Sunita Bhurkute’s mother tongue is Kolami, but this cotton farmer spends most of her day speaking in Marathi. “To sell our cotton we have to know the market language,” she says.

Growing up in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, her Kolam Adivasi family spoke their language Kolami at home. Sunita recalls how her grandparents at her maher (natal home) in Sur Devi pod (hamlet) struggled to speak the local language, Marathi. “They never went to school, they would stammer and speak [Marathi] in broken sentences,” she says.

But as more members of the family ventured into local markets to sell cotton, they picked up the language. Today, everyone in her pod in Bhulgad village, all Kolam Adivasis, are multilingual: they speak Marathi, a few sentences of Hindi, and of course, Kolami.

Kolami is a Dravidian language predominantly spoken in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Chhattisgarh. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger , it is classified as ‘definitely endangered’ – a categorisation indicating it is no longer learned as a mother tongue by children.

Pan amchi bhasha kami hot nahi. Amhi wapartat [But our language is not dying, we use it]!” argues the 40-year-old Sunita.

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Sunita Bhurkute (left), a Kolam Adivasi cotton farmer. The Prerna Gram Vikas (right) is a non-governmental organisation that maintains a community register of the Kolam tribe in Bhulgad village of Yavatmal, Maharashtra

The population of Kolam Adivasis in Maharashtra is 194,671 (Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India, 2013 ), but less than half record Kolami as their mother tongue in census data.

“When our children go to school, they learn Marathi. It is not a difficult language, but Kolami is,” says Sunita and adds, “there are no masters [teachers] in schools who can speak our language.” She too studied in Marathi until Class 2 before she had to drop out after her father’s death.

PARI met Sunita on a day she was busy picking cotton on her three-acre farm. “I need to harvest them before the season ends,” she told us, her hands appearing to move in harmony as they deftly picked the white cotton from its cover; in minutes her oddie is half-full.

“These are the last two remaining taas [rows in Marathi and Kolami] of kapas [cotton in Marathi],” says Sunita. She has thrown a shirt over her clothes as “the dry recca [calyx in Kolami] and gaddi [weed in Kolami] often stick to my saree and tear it.” The calyx is the outermost whorl of the cotton that holds the flower, and gaddi is a common type of unwanted weed found in cotton fields.

As the afternoon temperature rises, she pulls out a selanga – a short length of cotton fabric used as a turban to prevent sunstrokes. But it is the oddie that is the most important part of her field clothes. A long cloth, usually a cotton saree is tied over the shoulder and hips to store the cotton she will harvest through the day, working upto seven hours with a short break, occasionally walking towards the nearby well to drink some eer (water in Kolami).

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Sunita grows cotton on three-acre farm. 'I need to harvest before the season ends.' She will pick cotton through the day, occasionally walking towards the nearby well to drink some eer (water)

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Sunita has thrown a shirt over herself to prevent the plants from tearing her clothes. As the afternoon temperature rises, she pulls out a selanga – a short length of cotton fabric used as a turban to prevent sunstrokes. She also wears an oddie around her hips to store the cotton

By the end of the season (January 2024), Sunita had harvested 1,500 kilos of cotton – starting in October 2023: “harvesting cotton was never really a challenge. I come from a farmer’s family.”

She was married when she was around 20 years old, but her husband passed away 15 years later in 2014. “He had a fever for three days.” When his health deteriorated further Sunita took him to the district hospital in Yavatmal. “Everything was sudden. Till today I don’t know the reason for his death.”

Sunita was left with their two children: “Arpita and Akash were barely 10 years old when manus [husband] died. There were times when I felt scared going to the farm alone.” She feels her fluency in Marathi helped her win the trust of farmer friends from neighbouring fields. “When we are in the field or in the market, we have to speak their language, right? Will they understand ours ?” she asks.

Although she continued to farm, she says many people were against her participation in the male-dominated cotton market, and so she stayed out. “I only harvest the crop, Akash [her son] sells it.”

Watch Sunita Bhurkute speak as she harvests cotton

Sunita Bhurkute’s mother tongue is Kolami, but she spends most of her day speaking in Marathi. 'To sell our cotton we have to know the market language,' she says


The Kolam Adivasi community is listed as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), one of three PVTGs in Maharashtra. They also live in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

In Maharashtra, the community call themselves ‘kolavar’ or ‘kola’, which roughly translates to bamboo or wooden stick. Their traditional occupation was making baskets, mats, wattles and winnowing fans from bamboo.

Sunita recalls, "when I was a young child, I saw my grandparents make different things from vedur [bamboo] for their own use." As they started migrating out of the forests toward the plains, the distance between forest and home grew and, "my parents never learnt the skills," and neither did she.

Farming is her livelihood and “although I have my farm, even today if the crop fails, I will have to go to someone else’s field for work,” she says, a sentiment shared by other farmers in her Kolam tribe. A majority work as agricultural labourers and are struggling to pay their farm loans and clear debts. Sunita has a loan of Rs. 40,000 taken during the sowing season last June 2023.

“After selling the cotton, there is no work until June. May is the most difficult month,” she says. She has harvested roughly 1,500 kilograms of cotton and says she gets Rs. 62-65 a kilogram, “that's roughly 93,000 rupees. After repaying the loan to the sahukar [money lender] with an interest of 20,000, “I am barely left with 35,000 rupees in hand for the entire year.”

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Like other Kolam Adivasis (a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group), Sunita says that if the crop fails, 'I will have to go to someone else’s field for work.' Many Kolams work as agricultural labourers and are struggling to pay their farm loans and clear debts

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Left: Women farmers from Ghubadhetti village celebrating Makar Sankranti (harvest festival) Right: Seeds are preserved in a community seed bank

Local vendors lend her small amounts but they need to be paid before the monsoon every year. “ Iska 500 do , uska 500 do yeh sab kartey kartey sab khatam! Kuch bhi nahi milta…saare din kaam karo aur maro! [Give this one 500, give that one 500…at the end you get nothing. Work all day and die!],” she laughs nervously and looks away.

Three years ago, Sunita switched from chemical to organic farming. “I opted for mishra peek sheti [inter-cropping/mixed cropping],” she says. She received seeds of moong (green gram), urad (black gram), jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), til (sesame), sweetcorn and tur (pigeon peas) from the seed bank set up by the women farmers in the village. In fact, cultivating tur and moong helped her sustain the months of May and June last year when she was out of work.

But just when one problem was solved, there came another. While the tur turned out well, the other crops did not yield good results: “Wild pigs destroyed it,” Sunita says.


As the sun is about to set, Sunita begins wrapping up the harvested cotton into a mudi (round bundle). She has achieved her target for the day. The last remaining rows have given her roughly six kilos of cotton.

But she already has a target set for tomorrow: Weeding out the kesara (waste in Kolami) and dry recca from the stored cotton. And then the target for the next day: to keep it ready for the market.

PHOTO • Ritu Sharma
PHOTO • Ritu Sharma

Cotton is gathered into a mudi (round bundle) to be stored at home

“There is no time to think about anything else [other than her farm],” she says about the status of Kolami as an endangered language. When Sunita and her community didn’t know fluent Marathi, “everyone would say ‘speak in Marathi! speak in Marathi!’” And now when the language is endangered, “everyone wants us to speak in Kolami,” she chuckles.

“We speak our language. Our children too,” she asserts. “It's only when we go out that we speak in Marathi. When we come back home, we speak our language.”

Aapli bhasha aaplich rahili pahije [Our language should remain ours]. Kolami should be Kolami and Marathi should be Marathi. That is what matters.”

The reporter would like to thank Madhuri Khadse and Asha Kareva of the Prerna Gram Vikas Sanstha, and Saikiran Tekam for his help interpreting Kolami.

PARI's Endangered Languages Project (ELP) aims to document the vulnerable languages of India through the voices and lived experiences of people who speak it.

Ritu Sharma

Ritu Sharma is Content Editor, Endangered Languages at PARI. She holds an MA in Linguistics and wants to work towards preserving and revitalising the spoken languages of India.

Other stories by Ritu Sharma
Editor : Sanviti Iyer

Sanviti Iyer is Assistant Editor at the People's Archive of Rural India. She also works with students to help them document and report issues on rural India.

Other stories by Sanviti Iyer
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David