The Hindi Literature Panel, left to right, Peter Friedlander (ANU), Sandhya Singh (NUS), Sunita Narayan (New Zealand) and Priyanka Jain (Hong Kong), courtesy of Indian High Commission Fiji

What’s the future for Hindi in Fiji?

20th March 2020

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CHL Hindi Associate Professor Peter Friedlander recounts his experience at the recent Pacific Regional Hindi Conference in Fiji.

I was the Australian delegate at the Pacific Regional Hindi Conference in Suva, the capital of Fiji, on 25 January 2020. Attended by around 300 delegates from Fiji and all around the Pacific and India, the event was an extraordinary example of the unique fusion of Indian and Fijian cultures found in Fiji. This flavour was evident right from the conference inauguration, with both an Indian welcome by Mrs Padmaja, Indian High Commissioner to Fiji, and a traditional Fijian welcome, by the Hon. Aiyas Sayad Khaiyam, Acting Minister for Education in the Fijian Government.

The participants were from across the Pacific, as far away as Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Mauritius, India and Australia. However, the core participants were actually all Fijian, and in particular Hindi teachers from Fiji. They told me it was also unprecedented for them to gather together in such numbers—there were at least 200 teachers present.

We started with sessions addressing the question of what the future holds for Hindi in Fiji. We learned that currently around 38 per cent of all Fijians were of Indian extraction, and the majority regarded Fijian Hindi as their mother tongue. However, there was considerable anxiety about the declining numbers of students studying Hindi at Fijian schools. There was also a remarkable presentation by Fiji’s first Indigenous Hindi teacher Mr Nemani Bainvalu, who addressed the audience in fluent Hindi, but also pointed out it was not just Hindi that faced challenges at Fiji’s schools, but also the Indigenous Itoki language—numbers of students studying their own mother tongue was also falling rapidly. The general conclusion was that in an era of Anglophone globalisation, it was a challenge to make mother tongue language learning attractive to all communities in Fiji, but it was essential to do so to preserve Fiji’s cultural heritage.

The next question asked was: what was the role of Hindi literature in the Pacific? I moderated a panel on Hindi literature in the Pacific in which the speakers explored how Hindi literature from Fiji, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong reflected two aspects of Indian experiences of the Pacific region. The experiences of contemporary Diaspora Indians in the Pacific, and the heritage of the nineteenth-century era Indian indentured labours in Fiji. It was argued that comparative studies of Pacific Hindi literatures were needed to understand Indian identity in the region and foster linkages between India and the Pacific.

The last question asked was: what could be done to attract the younger generation to study Hindi? The final two sessions presented a kaleidoscope of ideas about how this could be done. These ranged from linking learning Hindi to the study of India’s spiritual heritage, to highlighting how online teaching resources could link Pacific regional Hindi students into the contemporary global Indian Diaspora.

The final function of the day was perhaps the most brilliant evocation of how Hindi had become part of Fiji’s cultural fusion. This was a performance by an Indo-Fijian dance troupe in which India and Fijian dancers presented dances and dance traditions that were a fusion of Indian and Fijian rhythms and movements...

Truly a testimony to the extraordinary fusion of Fijian and Indian cultures and traditions unique to Fiji.

My visit was facilitated by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian High Commission in Canberra, who made it possible for me to attend the conference.

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