The death of a script Karthik Malli


The death of a script

Karthik Malli

04 MAY 2019 16:00 IST

We may be fed on ideas of ‘one language, one script’, but there was a time when two scripts for Marathi — Devanagari and its variant, Moḍī — coexisted in harmony.

In a tense Maharashtra courtroom, a land dispute case is underway. The petitioners produce evidence corroborating their side of the story: an old, Marathi-language land record (called sāt-bārā locally) that establishes quite firmly the validity of their claim. However, before the nailbiting reveal, the story takes a sudden, bizarre twist — nobody present can read the document even though it’s written in their mother tongue. The denouement will have to wait its turn.

This document, like so many other Marathi documents of its time, is written in the Moḍī script — a script formerly used to write Marathi in addition to Devanagari. The cursive Moḍī script, once an essential, vital part of Marathi literary culture both inside and outside modern Maharashtra’s borders, has since beat a retreat to the periphery of the speaker community’s consciousness.

In the decades since independence, Devanagari has gone from being one of Marathi’s two scripts to being its sole script, displacing Moḍī completely. Moḍī is seen by many Marathi speakers of my generation as that script their grandparents could write in, a relic of a not-so-distant past. While Moḍī still retains some visible cultural presence, like in stylised written renditions of Marathi poetry and in popular depictions of Maratha-era writing, its active use is very limited.

Incorrect perspective

Marathi went from centuries of digraphia (a state when two scripts are used for a language at one point in time, like modern Serbian in both Latin and Cyrillic), a period making up the vast majority of its literary history, to today’s Devanagari-only phase. But bolstered by the popular pan-Indian misconception that a language needs a distinct, unique script of its own in order to be a bona fide independent literary language, is the idea that Moḍī was Marathi’s ‘original script’, a position later usurped by Devanagari.

The logic is this: Indian languages can only use one script at a time, preferably a unique script to give it its own identity. This line of thinking actually dates back only to the growth of linguistic nationalism in the pre-Independence era of the 20th century, but is uncritically accepted by most Indians, colouring perceptions of our own linguistic heritage.

This (incorrect) perspective sees the two scripts existing in opposition to each other, something that ultimately stems from an ahistorical understanding of Indian literary traditions. Moḍī’s tale is a good example of how changing perceptions of language usage — effected by a wide spectrum of factors, nationalism chief among them — have gone on to shape the collective consciousness of the language’s speaker community.

Two scripts

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that any interpretation of the Marathi literary tradition is incomplete without understanding and acknowledging the role both its scripts historically played in its growth and expression. According to academician Pushkar Sohoni, “Without a hierarchical relationship between them, both [Devanagari and Moḍī] were equally accessible to the Marathi literati.” This is far removed from our modern idea of ‘one language, one (unique) script’.

To begin with, let’s understand the scripts themselves.

Of the two, Devanagari is older, having been used in inscriptions (both stone and copperplate) from the very beginning of the language’s written history. With its blocklike forms and straight lines, it was more suited for engraving on stone and copper. Plus, given the longer tradition of usage of Sanskrit, Devanagari carried more cachet and prestige, and was preferred for manuscripts and literature, especially in Sanskritised forms of writing where exact pronunciation was important.

Broken loops

Moḍī, on the other hand, emerged in the 1400s as a shorthand variant of the Devanagari used by scribes, since Devanagari character forms were awkward to reproduce in rapid writing. Moḍī’s origins in Devanagari only make it harder to see the two in conflict with each other.

The very name Moḍī points to the historical contexts surrounding both its origins and usage — moḍī is derived from the Marathi verb modne, to break. Moḍī literally means ‘broken (script),’ a reference to its flowing form, with its rounded, looping strokes, all features that lent themselves well to the script’s swift reproduction by scribes on paper.

That last word, paper, is key. Moḍī’s history is intimately linked to the spread of paper as a medium of writing, a medium introduced into the Deccan in the 14th century, according to historian Richard Eaton. This paper-based Marathi scribal tradition first flourished under the sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, both of which widely employed Marathi-speaking Brahmins as scribes. Land records, for example, were written in Marathi in both polities.

The founding of the Maratha empire, of course, only took this tradition to new heights, since, in contrast to the earlier sultanates, the Marathas actively cultivated Marathi as a language of power and culture. Moḍī’s usage received a massive boost from the empire’s rulers and nobles, who used the script in personal correspondence and administration. Unsurprisingly, Moḍī is most strongly associated with this period.

Throughout the language’s history, regardless of which kingdom ruled Maharashtra, Devanagari remained the script of choice when it came to Marathi inscriptions and literary manuscripts. Examples of Ahmednagar-issued Marathi inscriptions in Devanagari (usually bilingual with Persian) are fairly common, as are later Maratha-era ones.

Although Devanagari ended up completely replacing Moḍī, the relationship was traditionally one where each script served its own set of purposes, something that was common across pre-modern South Asia’s literary traditions. As Sohoni says, “Historically, the functional convenience of Devanagari and Moḍī dictated their use.”

However, if paper helped bring Moḍī to life, mass printing would mark the beginning of its demise. The script’s looping, squiggly glyphs proved challenging to typeset. Devanagari, already preferred for literature, was chosen instead for printing. This set a trend that only intensified with time.

Fluid identities

In Volume X of his seminal Linguistic Survey Of India (published 1905), British civil servant/ linguist George A. Grierson collected various samples of Marathi. Most of his samples of written Marathi are in Devanagari, with Moḍī being restricted to one sample, something Grierson himself remarks on. This would be a sign of things to come.

As linguistic nationalism grew as a potent political force in India, literary traditions had to conform to its ideals — a language increasingly could only be tied to one script. Debates over Marathi’s script raged in Maharashtra and Moḍī’s place in society was questioned. Things finally came to a head in 1964, when the newly formed state of Maharashtra, its borders drawn up along linguistic lines, declared Devanagari Marathi’s sole official script.

Moḍī was no longer widely taught, active knowledge of the script died out in a generation or two, and the script has not recovered. Symbolic representations of Marathi using Moḍī still feature in modern Maharashtra. However, they remain just that — symbolic.

Modern efforts to revive Moḍī have takers, ensuring that the script — and by extension the vast corpus of manuscripts and documents Marathi scribal tradition nurtured — will remain part of the collective heritage of Marathi’s literate community.

While Moḍī will likely never regain its former importance, to understand and appreciate Marathi literary history is to understand and appreciate both scripts, the various contributions they made to the language, and the once stable dynamic between them, all things that can help remind us of our once fluid linguistic identities.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelance culture journalist

Thanks @The Hindu