By displaying a selection of facsimiles of Oriental records, National Archives of India hopes to attract the attention of scholars who can crack this cursive text

Mushirul Hasan’s tenure as Director General of National Archives of India (NAI) ended earlier this week. Although the new lease of energy that the respected historian infused into this repository of non-current public and private records will continue to have its impact, the new projects initiated by him will go on. But, speaking strictly, in terms of a public display the exhibition of facsimiles of Oriental records, which concludes today, was Hasan’s last endeavour as the DG of NAI.

“Soon after he joined, he had enquired about all the material available with different departments. Interested in Sub-Continental culture, he wanted to get the old Persian manuscripts translated. We invited many scholars to translate them but failed because though manuscripts are easy to be read cursive writing can’t be deciphered easily, and these records were in cursive writing. It was then that he suggested that we produce facsimiles of these records,” says Mirza Mumtaz Baig, Assistant Archivist, Oriental Records Division.

While Urdu, Pali, Arabic, Sanskrit, etc. are considered Oriental languages, Baig informs us that at NAI it is Persian which is mostly referred to as an Oriental language and most of the records in the Oriental Records Division are in Persian. The digitisation of 400-plus manuscripts, significant collections like the Inayat Jung Collection, Fort William College collection and several others that comprise the Oriental Record Division is on its way. In addition, Noor Microfilm Centre is also preparing facsimile copies of these priceless documents, and for the exhibition a few samplers have been displayed in the glass cases kept at the foyer of the main building. Providing technical assistance in making the facsimiles of these records, Noor Microfilm has done a good job by producing good quality replicas of the originals on handmade paper. The text is legible and neat.

There is “Tarikh-e-Alfi”, which tells the history of the world of Islam; “Rozmnama”, which is the Mahabharata translated into Persian during the reign of Akbar by Abul Fazal; “Ilajut Tuyur”, a unique manuscript detailing treatment of birds written by physicians on the order of Firoz Shah Tughlaq; and “Shigrafnamah-e-Vilayat”, which is a travelogue. “We have heard about foreign travellers visiting India and writing a descriptive account of their travels but here we have a travelogue written by an Indian traveller. Itisamuddin travelled to England in the 18th Century and wrote about his encounters there, what he saw and experienced. The book’s title can be translated to ‘Colours of England’… Vilayat used to be England those days,” says Baig.

According to Baig, the idea is to make these documents accessible to scholars, who can come forward to translate them. “At NAI we have just four people who can read cursive script. We lack trained archivists, particularly in Persian and Arabic cursive writing. Generally speaking, there is a severe shortage of manpower. I wonder who will take over from us when we retire because the students who train at our school end up joining private archival houses. Coming back to these documents, I think by producing facsimiles of these records, we are also enhancing their lives.”