On May 16, 1920, a man named Rajaji Gupta, resident of Allahabad, spoke into a recording device held before him by a team of British linguists. This was part of a project that had begun in 1894 to survey over 300 languages and dialects of British India and was proposed by a member of the Indian Civil Service, called George A. Grierson. Gupta, as he narrated the biblical Parable of The Prodigal Son in his native dialect — Benarasi Hindi — may or may not have known that others like him, in various parts of the country, were also recording their native speeches for posterity in Kanarese, Kodaga, Bengali, Maithili, Nagpuria, Chhattisgarhi, Berari Marathi, Konkani, Bhili, Bundeli, Urdu, amongst others. Many of these were unnamed narrators, whose longest lasting legacy perhaps, is the sound of their voice, on scratchy recordings from the early 20th century and which anyone can now access online, thanks to their availability on the Digital South Asia Library (DSAL).
“Grierson and his team made 242 gramophone records and only five copies were made of these, none of which were kept in India,” reveals Dr James Nye, bibliographer for Southern Asia and director of the DSAL, who was in Mumbai last week to give a talk at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation on “India’s Cultural Wealth: Image, Audio and Publications, an Open Archive for the People”.
“Grierson said that the people of India would never be interested in these recordings, and so they were all sent to England. We (DSAL) found a complete set, digitised it and put it online,” says Nye.
Ever since it was set up in 1999, the DSAL — a program of the University of Chicago and Center for Research Libraries in the USA — has worked with collaborators. It seeks out partner institutions in various parts of the world who help it identify and locate resources, which can then be preserved and digitised, and made available online for serious researchers and passionate amateurs alike. Some of DSAL’s partner institutions include the South Asia Microform Project, the Association for Asian Studies, Library of Congress, the British Library, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Chennai-based Mozhi and Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in India and Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Nepal.
The result of these collaborations is a fascinating digital archive of old photographs, maps, dictionaries, journals and audio recordings that gets an average of three and a half million visitors a month. Anyone, from any part of the world can access, for absolutely no cost, resources that range from audio recordings to gaihozu maps of India prepared by the Japanese military during the Second World War, to historical postcards with images that show life in colonial South Asia. Postcards, Nye reveals, were often used as a means of advertisement in Colonial India.
“The oil company Burmah-Shell used to advertise its kerosene by sending a gramophone player into the villages and playing records about how good their kerosene is. They would also distribute postcards. HMV also used postcards, with images of popular courtesan, Gauhar Jaan, to advertise. There are at least 10 very rare photographs of Gauhar Jaan in our collection of postcards,” he says.
In fact, Nye says that some of the best collections they have found were not in the hands of institutions, but private individuals. Among these was the collection of Roja Muthiah Chettiyar, a bibliophile who amassed rare books, journals, newspapers, theatre handbills, private letters and songbooks that span a period of 150 years and which offer a unique reflection of Tamil culture from the 19th to mid-20th century.
Another important collection is that of the late Professor RC Dhere, an eminent Marathi scholar from Pune, which comprises manuscripts that highlight Maharashtra’s long and diverse literary and religious history, including the Sant tradition. “Private collectors are perhaps the most important link to the past. When they die, their families, who often don’t share their passion, simply get rid of the collections and thus we lose resources which are impossible to recreate. Big chunks of India’s cultural heritage have simply disappeared. So it’s important that we identify the important collections and make them available online.” he says.