Chandrasekhar. V., pursuing postgraduation in Sanskrit at Vivekananda College, firmly believes that study of certain subjects demands more than mere interest and dedication from students. Manuscriptology, he says, is one. Pointing to the broad margins in an ancient manuscript, he says, “The scribes used this to denote errors, or they would simply mark a line over the wrongly written words,” he explains. Though he is much interested in the discipline, he would not want to pursue it full time, and rather just know what is required to supplement his research. “You have to be endlessly motivated and patient,” he says.
While libraries, museums and research institutions in the city contain a significant number of manuscripts on literature, science, culture and history, experts say that the number of those who can read and decipher them is dwindling. Collected over several decades, a large number of them are in various languages, including Tamil, Telugu, Grantha, Prakrit, Brahmi and Sanskrit, and Arabic
The decrease in number of youth ready to invest time in learning the art is disheartening, says J. Lalitha, curator, Kuppusamy Sastri Library. Only 10 per cent of the available manuscripts have been published, and even less deciphered, says Sinirudha Dash, Head of Sanskrit Department, University of Madras. “Unfortunately, with a surge in lucrative jobs, even research scholars prefer teaching to deciphering manuscripts,” he adds.
The translation process, says Chandrasekhar, requires not only a thorough knowledge of at least two languages but also expertise in grammar and history, and this discourages many aspirants. Comparing translations and interpretations can be laborious, sometimes without favourable results. Other issues include the procedure involved in accessing the manuscripts and the missing leaves of the manuscripts.
Experts, after a certain point of time, especially retirement, do not find many employers and since it is not a well paying job, many do not consider it in the first place, says V. Jeyaraj, Research Supervisor, University of Madras. M. Shanmughavalli, an epigraphist employed by the government, adds the process of recruiting transcribers and manuscript readers is stringent. “Wrong interpretations and incorrect translations can drastically affect the notion of history of coming generations,” she says.
“It is necessary that cataloguing and deciphering takes place in a time-bound fashion to prevent loss of information, “ says T.S. Sridhar, Principal Secretary and Commissioner of Museums. “But not many institutions have a scope to impart training on such skill-based discipline”
To promote awareness among college students about manuscriptology, Prof. Jeyaraj says, “Training them in digitising records can help develop an interest in deciphering text, after which eventually they would be drawn to the taking it up.” Apart from building the capacity to decipher and translate manuscripts, experts say the need of the hour is to locate and preserve manuscripts, and enhance access to encourage their use for educational and research purposes.