Tamil classics, a click away

The NETamil project brings in European expertise and resources to digitise critical manuscripts of Tamil classics, and make them accessible virtually to readers worldwide.

September 07, 2014 04:46 pm | Updated September 08, 2014 09:33 am IST

The Ettuthogai manuscript from Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam Saraswathi Mahal Library

The Ettuthogai manuscript from Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam Saraswathi Mahal Library

For a language of antiquity like Tamil, much of its ancient literature etched on palm leaves lies on the dusty shelves of libraries, sought out by scholars but out of sight for the average reader.

Ever since digitisation techniques came into vogue, ancient texts around the world are getting a new and longer lease of life. NETamil, a five-year project by the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), Pudhucherry, (translated as French School for Asian Studies), facilitated through a European Union grant, will convert some of the oldest available palm leaf inscriptions of Tamil classics into digital format, to make them more accessible to Tamil language enthusiasts worldwide.

The Department of Tamil, EFEO, headed by Professor Eva Wilden, won a 2.5 million grant from the European Research Commission for NetTamil earlier this year. The project which ropes in European collaboration will use hi-tech equipment for photographing and digitising from Denmark, which is not easily available in India. The ultimate aim is to make classical literature available on an open source platform, with consent from copyright holders. “What we would like is for anyone to open a file on the Internet and access an ancient Tamil text,” says Ms.Wilden.

Guarding against loss

Making a case for the preservation of manuscripts, Ms. Wilden says that the tropical climate of South India poses a challenge to the longevity of manuscripts. “Most important works in European archives are boxed and stored in climate-controlled conditions. But there are many Tamil manuscripts bundled up in small libraries,” she explains, adding it is imperative to copy manuscripts every 100 years to preserve the text, as they are at risk of being eaten away by insects. “For want of being copied and oiled properly, some of our manuscripts have been lost to the world.” Preserving the sources for all texts is also imperative to spot variations while transcribing from the original manuscript. But as there are thousands of manuscripts and not enough funds to preserve them all, new media technologies which convert ancient literature into digital format, present a far less expensive way of preserving classical literature for posterity.

Gathering the scattered

Though the EFEO has been digitising Sangam-age manuscripts since 2003, the present task is beset with multiple challenges, chief among them being that Tamil manuscripts are widely distributed among various libraries and private properties. “We will have to negotiate with various libraries for their consent to photograph the manuscripts as the intellectual property rests with them,” admits Ms. Wilden. Besides, not all manuscripts are properly catalogued, even in some of the important libraries, researchers at EFEO have found. “Only one in every ten manuscripts is dated. Many of those listed in existing catalogues are lost and only proper cataloguing can guard against further loss.”

From Denmark to Thanjavur

The EFEO will work with 25 collaborators, with the Department of Tamil, Central University of Tamil Nadu, Tiruvarur, (CUTN), playing an important role. Both the institutes are set to sign an MoU for exchange of scholars and expertise.

Explaining how the project stands out from other digitisation initiatives undertaken in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, Krishnaswamy Nachimuthu, professor and coordinator, Department of Tamil, CUTN, states that the collaboration of Western scholars with native scholars will make the project a milestone. “High profile international scholars and the ability to tap into resources from the manuscript collections in the western libraries, distinguish NETamil project from other efforts. With the training and skills received in a rigorous western academic culture, these scholars can bring in up-to-date and state-of-the-art expertise in a field, where they have already made a mark.”

The Europe Centre for Manuscript Studies, Hamburg, Denmark, another principal collaborator, will provide a mobile manuscript lab equipped with spectral photography which will help in comprehending script not visible to the naked eye.

Lack of scholars

Another challenge is the dearth of scholarly knowledge in the field, points out Ms. Wilden, regretting that the scholarship of yesteryear pundits has not been replaced. “The scenario in Tamil at present is not encouraging as traditional scholars with expertise in the field of textual criticism (the process of ascertaining and restoring texts as nearly as possible to their original form), are rare,” says Mr. Nachimuthu.

“Most Indian universities do not focus on training and grooming of young scholars in this field.” The Department of Tamil from Kerala University is an exception, and most scholars for NETamil have been recruited from there, he says. But efforts are already on at the Central University in Tiruvaur to set up a Centre for Classical Languages and Literatures offering M.A. and Ph.D programmes in Classical Tamil studies. A Ph.D. programme in textual criticism is to be introduced at the university and the scholars will be eligible for a studentship with the NETamil project. Since the official recognition of Tamil as a classical language, the Central Institute of Classical Tamil (CICT), in Chennai, has been offering research programmes at the postgraduate level in classical Tamil.

While providing virtual access to ancient literature is a dream in the making, it would have little impact if learners of the language are unable to read them. “We may speak the language, but some re-education in Tamil is required to read the literature written in the language we speak in,” says Ms. Wilden.

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