Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Status and Significance of Indian Languages

Status and Significance of Indian Languages in the world for East-West Understanding
(Written on invitation of Durga Dixit for the International Conference on 11-12-13 March organised by Eikyabharati Research Institute, Pune
Although I will not be able to attend this very important seminar I would like to put forth and highlight a few issues through this paper.
For East-West Understanding, and more particularly for the understanding of the East, it is important to appreciate the need for Conservation, Documentation and Research into the Vast Cultural Heritage that the East offers. So one of the focus areas will be to enlist and overcome the bottlenecks in this task and I shall be dealing mainly with the documentation aspect as the other two can be taken as a subset of documentation. While doing so I shall touch upon the contemporary and older Indian Languages, their diversities and their unifying aspects.
Sanskrit is one of the oldest living Languages and all the south-east Asian Languages have emanated from this language. They all have the same Varnamala called the Brahmi group of alphabets. It is estimated that out of the 6800 languages and dialects spoken on this planet, nearly 1652 different languages and many more dialects are spoken in India and they all share this Varnamala as a common heritage. Many of them do not have an independent script but share this same Varnamala. As many as 4 Indian languages ( Bengali, Tamil, Marathi and Telgu) rank among the 50 largest spoken languages all over the world, while Hindi stands at rank 3 after Chinese and English.
The tradition of Sanskrit is said to be the Shruti tradition – that is the language and the knowledge is learnt from spoken words from the mouth of the Guru. Even the Indian classical music is learnt through the Shruti tradition. Scripting is a skill that captures only a small part of this shrut message. Still, first I will consider the issue of scripts.
Presently Indian languages are written in 8 contemporary scripts Malyali, Tamil, Kannad (Telgu), Gujrati, Gurumukhi, Oriya, Bengali (asamiya), and Devnagri. The art of writing was already advanced at the time of Mahabharata. The written texts in Indian subcontinent and South-East Asian countries are by far the world’s largest treasure of written texts. Hence it is important to discuss the problems in documentation of this treasure.
First let us understand what the dimensions in documentation are. In the days of shrut knowledge when the art and science of scripts had not yet developed, paintings, and sculpture, was the method for documentation. Spoken words though preserved in human memory could not be called documentation in the modern sense of the term. Our forefathers developed the skill of writing and many texts came in written form. A very large number of handwritten texts are still available to us in the form of manuscripts. Thereafter came the era of printing. Scholars and dedicated people started putting these texts in printed forms and it was acknowledged as a far better form of Documentation because it allowed multiple copies to be made in a concise and uniform manner.
Today we are in the age of computers -- more technically I should say that we are in the age of Digitization. It allows much better transmission of information, much better study, analysis and comparison and a far better storage. The potential of replication is virtually limitless. Hence all efforts must be made for digitized Documentation. It has four convenient formats -- as pictures, as a written text, as an audio and as a video clip. Each method has its own advantage.
Digitization in picture format is important for our manuscripts. This method involves taking photograph and then storing them as digitized photo. The storage can simultaneously be on the web also. This photographic digitization is important as it gives lot of clues about the authors, the historical and geographical variations in calligraphy practices, and methods used for creating manuscripts. Hence, creation of a National Archive of Manuscripts is our first task. The National Mission for Manuscripts, Delhi has undertaken to do this, but their speed and success will depend upon how the custodians of the manuscripts come forward, and how well the NMM is able to monitor the progress of those technology vendors to whom the task of photographic digitization is being outsourced.
At this stage I would also like to suggest that NMM or at least all of us should acknowledge the efforts of those hundreds of families who preserved and protected these manuscripts through hundreds of years, thus making available the treasure for our generation. There should be felicitations and awards. Secondly, what kind of royalty will be available to those who will share the manuscripts? Most importantly, what is the mechanism of the NMM to ensure that the knowledge of these manuscripts is made available to all, yet the IPR rights remain with those families and with the Indian nation. I am told that the system followed in Sweden regarding their community IPR offers the best protection to their interests. We need to study that system.
I would make a second suggestion by way of brief reminder. Many of us know that we had the system of Yajman or Panda at many pilgrim places. For generations these Yajman families have preserved information about the visitors and their Vamshavali. This is another huge documentation that can throw light on our linguistic heritage.
The second method is digitization in the form of text which becomes available to search engines and is the key for propagation of knowledge. Here we are faced with a major crisis. There are no proper standards developed for docu-digiting our texts. Huge font banks with have been developed by different companies who vow not to let any others be compatible with them. The Govt. owned companies play the same game. They all sell their software at huge prices when the trend all over the world is to provide free software to common users at least to a limited extent. Most of these software are not as per Unicode standards which mean that they can be uploaded on web only with hundreds of inherent problems.
It is a sad commentary that at the GoI level, no ministry, no department and no officer has the mandate to think and plan for all Indian languages as one unified issue. There is DIT (Dept of Information Technology) who disown responsibility about ANY language. The Dept of Rajbhasha has a mandate only for Hindi and the mandates for other languages rest with the respective state govt. where that language is the official language. No state Govt has any say in how the GoI omits to plan for all languages as a one unit. Incidentally, there is absolutely no department and no plans for ensuring computer- software for Sanskrit. Many alphabets used in Sanskrit, especially Vedic texts are not available in computer software. What is available is not easy to handle or compatible with the work done by some other agency in other corner of the country.
Still, one can partly thank developers of Unicode who, on their own, decided to create a standard for contemporary Indian languages (minus Sanskrit). They adopted as base some standard that was partially developed and available with BIS (bureau of Indian Standards). While so doing they also struck a blow. This may have been inadvertent, but was neither understood nor objected to by Indian experts who were attending those meetings of Unicode Consortium on behalf of GoI. The result was that the current Unicode Standard views all the 8 Indian scripts as alien to each other and there is no inter-convertibility among them. Thus a digitization of Sanskrit text of Ramayana in Devnagari cannot be instantaneously converted into Sanskrit text of Ramayana in Bengali or Gujrati. Hence the search engine told through Gujrati to find something on Ramayana will not find or show anything available on the web in other script.
In this regard, 3 aspects must be understood. The facility of instant inter-convertibility was envisaged in the BIS standard and was available in early software developed by CDAC which is a govt. company. But it was not pursued with Unicode-consortium. In future it will prove a great bottleneck to our efforts of looking at the languages in a unified manner and derive benefits there from (including cultural integration). Around the same time, the same separation was proposed for the CJK scripts (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) but the three countries dumped all their political differences and insisted on a single standard for all three scripts. Third aspect is of political will which should be prompted through seminars like this – even today if the political will at the top is exercised we can still approach Unicode Consortium to restore the advantage of instant inter-convertibility and Unified nature of Indian Languages.
I will briefly touch upon the audio-digitization. The facility of such a digitization and storage is available and being used in a big way to create audio-clip banks. But the research aspect has remained completely unattended. Two areas immediately come to mind. How to codify various intonations that are inseparable parts of any Mantra-chanting in our Shrut-tradition? Secondly, it is said that the next-gen computers will not use key-boards but direct speech to carry out instructions to the computers. It is also said that Sanskrit is a very suitable language for the same as it has codified even its Varnamala and many more Dhwani-symbols. A highly dedicated research team must start acting on this issue from the earliest day.
Lastly I urge upon those present here to appreciate the need of creating a National Repository for the literature, folk-literature, dramatics, music, sculptures and motifs available in India and eastern countries through the hundreds of languages and dialects. Their documentation should be as much a concern of western scholars as it should be of Indians and Asians.
Thanks to the organisors for allowing me this presentation.
-- Leena Mehendale

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