The Modi script is so old that its origins can only be guessed. While some scholars believe that it dates back to the era of Ashoka, others credit Hemadri Pandit or Hemadpant, a minister of the Yadava dynasty of Devagiri, with being its creator. What is not under dispute is that only a handful of people know the Modi script today. Among them is Rajendra Dhume, driven by his passion for medieval Maratha history to learn the script. He spoke to The Indian Express about the script’s fascinating history. He will be sharing his knowledge at a workshop organised by Heritage India on July 21. Excerpts from an interview:
What was the purpose of the Modi script?
Modi is a cursive script of Marathi, used for official work such as maintaining revenue records or for correspondence with functionaries of the empire spread across India during the Maratha rule. If a king gave someone land, it would be recorded on a piece of paper. A copy of the paper would need to be given to all parties concerned with the transaction. In Devanagari, each letter is written separately and takes extra time. Modi script was used to write fast on paper. In this script, you draw a line from left to right, and then, without lifting your hand, you write it. All the maatras are from below to the top to connect the letters. It is important to note that you will not find the Modi script in granth or books of literature, where beautiful writing was needed. It was a script, created by breaking and twisting the rules of grammar, in order to enable scribes and officials to write quickly and make multiple copies of a document.
Who created the Modi script?
This script dates back to the 13th or 14th century, although the documents that we have are from 16th century. We have to remember that paper also has a lifespan. There are also scholars who believe that the Modi script was born during the time of Ashoka but we have no conclusive proof of that. They say the term ‘Modi’ came from ‘Maurya’. Hemadri Pandit or Hemadpant, a minister of the Yadava dynasty of Devagiri, is also credited with founding the Modi script. It is possible that the script existed before Hemadpant and that he popularised it. There are four types of Modi script. The first is ‘Shivapurvakaal’ or ‘Before Shivaji’. Then, there is ‘Shivakalin’ or ‘During Shivaji’. The next is ‘Peshwe Kalin’ and ‘Angla Kalin’ or the British periods. In the first two, it is difficult to read the script because of its small size. Peshwe kalin is easier to read. When the fountain pen was brought in during the colonial era, the speed increased but the size of the font became smaller and it, too, is difficult to read.
How did the Modi script go out of use?
When the British came to India, the Modi script was still in use. The British wanted to establish English as a language but also needed to understand the local language. We find a lot of bilingual documents in the early days of the British rule. Gradually, we see English becoming predominant and the learned people of the era beginning to prefer writing in English. At this time, in Europe, the printing press had arrived. In India, too, printing machines had made an appearance. The need for the Modi script to take out multiple copies by writing fast was reduced and people started using it less and less. In 1920, Charles Kinker, who was the collector in Pune, called a meeting during which the Devanagari script was given prominence. Gradually, the Modi script started going out of use.
What kind of documents survive in this script?
We find a lot of political papers from before the time of Shivaji to the coming of the colonial era. There are purchase records and receipts as well as letters, court documents, land records, revenue records. It is estimated that there are more than four crore documents in the Modi script in the Pune Archives. You will find many papers in the Goa Archives as well as in institutions as far flung as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, where the Peshwas ruled. Wherever the Maratha Empire stretched to, work was done in the Modi script. After 1818, the British confiscated these papers but they preserved them according to protocol. The papers in the Pune Archives include Maharaja Daftar, Peshwa’s diaries and Jamav Daftar, among others. If we want to know the price of gold during that period, we can find it there. What kind of clothes did people wear? What was the value of the clothes? We can find the information in the old papers. From these records, we can understand the history of that time.
How did you become interested in Modi script?
I am a businessman but I am interested in Maratha history. I graduated in history and completed my post-graduation in Indology. I realised that to know what was actually happening during the medieval Maratha periods, we need to read the documents of the time. I had to learn the Modi script. I did so from Bharat Itihaas Sanshodhak Mandal in Pune. For 12 years, I have been working on the script. I feel that people, whose careers are sorted, could spend their time serving society. Business is my bread and butter but history is my passion and I take out time to read Modi papers. I also teach Modi script at basic and advanced courses in universities and several institutions. The late Manohar Parrikar was keen on deciphering the Modi-scripted documents in the Goa Archives and six of us who know the script went there to transliterate the unpublished papers.
Why, do you think, people should learn this script?
Revenue papers, land papers and government papers have not been transliterated because there are not enough people who know the Modi script. Learning the Modi script could be a good career option. Unemployed people can get jobs. Homemakers and students can do this work part-time.