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Scripts that speak history

P. R. Srinivasan, former Director of Epigraphy, is one of the most reputed epigraphists in the country today. He talks about his passion for deciphering ancient scripts and languages.

EPIGRAPHY, THE science that studies inscriptions on hard surfaces (usually stone) is like detective work. An epigraphist has to have a thorough knowledge of data such as symbols, scripts of different languages, coins of different centuries and the various tools used in engraving to decipher the ancient inscriptions.

P.R. Srinivasan, former Director of Epigraphy, Archaeological Survey of India, is a senior epigraphist in the country today. A specialist in the History of Indian Art and Epigraphy, Srinivasan worked as Curator of the Egmore Museum for 14 years. It was during this period that he played a crucial role in setting up the National Art Gallery, which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951. His job as Curator helped him acquire expertise in collecting artefacts and arranging them in galleries with the relevant information. During his tenure as Director of Epigraphy, this expertise came in useful when deciphering the Asokan and Buddhist inscriptions from Bellary and Baroda on rocks and copper plates.

The Directorate of Epigraphy, headquartered at Mysore, has two branches — one at Fort St. George in Chennai that deals with inscriptions written in various languages of South India and the other at Lucknow that deals with the scripts and languages of North India.

According to Srinivasan, "Considerable information about the Indus Valley and Harappan civilisations has been lost because the script was mostly pictographic. We have recorded documents only from Asoka's times, when the `Brahmi' script was used. Gradually Brahmi developed into various scripts such as Siddhamatrika, Chitrakshara, Kutilakshara, Nagari, Grantha and Devanagari. Till about 400 AD modified `Brahmi' was used for writing Tamil. It was in 600 AD that the Tamil script actually evolved. " Since evolving a script was the prerogative of the aristocratic class in those days, only the rulers and the learned men in their courts could try their hand at it.

A veteran in the field of Epigraphy and Museology, 83-year-old Srinivasan has been a visiting professor in the University of Iowa, U.S. He has published several books and articles on the subject, including one in the journal Museum brought out by the UNESCO on the topic "Display of antiquities in the museums of India". Some of his noted works include "The entire inscriptions of Tiruvannamalai" in two volumes, "Bronzes of South India" and a relatively recent work titled "Magnificent Mural Paintings of South India," which is to be published shortly by Kalakshetra.

However, Srinivasan has a grievance against the Egmore Museum officials. According to him, they should have consulted the museologists before revamping the Amaravati sculpture gallery. "The arrangement of sculptures inside the gallery was in consonance with the pattern found at the site of Amaravati in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh and it should not have been disturbed. At least they should have sought the advice of a museologist before doing so," he felt.

Both the Amaravati Sculpture Gallery and Bronze Gallery are said to contain priceless works of art collected from all over South India. " The museum has a wonderful collection of prehistoric stone implements, coins and copper plate inscriptions. But they are not properly displayed. Therefore, it is imperative that the exhibits should be displayed based on their artistic and iconographic value so as to benefit scholars and researchers," said Srinivasan.


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