been rather slow. The first feature film in Maithili was Mamta Gabay Geet (made in 1962-63 but released only in 1981). Another film, Kanyadan, was made and released in 1965. In recent years there has been a growing interest in Maithili movies even among non-Maithili speakers. Many movies are now released or streamed on over-the-top (OTT) platforms. The Chandra siblings – Nitin and Nitu Chandra – and theirs www.bejod.in have produced many films in Maithili. Their most notable and critically acclaimed feature film, Mithila Makhan (2020), won a national award for the best movie in the language.
Similarly, Gaamak Ghar (2019) by Achal Mishra, has heralded a new era in Maithili cinema. It is centred around a house and narrates the story of a changing middle class household and their longing for relationships, society, and village life. It received critical acclaim during the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Film Festival, 2019. It was streamed on the MUBI platform in 2020 for the general public and received much appreciation. Gaamak Ghar has won many national and international awards. It has taken Maithili cinema to the world stage.
The digital space, particularly social media, has turned out to be an effective medium for mobilizing public opinion. Maithili speakers have used it to their advantage to put pressure on the authorities to meet their demands. In recent decades, the rise of the Mithila Student Union has been phenomenal. It has played a major role in mobilizing public opinions on many issues concerning Mithila and Maithili. It has led and run many successful campaigns, among others for quality higher education, controlling floods, establishing an airport and the construction of an AIIMS in Darbhanga.
The digital platform has undoubtedly broadened the limited space available in print for Maithili. It has led to the rise of a new set of writers and audiences. The communication between the two is direct and instant. It has democratized the literary space in many ways. However, it has its own set of limitations. First, there is little or no editorial control over the contents available in digital Maithili. Second, there is an imminent danger of hybridization. The unchecked use of words and literary styles of other languages, often at the cost of available words in Maithili, could pose a serious challenge to the growth of the language.
Besides, there are several challenges facing digital Maithili which are similar to print Maithili. First, many of these web portals are irregular or inactive. Second, they are individual centric, reinforcing divisions and hierarchies of the social world in the digital space. It has often led to institutional and group rivalries. It is hard to bridge the existing gaps of caste, class, region, and gender. Third, like in the print era, the common Maithili speaker is indifferent to the web portals. Language enthusiasts and literary productions have increased manifolds in the previous two decades. However, Maithili’s success in countering the predominance of Hindi and the growing aspiration for ‘global’ English, has been rather limited.
The success of digital Maithili is that it has brought the Maithili diaspora emotionally and psychologically together. It has played a significant role in the digital presence of Maithili. This attitude for the preservation, promotion, and circulation of Maithili literature is like their attitude towards the publication of Maithili journals and magazines in the early decades of the 20th century. However, how successful digitization will be in ‘connecting’ the diaspora or ‘revisiting’ their Maithili roots is debatable.
In the digital world, languages like Maithili exist and will continue to exist as they do in the real world. They have made their presence felt. However, they are likely to exist only at the margins for the larger world and may remain as ‘invisible’ as before. It does not mean that they should leave this space. They must engage and expand their digital presence. However, their success will depend largely on how active their speakers are. Digital platforms and technology alone can neither guarantee their preservation nor growth.
1. Paul Brass, Language, Politics, and Religion in North India. Cambridge University Press, 1974; Mithilesh Kumar Jha, Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement. Oxford University Press, 2018.
2. Interestingly in North India, there are 48 languages recognized in the Census as ‘varieties’ of Hindi. See, Anvita Abbi, ‘Vanishing Diversities and Submerging Identities: An Indian Case’, in Asha Sarangi (ed.), Language and Politics in India. Oxford University Press, 2009.
3. As a script it is much closer to Bengali and Assamese. See, Anshuman Pandey, Request to Allocate the Maithili Script in the Unicode Roadmap, 2011, Available on https://core. ac.uk/download/pdf/286729526.pdf Accessed on 27 March 2021.
4. However, there are dispute about the total number of Maithili speakers. There are many estimates that put this number as 47 millions (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Talk: Maithili_language#/Actual_Number_of_ Speakers Accessed on 7 April 2021); whereas other estimates put this number as 34 millions (https://www.ethnologue.com/language/mai. Ritu Nidhi and Tanya Singh. SMT Algorithms for Indian Languages – A Case Study of Moses and MTHub for English-Maithili Language Pair, in P.K. Singh et. al. (eds.), Proceedings of ICETIT 2019, LNEE, Springer, 2020); still other keep this number as 35.5 million speakers; see Anshuman Pandey, Request to Allocate the Maithili Script in the Unicode Roadmap, 2011. Available on https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/286729526.pdf Accessed on 27 March 2021.
5. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and Babuaji Jha ‘Agyat’, Varna-Ratnakar of Jyotirisvara Kavisekharacharya. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1998.
6. Tagore’s Bhanusingher Padavali is a testimony to Vidyapati’s influence on Tagore.
7. https://www.jagran.com/bihar/darbhanga-language-speaking-and-script-writing-will-develop-21454191.html Accessed on 7 April 2021.
8. Anshuman Pandey, Request to Allocate the Maithili Script in the Unicode Roadmap, 2011. Available on https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/286729526.pdf Accessed on 27 March 2021.
9. For instance, Vinay Jha’s 1 Dev Mithila (2004); C.K. Raut’s Tirhuta Lipi (2003); Gangesh Gunjan Jha and Sravin Kumar Mishra’s Maithili (2004) and so on. For details see, Ashish Anchinhar’s Maithili Web Patrakaritak Itihas, available on https://sites.google.com/a/videha.com/videha-pothi/ accessed on 28 March 2021.
10. The MHRD, GOI set up this committee for the promotion and protection of Maithili Language and its Scripts in 2018. It also invite the committee’s recommendation for establishing a Script and Manuscript Centre at Darbhanga. For details visit https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=188375 Accessed on 28 March 2021.
11. Such as Mithilakshar Saksharta Abhiyan, Mithilakshar Siksha Abhiyan, Durvaksata, and so on.
12. Ashish Anchinhar, Maithili Web Patrakaritak Itihas; Gajendra Thakur, ‘Antarjaal aa Maithili’, Antika, Oct-Dec 2009-Jan-Mar 2010, p. 6. After its closure due to discontinuation of Yahoo Geo Cities this webpage is now available on http//www.videha.com/2004/07/bhalsarik-gachh.html
13. Ashish Anchinhar, Maithili Web Patrakaritak Itihas.
15. In 2021, MLF organize its fourth edition in Darbhanga.
16. http://www.dezbridge.com/clients/mithila/index.html, Accessed on March 25, 2021, 5 pm.
17. http://www.videha.co.in/ Accessed on 27 March 2021 at 11 am.
18. Gajendra Thakur, ‘Antarjaal aa Maithili’, Antika, Oct-Dec 2009-Jan-Mar 2010, p. 6.
19. Ashish Anchinhar, Maithili Web Patrakaritak Itihas, in developing the web contents of Maithili Wikipedia, Umesh Mandal’s contribution is immense. He, according to Ashish Anchinhar, has developed more than 70% of Maithili Wikipedia’s web content. Videha too played a crucial role in this endeavour between 2008-13.
20. https://glocalkhabar.com/wikipedia-maithili-language-approved/ Accessed on 28 March 2021, 10 am