‘READ Workbench (part 2): Digital Repatriation, Pedagogy and Transnational Heritage’

The Lakṣmīśvara Tārā Temple in Darbhanga, Bihar, India. An in important cultural site at the centre of contemporary Maithil culture. [photo by Christopher Diamond]

Introduction: The READ Workbench and its Potential

The READ (‘Research Environment for Ancient Documents’) Workbench, originally designed for interpreting and publishing early Buddhist manuscripts and artworks from Gandhara in the Kharosthi script, has shown substantial potential for expansion and adaptation. In my first post for the Digital Orientalist, I covered the features, original use-cases, and progress of the READ Workbench suite of digital tools. In this post, I want to demonstrate how I propose using READ Workbench in tandem with an intentionally inclusive, community-oriented methodological approach in my own research on premodern Maithili manuscripts from India and Nepal and research communication with their living heritage and cultural stake-holders. 

For researchers and publishers working with Gandharan-Kharoshti texts and art objects, READ Workbench is highly effective. Even more broadly, premodern Sanskritic sources are also well-suited to READ’s use-case development strategies. Because Sanskrit grammar and lexical frameworks are built into the foundation of READ Workbench’s analytical tools, languages that themselves are derived from Sanskrit can be analysed with a Sanskrit-oriented linguistic toolbox. Similarly, those that are in some way closely aligned with Sanskrit grammar paradigms can be easily slotted into READ’s framework. This means that Kushana, Khmer, and Indus Valley inscriptions all easily found a home in READ. Reliquary and donative inscriptions from other regions of South Asia have also been analysed in the base framework that READ offers. 

At the regional and disciplinary peripheries, READ Workbench hints at many additional possible use-cases for material heritage. This includes expanding the regions, languages, scripts, and materials that could benefit from a visually-oriented method for publishing detailed, annotated, scholarly resources. Beyond these traditional institutional academic audiences that digital projects usually cater to, this expanded scope, in turn, raises critical questions about how we might leverage technology to engage with living heritage, particularly within pedagogical contexts. 

Digital Repatriation: A New Approach to Cultural Heritage

Although it is still a work in progress, my colleagues and I are uniting our technical philological research and our developing public scholarship under the umbrella term ‘digital repatriation’. The concept of digital repatriation offers an interesting approach to the challenge of transforming research processes and research outputs at the same time.  Unlike traditional physical repatriation, digital repatriation entails returning cultural heritage materials to their communities of origin through digital means, such as digital platforms, storytelling, and other non-traditional research outputs (NTROs) like podcasts, online curated exhibitions, public and community speaking engagements, on-the-ground training, and public writings such as this post. By doing so, it allows communities to access, engage with, and learn from their cultural heritage, irrespective of geographical boundaries or physical access to heritage materials. Our full working definition of digital repatriation is constantly being updated and is available on our ANUBhasha website

Digital repatriation does not replace the restorative justice of physical repatriation, but is intended to work alongside this important work in correcting the violence and exploitation of historical and contemporary colonialism. Through the adaptation and application of tools like the READ Workbench, and the broader principle of digital repatriation, we can start to address these inequities. By making these resources accessible to the community in a way that does not necessitate expert technical or philological skills, we can begin to dismantle some of the gatekeeping mechanisms that have been set up by traditional scholarship and colonial practices.

This is not merely about access, but also about pedagogy. Digital platforms can be a powerful tool for education and knowledge sharing, offering interactive and engaging ways for communities to learn about their own history and culture. The use of digital manuscripts, for instance, can provide a rich and immersive learning experience that traditional textbooks may not be able to deliver. Moreover, the pedagogical potential of digital platforms extends beyond the individual level. They can also facilitate collective learning experiences, enabling communities to collaboratively engage with their cultural heritage. This approach aligns with the ethos of digital repatriation, which emphasises not just the return of cultural heritage, but also the empowerment of communities to actively participate in their cultural preservation and knowledge production.

The Challenge: Disconnected Maithili-Speaking Communities Across Borders & a Pedagogy-oriented Approach to ‘Digital Repatriation’

A folio from a late 19th century manuscript of Vidyāpati’s Avahaṭṭha text, the ‘Kirttīlatā’ in the Tirhutā script held by the Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University in Darbhanga, Bihar, India [photo by Christopher Diamond]

In the case of the Maithili-speaking communities, tools like the READ Workbench can be used to digitise and share mediaeval Maithili manuscripts, enabling the community to engage with these resources in their own time and in their own language. In this context, you could think of READ Workbench as the underlying digital product or framework that could be connected to a wide variety of other related content, all with a primarily pedagogical focus. For example, it is my ambition to pair the digitised songbooks of the mediaeval Maithili poet Vidyāpati (c. 1360-1450 CE) along with contemporary video and audio recordings of musicians in Mithila who have creatively adapted those songs into their modern repertoires. This could also be paired with synchronous and asynchronous seminars equipping Maithil researchers, musicians, and the general public with skills in reading premodern Maithili script (a.k.a., Tirhutā or Mithilākṣara).  

A statue of the poet Vidyāpati in Bisphi, Bihar, India, reportedly the birth place of the poet. [photo by Christopher Diamond]

This approach acknowledges and respects the living nature of the Maithili language and culture, and provides an opportunity for these communities to reclaim their cultural heritage. It would also necessitate a continued and reiterative process of public engagement and adaptation of the tools and materials presented. In the context of my pilot work, the first step in this project is to use my privilege of access and training to build a database in READ Workbench of manuscript sources held in archives outside of South Asia and across the Nepal India border of Maithili language manuscripts from the premodern period. After these working documents are made available through both digitisation and annotation, I expect that both scholars and heritage stake-holders will be able to engage with further translation and digitisation work much more easily. A further step and my ultimate goal, would be to pair these digital manuscripts of song and performance with both historical and contemporary multimedia recordings and exhibitions that will restore much of the performative and communal aspect of the historical performance tradition that is lost in traditional print-oriented academic publication. 

Of course, the task is not without its challenges. Adapting a tool like READ, which was designed for a specific historical context, to cater to a living language and culture requires a considerable amount of work. While Maithili is a New Indo-Aryan language (NIA), derived from Sanskrit and traditionally analysed through its linguistic frameworks, Maithili lacks many features that are featured in Sanskrit (e.g. three grammatical genders, seven primary cases, and sandhī, et al.). Maithili also features many innovative linguistic features, the most remarkable being Maithili’s reliance on speaker-object honorific verbal agreement. This means that one runs into the limitations of READ Workbench’s current setup when trying to fully annotate a non-Sanskrit-oriented manuscript. This does not mean that it cannot be done. I have many workarounds and placeholders for the time being. The READ Workbench team is also committed to assisting new use-case languages. But development time for each language will slow down the process as READ Workbench expands to new users, languages, and contexts. On the other hand, it will be exciting to see how far it can grow. 

Furthermore, the transnational nature of the Maithili-speaking communities adds another layer of complexity to the task. The historical region of Mithila straddles the borders of the contemporary nation-states of India and Nepal. National and state-level institutions, regulations, and patterns of migration mean that Maithils across the border do not have the same levels of access to objects of their cultural heritage. Traditional repatriation usually considers restitution from centres of imperial power back to colonised nations. In the case of my work, I still have to grapple with colonial legacies, but more specifically with institutional and legal legacies of that colonisation. Hopefully, digitisation offers some progress towards providing equal access and shared cultural pride among Maithils globally. 

An example of a contemporary popular devotional song of the Vidyāpati-tradition – Kakhan Harab Dukh Mor (trans. ‘When will this sorry be removed?’) presented by Haridwar Prasad Khandelwal

Conclusion: Redefining Boundaries in Digital Humanities

However, these challenges also represent opportunities. By confronting these issues head-on, we can begin to redefine the boundaries of what is possible within the digital humanities. More importantly, we can start to reimagine the relationship between academia, technology, and the communities we serve. The ongoing work to adapt the READ Workbench to serve broader scenarios and contexts represents a significant step forward in the digital humanities. It embodies the potential of digital tools and platforms to democratise access to cultural heritage, foster pedagogical innovation, and empower communities. It also underscores the importance of continually questioning and challenging the ways in which we engage with and interpret cultural heritage, in our pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive academia.

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