What We Hold and What We Must Pass On: A Review of Digitization of Manuscripts at IGNCA in India

A post by our guest contributor, Shruti Dixit, a Ph.D. candidate in the Divinity School at the University of St. Andrews

In the Indian cultural and literary space, digitization is an interestingly novel process. Although there has not been much growth in the past years, digitization is gradually gaining momentum as prestigious government libraries and cultural organizations are digitizing their shelves replete with ancient manuscripts, some of which are at the verge of falling apart.

Why are the Indian cultural centers investing their time and money in digitizing the precious manuscripts that have been gracing these places for hundreds of years? The National Mission for Manuscripts (NAMAMI), established by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India, describes the objectives of digitization as digital preservation of original ancient manuscripts for the future generations, promoting as well as increasing the accessibility of original manuscripts for researchers and scholars, creation of a digital library with a repository of rare significant manuscripts, and formulation of standards and procedure in order to carry out the digitization of manuscripts.

Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of original manuscripts and unavailability of translations of many ancient texts has made it difficult for researchers and the normal public to study and work on them. They have disappeared from the social realm, and it has led to a forgetfulness of the rich cultural history of India. Digitization, among all the other purposes, undoubtedly aims at the revival of classical Indian culture, literature, history, and religion. For Indians, digitization also aims at reclaiming and reminding ourselves of what we hold and what we must pass on.

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), situated in Delhi, was launched in 1985 by late Prime minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi. It has done a tremendous job in the preservation of art and culture since then and began the digitization of manuscripts only a few years ago. At present, India is believed to possess more than five million manuscripts in different languages, carefully kept in various Indian and foreign institutions around the world.

One of the reasons IGNCA began the digitization of manuscripts was to make them available to researchers in one place and save them from distinction. The division of Kala Nidhi at the center is the reservoir of all the material or archives related to arts and humanities including textual, visual, as well as auditory data. There are thousands of rare books and resources about Anthropology, Archaeology, History, Folklore, Aesthetics, Crafts, Ethnology, Linguistics, Literary Studies, Religion, and Sociology. Kala Nidhi at IGNCA has one of the most well-maintained and reputed libraries in India that aims to deliver and propagate its priceless collection to a wider public.

Even before digitization and its tools were introduced in India, the Reprography unit at Kala Nidhi has been microfilming the manuscripts to preserve them. The unit has been successfully carrying out this work since years now and have microfilmed around 2.78 lakh manuscripts till now into 21722 microfilm rolls. The major focus of IGNCA has mostly been Sanskrit manuscripts that were scattered around India as well as abroad and protected by public institutions and individuals. It has also made a special effort in microfilming Arabic and Persian manuscripts. The center signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the custodians of manuscripts in order to microfilm them, and today, a generous share exists in microfilmed format at the Reprography unit of Kala Nidhi at IGNCA.

Some of the most prominent Sanskrit manuscripts were received from Saraswati Bhawan Library in Varanasi of which 5329 manuscript rolls are available at IGNCA today. The Sanskrit manuscripts are generally on the subjects of veda, Ayurveda, jyotisa, kavya, silpa, tantra, darsana, prayoga, stotra, Kamasutra, bhakti, dharmasastra, ganita, nataka, sangita, purana, vyakarana, itihasa, nataka, and so on. Most of these manuscripts when microfilmed were already in a fragile condition as they were composed on palm leaves (tada patra) and birch tree leaves (bhoorja patra). These manuscripts have been preserved and are still protected with continuous care. They are stored after properly wrapping them in cloth and medicines are regularly applied to the leaves for the prevention of pests. Neem oil is usually smeared in between the palm leaves to prevent them from sticking to each other.

Figure 1 Digital Image of Sanskrit Manuscript of Isha Upanishad in Devanagari Script
Figure 3 Digital Image of Sanskrit Manuscript of Adi Parva of Vyasa’s Mahabharata

As IGNCA already had a huge repository of microfilms of manuscripts, they directly digitized the microfilms instead of digitizing the original manuscripts. As a matter of fact, more than half of these manuscripts have already been digitized and catalogued in the library by the Reprography unit. The digitization of the microfilms is done by the Cultural Informatics Laboratory (CIL) at the IGNCA. The microfilms are converted into digital images using microfilm scanning equipment so that they can be accessed easily without a microfilm reader. The microfilms are converted into three digital formats with varying specifications- Raw Master Image (Original Uncleaned and Uncompressed) of 300 dpi Tiff, Clean Master Image (Cleaned lossless compressed image) of Tiff (compressed) 300 dpi (output) Group 6 CCITT, and Access Image as JPEG/PDF-A. Unlike the Reprography Unit at Kala Nidhi, NAMAMI has been involved in a project of direct digitization of original manuscripts since 2004 and has already digitized many significant manuscripts.

Figure 4 Digitization of Manuscripts by National Mission for Manuscripts

Apart from IGNCA, many other government organizations are also digitizing several manuscripts and ancient rare texts. The Nehru Memorial Library has been digitizing the original documents belonging to the colonial period in India, such as the correspondence letters of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other freedom fighters. The Sahitya Akademi Library, one of the oldest and most reputable libraries in India, will be starting the digitization of its collection of books soon.

Evidently, there is a great effort by Indian institutions to digitize its precious literature and art, but has it increased their accessibility?

The digitized manuscripts are not accessible publicly and can only be accessed at the concerned libraries or organizations. The catalogue of digitized manuscripts can only be accessed at the Kala Nidhi Reprography Unit at IGNCA. They are not available on a public platform due to property rights issues. No copyright issues exist for the ancient manuscripts but since these manuscripts have been kept in the custody of specific institutions and individuals, they pertain to property rights. Although digitized manuscripts are not publicly reachable, digital or print copies can be obtained by the IGNCA after seeking approval from the concerned manuscript library. If a researcher of Indian Studies, or specifically Hindu Studies wants to access the digitized manuscripts, they need to go to the library in person as the manuscripts are only present on the intranet. A conversation, during my visit, with Dr. D. R. Gupta, Head-Reprography of IGNCA, took me into the entire process of accessing the digitized manuscripts at the centre. He explained to me the ethics of the library and of the digitized material secured at the library. He further introduced me to Dr. Kirtikant Sharma, Chief Editor and Unit Head of Sanskrit manuscripts, who helped me acquire the digitized versions of Sanskrit Manuscripts.

Accessing the manuscripts is a time-consuming activity as there are multiple kinds of digitized copies of a single text. For instance, the digitized Vyaasa’s Mahabharata will be available at the library in many forms, such as on palm leaves, birch tree leaves, or simply on paper. They would also be present in different languages, belonging to different states. Since manuscripts have been procured from many institutes around India and then digitized, they are varied in their forms and structures. Once you recognize the particular manuscript you would like to access, you can easily view it and read it at the center itself. Furthermore, a copy of the digitized material is only provided to researchers after a signed letter stating the use and requirement.

My experience at the IGNCA made me aware of the huge collection of digitized material that is already present at the centre. While we cannot view the original Sanskrit manuscripts here, we can in fact get access to a plethora of microfilms as well as digitized versions. Undoubtedly, the digitization initiative at IGNCA in India has not made its accessibility absolutely easier and feasible, but it has indeed made it possible to work with digitized manuscripts. The advantage of digitization in India lies in the availability of rare, precious, and incomparable manuscripts without hampering the original manuscripts and their fragile existence. Since the digitization of manuscripts is not an older phenomenon in India, we can hope that in a few years, all the digitized manuscripts will be accessible by all via the internet. This would definitely make research easier and save time for academics who have to travel to the libraries and institutions that hold the digitized materials. The IGNCA has developed an elaborate online catalog for the digitized manuscripts and the statistics are improving each day. But one must remember, there is a long way to go to achieve complete digitization of all the manuscripts of India.

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