In the durbar of Akbar, there once appeared a polyglot. After marvelous display of his skills, he challenged the mighty emperor’s court to instantly ascertain his native tongue. Birbal was up for the game. He came close to the polyglot, embraced him and in a flash of second, twisted his arm intently. The polyglot cried out ‘Bou lo, marigali’ (meaning, ‘O Mother! I’m dead’). He was identified as a native of erstwhile Utkal.
Five centuries later, there has been no significant change. It is hard to identify the quintessential ‘Utkaliya’ of Moghul era or the ‘Odia’ of independent India, though they appear everywhere. They lack a distinct identity, in stark contrast with neighboring states like Bengal (where people swear by their Bangaliana) and Andhra (which, unfortunately, is undergoing a tumultuous phase currently).
Why has this been so? Why has this race (for the lack of a more appropriate term) been so meek and mild in ascertaining its own identity?
The reasons behind this unique camouflage are not too far to seek.
The current breed of young Odia adults speak an anglicized dialect of (possibly) the oldest language of the Indian subcontinent. Speaking, reading and writing the language with its true phonetic twang is looked down upon. It is more or less the case with all Indian languages as such, but in this part of the world, it is a malaise. Even vendors and auto rickshaw drivers speak in Hindi while dealing with non-native speakers. All shops and offices have English signboards. Odia is strictly an avoidable option. Even our Chief Minister cannot speak the language well after a span of fifteen years in office (No offence meant. He has done a lot to uplift the state). One cannot make out an Odia in Delhi or Bangalore. They literally blend with their adopted ‘hometowns’ (Or cities). There is no specific regional youth icon they can look upto (Thanks to Dhoni, every Ranchi guy/girl boasts of being one). Often there are remarks like ‘Odia is like Bengali, no?’ Sadly, there are no guts in the tame Odia spirit to vehemently deny it.
Puri boasts of having the largest food market in the world (Ananda Bazaar in Sri Mandir) but most Odias are blissfully unaware, unbothered. Odia cuisine has enormous variety yet there are just a few places where one can get a taste of the region. It is much easier to eat a dosa in Odisha than search for a restaurant that serves the humble ‘pakhaala’ and ‘saaga’.
Odia literature started spreading its wings in early 19th century in order to combat the growing influence of Bengali and Telugu culture in northern and southern parts of the state respectively. At that point of time, it would be safe to say that Odia literature was richer than that of Bengal. Post Tagore period, the tables had turned. There was no inclination towards creating work of literary merit. Rather it was all a pastime of the rich and powerful. Some notable exceptions do exist. Today, hardly anyone bothers about Odia literature. The older generations lament but have not done anything to entice the younger lot towards their rich culture and heritage. The only Odia stories, novels and poems I know of was taught in my school. Regrettably, I cannot write the Odia alphabet in correct order as well.
The less said about 21st century Odia cinema, the better. We are perhaps the greatest ‘copycats’ in the current era of strict intellectual property rules and copyrights. The ‘elite class’ has given up on regional cinema since 1980s. Our films boast of English titles, frame-to-frame copied scenes, shoddy scripts, dull and boring lead actors and mandatory ill-fitted song and dance sequences. It has been ages since I saw a good Odia movie. I find the black and white ones way better than what is dished out today.
Adding to all other woes, there has been a intra-regional differences amongst the Odia speaking people. Sambalpurias blame Katkis for all their turmoil, Berhampurias feel alienated in their home state and so on.
Note - This post is not meant to demean any specific group or individual. It is only an expression of an anguish bottled up over years. I do not intend to indulge in divisive tactics or any methods that undermine the unity of India as a nation.