She got beaten in a tribal hamlet, her shoulder ligament torn and she was rushed back home to Visakhapatnam for treatment. The day she got well, S Prasanna Sree knew what she wanted to do – get back to the same village and work closely with the tribals – to get an understanding of their oral literature and document the same in the form of alphabets.
Between 1991 to 2005, Prasanna went around 167 tribal villages across Central India collecting stories from them, comprehending them and recording them in the written form. Between the years 2006 till date, she has achieved, a feat that no one had even attempted before. Till date, she is credited with the discovery of 18 new tribal scripts.
This is the story of S Prasanna Sree, a doctorate, Professor and Chairperson, Board of Studies, Department of English, Andhra University. Today, she is perhaps the only woman English professor from the tribal community in any of the South Indian Universities.
The genesis of her journey
Prasanna had visited the Araku Valley, a picturesque place near Visakhapatnam in 1991, when her daughter was very small. Araku valley is inhabited by various tribes and Prasanna was so moved to hear the songs sung by the tribals there that she started carrying a tape recorder whenever she went to visit a tribal village.
It was no easy job mixing with the tribals, who consider people outside their local community, outsiders. “There was fear that gripped them and they started eyeing me with suspicion as I started visiting their village more often. The village heads did not take my visits on face value and delved deeper to find out about my intentions. After long hours spent in communicating with them and learning their language, they started accepting me very slowly. And thus began my challenging journey,” says Prasanna Sree.
Tracing her roots
With roots in the tribal community, Prasanna wanted to understand the tribes better. Their ancestral house was a tribal hamlet near Prakasam district and though she never lived there, she was aware of how the tribals were being threatened and exploited for resources.
It was her grandmother (father’s mother) who once told Prasanna, “Do you want to see the world with your own eyes or with glasses on?” Prasanna said the obvious – ‘with my own eyes’. “That is when she
explained to me the difference of knowing one’s mother tongue and being proud of it rather than be driven by the drift and embracing the mainstream language. There is certainly nothing wrong in adapting to the world around you but one must be aware of their roots and be proudly associated with it,” says Prasanna.
Currently, she works on canvassing the need to preserve tribal oral tradition, identifying tribal communities and individuals, visiting women credit groups, schools, youth groups, community level leaders motivating them to improve their quality of living, creating awareness about knowledge of other tribal languages, running a campaign against displacement of tribal languages and strengthening tribal language speakers among intra and inter tribal communities, in the process becoming an inspiration for many.
Apart from the fact that she had to fight hard to get acceptance in the various tribal communities, there was another major issue which bothered her – the tribals themselves were busy adapting to the mainstream languages around them. In such a scenario, some precious words were already lost and Prasanna thought she had to act quickly to record whatever little of the existing rich tribal literature existed.
Being a woman working on such issues was another problem for Prasanna as she met with opposition right from the bureaucracy to the common man. While people belonging to the higher sections of society were unhappy with the kind of work she was doing for tribal uplift, the bureaucracy thought she was educating the tribals, making them aware of their rights, in the process making it easier for the tribals to see through their intentions.
Her counterparts motivated her
It was people like her working in other parts of the world, trying to revive the glorious tribal literature by giving them the form of a language who inspired her no end. Add to that quality support from her sociologist husband and mechanical engineer daughter which helped her traverse 25-odd years of a rather difficult journey.
Today, Prasanna Sree has penned 25 books and some of her books are even part of the curriculum at various Universities.