On January 25, 2023, the voice of one of the final speakers of a critically endangered language from western Nepal was heard on the other side of the world in Washington, DC. This was made possible by Subhashish Panigrahi, a researcher and an advocate for endangered and indigenous languages. Panigrahi is also an award-winning National Geographic filmmaker from India.
Panigrahi teamed up with Jason Hamacher, the founder of Lost Origin Productions, a Washington DC-based musician, documentarian, and photographer with extensive international experience spanning from Peru to Syria.
In the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, there was a public screening of Panigrahi’s award-winning documentary titled Gyani Maiya. His 25-minute film is a memoir of the late Gyani Maiya Sen-Kusunda as well as of the Kusunda people, a formerly semi-nomadic hunter gatherer community in Dang. Dang is in the western province of Lumbini in Nepal.
Sen-Kusunda was one of the one of the last fluent speakers of an indigenous language called Kusunda, or Mihaq, as it is known by the community who once spoke it at large. Sen-Kusunda passed away at the age of 85 in 2020, leaving her sister as the only fluent speaker of Kusunda alive today. Efforts to revitalize the critically endangered language have been made, with classes of 20 students being taught in Dang as recently as 2019.
The screening was followed by an hour-long Q&A, where Panigrahi discussed his experiences creating the film, as well as his extensive work in language preservation and activism. His film is currently available to view for free online.
Panigrahi’s film was screened in the Lost Origins Gallery, an arts and events space founded by Hamacher. As an artist himself, the space “grew out of [his] extensive experience in the arts, culture, and diplomatic communities through his company, Lost Origin Productions”. He regularly hosts local, national, and international artists in the space.
This collaboration between Panigrahi and Hamacher exemplified the importance of connecting these two continents separated by a vast ocean. The collaboration also introduced and connected an American audience to the story of the Kusunda language and people.
It created an awareness of the vast amount of linguistic diversity that exists in South Asia to individuals on the other side of the world, as well as the importance of preserving and immortalizing a language on the brink of extinction. Through this film, Gyani Maiya Sen-Kusunda and the Kusunda language lives on.
Ramil Mercado is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. He is a first-year master's student at American University’s School of International Service studying International Affairs with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.