Experiencing Interruptions?

Gyani Maiya

No community can express the pain of losing an elder, especially when one was presumed to be the last fluent speaker of their language and the language is nearing endangerment.

“Now, none of the Mihaqs (Kusunda people) speaks the language. The girls have got married and have left for the villages. Boys are getting married in villages”.

“We left our language and started speaking others’ languages. It should be taught to others”.

— Gyani Maiya Sen-Kusunda

Gyani Maiya Sen-Kusunda died on January 25, 2020, in Kulmor near the Dang district of western Nepal, 1.5 years after this documentary was filmed (Chaudhary). At the time of filming, she was presumed to be the last living speaker of the critically-endangered Kusunda language. A language isolate, Kusunda has no known link with any other language, and the native speakers stopped speaking it due to acculturation. To add to that, the Kusunda people struggled to establish political identity or educational or livelihood opportunities in which their language could have played a key role.

The film arguably contains the most detailed video documentation of Sen-Kusunda that is available under an open license. While expressing her anguish for the Kusunda people not being able to speak Kusunda anymore, she also emphasizes her strong desire to keep the language alive. Her husband was from the Magar community, and she witnessed the fall of her language while raising her family.

Kusunda people have seen their communities merging through marriages with other relatively dominant communities. Over the years, almost all the Kusundas have left speaking their language (Panigrahi). Sen-Kusunda’s younger sister Kamala Sen Khatri (Watters) left Nepal to search for a job in India. When she returned home, Uday Raj Aaley, lexicographer, researcher and author from a neighbouring village, pursued the Bhasha Ayog, Nepal’s language commission, for a pilot education programme.

The plan eventually saw the day of the light, and both the sisters supported Aaley. This education project resulted in children from Kusunda and other local communities learning Kusunda for the first time. Sen-Kusunda could see her wishes coming true in the last year or so of her life, of the Kusunda children learning the Kusunda language. Aaley’s persistent effort to create curriculum and study materials in Kusunda and Khatri’s key role after her return from India has helped continue the education pilot.

Aaley plays a key role in the film as an advisor, the main interviewer, and the translator. Sanjib Chaudhary, whose Global Voices article inspired the conceptualisation of this film, also joined during filming in his volunteer capacity along with Ananda K.C, who contributed to the interview and research process.

As someone who has spent two significant decades of her life living in lean-tos in the forests, life does not get any better as the Kusunda community migrates to villages. Deeply poverty-stricken, Kusundas are constantly taunted to “use limbs and work” when they are forced to beg for sustenance. The Kusunda festivals and wedding feasts of lizard meat and yam were a source of joy as adults always searched for resources. One cannot miss the enthusiasm of eighty-three-year-old Sen-Kusunda as she moved from place to place to show the remnants of her heritage.

“Gyani Maiya” was made possible through a grant from the National Geographic Society under the ambit of the OpenSpeaks initiative at the O Foundation.

  • Subhashish Panigrahi
    Mage Porob, Remosam, Who Owns the Content?, Karinding
  • Subhashish Panigrahi
    Mage Porob, Remosam, Who Owns the Content?, Karinding
  • Uday Raj Aaley
  • Sanjib Chaudhary
  • Subhashish Panigrahi
    Mage Porob, Remosam, Who Owns the Content?, Karinding
  • Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda
    Key Cast
  • Uday Raj Aaley
    Key Cast
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Genres:
    Alternate history, Documentary, Biopic
  • Runtime:
    20 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    July 17, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    2,100 USD
  • Country of Origin:
  • Country of Filming:
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Distribution Information
  • O Foundation
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: Internet
Director Biography - Subhashish Panigrahi

Subhashish Panigrahi is a documentary filmmaker, researcher and long-time open culture advocate. Apart from leading strategy, programs and communities for international civil society organizations such as Wikimedia, Mozilla and Internet Society, he has produced and directed several documentaries with a primary focus on indigenous and endangered languages over a decade. In 2019 he was awarded the Yoti Digital Identity Fellowship for researching the impact of the Indian biometric ID on marginalized communities. His year-long research resulted in the 2021 documentary "MarginalizedAadhaar" highlighting how access to information in India's Adivasi (indigenous) groups lead to the exclusion of basic public services.

"Gyani Maiya" is a part of three documentaries supported by the National Geographic Society.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

I came across the news about Gyani Maiya Sen-Kusunda and the Kusunda language from an article on Global Voices titled “Indigenous Nepali Language With Only Two Fluent Speakers Sees Pages of Hope in Newly Launched Dictionary”, written by a dear friend and Nepali blogger Sanjib Chaudhary. The article was a reminder of the endangerment of the Kusunda language. The story highlighted how Uday had started collecting words, over 1,000 of them, and created their lexical meanings by discussing them with Gyani Maiya. He lives far from Kulmor, where Gyani Maiya lived with her family. Kulmor is home to many Kusunda, Magar and Tharu families and both Magar, Uday’s native language, and Tharu also face language endangerment on many levels.

His groundbreaking work resulted in the compilation of the 2017 trilingual dictionary (Kusunda-Nepali-English) "Kusunda Jati Ra Shabdakosh". The book brought more attention and highlighted the urgency to document Kusunda. Until then, only a few ethnographers and researchers had studied and recorded Kusunda. Aaley and Timotheus A. Bodt of SOAS University of London also made 20 hours of audiovisual recordings interviewing Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda and Kamala Sen Khatri. They published the observations under open access (Aaley and Bodt).

Sanjib and I started discussing finding a way to document Kusunda. Incidentally, Eddie Avila, one of my mentors and the director of Rising Voices at Global Voices and I got to talk about finding opportunities to document Kusunda. Rising voices has been instrumental in building a network of individual activists, institutions, and collectives focusing on research, development and advocacy for linguistic diversity. It provided microgrants to researchers who wanted to use media and technology for focused projects around low-resource languages. Eddie was kind to advise on ideas and a grant proposal to further OpenSpeaks (a practice-inspired toolkit that I had founded earlier to support citizen documentors and archivists) that I submitted to the National Geographic Society. It all came together as the grant came through.

One thing became extremely clear as we continued to build a plan for documenting Kusunda. Almost all audio-visual documentations made in Kusunda were either unavailable to the general public or under strict copyright restrictions. Most importantly, the Kusunda community had no access to these materials. I was privileged to receive a grant, and the grant was to develop a framework for Open Access archiving of low-resource languages. That is exactly what I went for in terms of licensing. The film and the entire footage are under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License, an open and public license that allows anyone to use, create new materials by building upon these ones, and redistribute in any form. Language materials recorded by alien documentors can potentially be misused, and it was certainly a hard choice to go for an open license. In retrospect, it was probably the right choice considering the state of endangerment of Kusunda and the chances of any future copyright restrictions that might stop Kusunda people from accessing the materials. We did our best to explain to Gyani Maiya and asked for her consent and intentions. What is included in the film is her strong desire for the revival of Kusunda. We spent two days with her for all practical reasons, particularly her availability at her ripe age, which did not allow a longer interaction. I wish I knew that that would be my last interaction with her. Uday was extremely kind, helpful and meticulous in helping translate the recorded conversations between himself and Gyani Maiya in Kusunda and Nepali to Hindi. Then I translated the Hindi translations into English. We would schedule calls on Facebook Messenger, a medium he preferred, and VOIP calls over Skype for the translation. It took way longer than I had imagined getting the subtitles right.

Gyani Maiya not only kept the Kusunda language alive through over five decades of acculturation but also kindly allowed scholars to study it.

As UNESCO estimates, half the world's languages, mostly indigenous, are threatened by permanent extinction in a century. The loss of many endangered, indigenous and other low-resource languages calls for both short and long-term collaborations between speakers of such languages, citizen documentors and archivists who might or might not be native speakers, and archives. The entire film and the footage is slowly migrating to permanent storage on the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons.