Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

06 December 2019

Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records

A man standing by a blackboard and giving a presentation

We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.

The poster advertising the workshop

The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!

Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a  fantastic archival partner!

The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.

A woman presenting at the workshop a slide of a map is in the background

Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.

Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.

People sitting in a circle discussing issues

In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives.  Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).

Gentleman presenting the slide in the background is on the topic of sound archives

Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.

Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and  VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.

Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.

Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture

A long bench with people either side all wearing gloves and working on bound items

Close up of a woman handling a bound volume

Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been  dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.

Example of a portable digitisation studio with tripod, laptop and lighting

The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.

Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might  seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!

One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!

Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.  

Jay Guru!

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)

 

 

 

 

 

 

03 December 2019

Locating and Sampling Arabic and Arabic-Malayalam Manuscripts in Kerala, South India

This initiative to locate and survey endangered archives in Kerala was awarded as a pilot project grant by the Endangered Archive Programme in May 2019. Besides surveying and contacting public and private archive owners, we intend to sample approximately 200 pages of hand-written manuscripts and rare lithographs. Some of the manuscripts constitute the written, visual facet of a living tradition of performance for religious and devotional practices. We therefore intend to sample also video and audio records of performances according to the Malabar style. Many of the texts constitute, besides devotional poetry, a rich intellectual legacy of jurisprudence, historiography, and various sciences such as medicine and even architecture. Even at this initial stage all of us involved feel as if standing on the threshold of a hidden garden full of treasures. We have already found textual material of great significance for early modern Malabar history to take us beyond the colonial archives that have been, so far, the primarily source for Kerala and Malabar historiography. We expect to find material that will reorient Malabar Māppiḷa literature and culture in the broader framework of the Arabic Cosmopolis, a term coined by Ronit Ricci in her seminal work, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis in South and Southeast Asia (Ronit Ricci was grant holder for EAP609).

The history of Malabar and the Malayalam-speaking region is the history of contacts and networks across Asia from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa to Southeast Asia. Pre-modern Malabar–the southwestern coastline of India including modern Kerala and Karnataka–was a central maritime junction between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for several centuries. Semitic and Indic religions interacted, enriching each other with various types of knowledge and cross-cultural exchanges resulting in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that is typical of the coastal communities across the Indian Ocean Rim. The contacts between Arabic and Malayalam are documented since the twelfth century in inscriptions and texts related to Indian Ocean trade. Some examples are Arabic inscriptions found on the West Coast of India commemorating the establishment of mosques by Muslim seafarers from as early as the twelfth century.

Our survey started in the area of Madayi, near Mount Hili (Ezhimala) that was the signifier of land for seafarers over history. Madayi is the site of a twelfth-century mosque, one of the earliest mosques in the region (the medieval structure was demolished in the 1940s giving way to a modern construction). We visited the home of Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi for surveying his impressive collection of manuscripts and rare lithographs in anticipation of a major digitization project in the future. We plan to return in late December for sampling digital copies of a small and beautifully written Burdah text, a hand-written Qur’an, and a majmūʿa manuscript that includes an extraordinary maulid composition named after Taj al-Dīn al-Hindī al-Malabārī, the famous Malayali king believed to have converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet. The story of the conversion is told in detail in the Arabic text called Qiṣṣat Shakarvatī Farmāz (1580 TAQ) and is retold in Malayalam in the Kēralōlpatti (ca. 1700, probably based on earlier oral traditions), in Portuguese in the Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim (1686), and in Syriac documents (1721 and 1871) translated by A. Mingana in 1926 (The Early Spread of Christianity in Kerala). Clearly, the archive faithfully kept by Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi in Mattool might produce textual material of significance for a wide variety of communities in Malabar and beyond.

Survey resized

Surveying manuscripts in Mattool; from left to right: Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Abdullah Anchillath, and Ophira Gamliel (photo by Dileepan Kunhimangalam)

So far, the brief survey at Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi’s archive focused on Arabic hand-written manuscripts and lithographs. Among the texts surveyed so far are fiqh (law), naḥw (grammar), qiṣṣa (story) and tārīkh (history), and qaṣīda (poetry or kavita). Some manuscripts are surprisingly broad in their regional and transregional affiliation, such as an “imitation” (takhmīs) poem composed by Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (d. 1264) and “imitated” by Ṣadaqallāh al-Qāhirī of Kayalpaṭṭaṇam (Tamil Nadu) in 1885. There are also several majmūʿas (collections) with commentaries on Islamic literature and devotional poetry. As we were surveying the manuscripts, conversations ensued on interesting topics in relation to texts from the story of the late Sufi neighbor who mastered a jinn, to the history of the Araykkal rulers, to the medicinal expertise of Musa Musaliyār, the previous owner of one of the manuscripts, in curing mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the news about the pilot project travelled far and wide and we were contacted by several local scholars interested in collaborating on surveying and locating more Arabic and Arabic Malayalam manuscript archives–private and public–around Calicut. By the time we complete the initial survey and the digitisation of a few selected texts, we hope to have more archive owners included in an area project, as well as team members, as clearly there is a lot of work on surveying, digitising, and installing preservation equipment in each archive. We thus started negotiating further surveys with C H Mappila Heritage Library in Calicut, with the team headed by Abdurahman Mangad, and with Dr Ajmal Mueen, whose family traces their lineage to the famous Makhdums of Ponnani.

DSC05524 resized

Dr. Ajmal Mueen (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Bookcase resized

The manuscript collection at Dr Ajmal Mueen’s home in Mukkam, near Calicut (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

IMG_20191118_193535 resized

Abdullah Anchillath (right) and Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi (middle) examining a manuscript in November 2019 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Currently our team consists of Mr Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Mr Abdullah Anchillath, Dr Dinesan Vadakkiniyil, Mr Dileepan Kunhimangalam, and Mr Yusuf Ali for the survey in Mattool and Madayi, and Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. and Dr Saeko Yazaki in Kondotty and Parappanangady, where we plan to video record performance of Arabic Malayalam poems and recitations of Qur’an according to the Malabari style. Mr Shiju Alex will join us for the digitisation phase of the project during the third week of December in Kondotty. Shiju, an expert on digitisation of old and rare printed books in Malayalam (see here), will guide us in the delicate art of digitization. We plan to digitise 200 pages at least during those days for evaluating the volume of the work for a major (or area) project. Finally, there is also a “shadow” team member, Dr Ines Weinrich, who advises on the Arabic manuscripts and their significance from afar, in Germany, where she is currently working on a project on maulid literature over the ages and across regions, including Kerala.

MP1 (198) resized

Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. in Kondotty during the Nercha festival, in February 2010 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Written by Dr Ophira Gamliel grant holder for EAP1228

04 November 2019

Rare Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts from Rural Kathmandu and the Hill Areas of Nepal

Among all the ancient languages, Sanskrit excels as being used in the greatest number of written works. Sanskrit is used for mainly Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts, covering medical manuals, literature and astrological works.

Image 4

Example of Buddhist religious stories

Nepal is the centre of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts, written in a variety of Newārī scripts on tree bark, palm-leaves and paper. The manuscripts are sources of profound knowledge. Nepalese Buddhist manuscripts are the only original extant sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism and has made the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit possible. The texts are rare and often in a bad state due to natural and man-made conditions. The Endangered Archives Programme has supported the digitisation of these manuscripts through several projects:  EAP676, EAP790 and EAP1023. These grants have helped the exploration and digitisation of Buddhist manuscripts held in private collections and have been the first extended attempt to made public a significant number of these privately-owned manuscripts.  Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal are treated as sacred items having great religious value. They are not merely material objects but regarded as emanations of deities in which life is inserted through performing a ritual called Nyāsa [placing or inserting] led by Vajrācaryā priests.

Image 12

Early example of a manuscript written on paper

EAP1023 has digitised 478 Sanskrit manuscripts in twenty-eight collections. They were written between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. They are rare and still highly valued in Newār households in Nepal. All the manuscripts were recovered from Buddhist families and the owners are all very keen to preserve them.

The types of manuscripts in this collection include: Sūtra (canonical scripture), Tantra, Kathā (stories), Vidhī (rituals) and Buddhist chronicles. Those endangered ancient and medieval specimen discuss various religious themes as well as guide to perform rituals.  

The story literature in Buddhism is divided into Jātaka tales (the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (noble deeds). This collection contains several Avadāna stories including rituals texts. Some interesting manuscripts in this collection are copies of the Sūtra of Fivefold Protection (Pañcarakṣā Sūtra). The five Sūtras are Āryamahāpratisarā, Mahāsahasrapramardinī, Mahāmāyurī, Mahāmantrāṇusārinī and Mahasitavatī.

Pañcarakṣā and Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were widely written and recited during the medieval times in Nepal. Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is believed to bring auspicious moments and bring protection from bad planets, evil souls, calamities, diseases, effects of poisons and so on. This text has five individual Sūtras. Five individual deities are emanated from the five Sūtras, each having special powers. Their influence is highlighted in the narrative descriptions of each Sūtra. Traditionally, the Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is written in golden, silver or organic homemade black ink. This collection also has the earliest dated Nepalese paper manuscript belonging to the twelfth century. From the Buddhist viewpoint, this collection is invaluable.

Image 14

Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

Image 15

Image 11

A copy of the Pañcarakṣā Sutra, there looks as if there has been fire damage to the manuscript

Written by Dr. Shanker Thapa, Professor of History at Tribhuvan University and grant holder for EAP1023, EAP790 and EAP676.