For years, Sikh studies’ scholar Madanjit Kaur’s vast collection lay stacked in a storeroom in her Mohali house. Little did she realise that the guard had been selling the priceless heritage she had collected over years, bit by bit. As age caught up, she worried about what would happen to the treasure trove of knowledge. Around this time, she came to know of the Panjab Digital Library (PDL), which had been digitising manuscripts. Realising that if whatever remained of her books, manuscripts, coins, photographs and paintings was digitised in time, all knowledge might not be lost.
PDL turns 20 this month and has digitally preserved over 65 million pages, a monumental achievement towards safeguarding Punjab’s memory for future generations. Among those whose collections have been digitised are poet Harnam Singh Shan, Dr Gurdev Singh Sidhu, Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, photographer SB Durga, Giani Gurdit Singh, Bhai Sikander Singh, Kulwant Singh Musafir and many more.
History always intrigued its founder Davinder Pal Singh, a student of economics. His first brush with the use of technology to save history, however, dates back to 1995. A printer in Chandigarh’s industrial area had just imported a computer from Japan and Davinder was fascinated to see how images could be stored. Hitherto, he had seen himself and other people struggle with manuscripts and photographs. A computer meant endless possibilities. “We need to preserve what we have,” he decided.
That paved the way for PDL, and it was finally founded in 2003 with a meagre investment of Rs 10,000. Davinder says he knew back then that this was going to be an arduous journey, which would ask for life-long commitment.
The hunt for the first manuscript to be digitised had now begun. Davinder spread the word among friends and got to know about some rare manuscripts in the possession of a family from Anandpur Sahib, said to be the descendants of Guru Hargobind. Several attempts were made to persuade them to allow digitisation. Months later, they agreed. For the next two weeks, Davinder and a friend parked themselves at their Anandpur Sahib house and digitised three 19th century manuscripts: a saroop of Guru Granth Sahib, a copy of Dasam Granth and some belonging to Kavi Santokh Singh. Besides, there was an unidentified 18th century manuscript, said to be handwritten by Guru Gobind Singh.
The task of digitisation was carried out through DSLR cameras. A professional scanner had been out of question as they didn’t have the money to buy it. The use of cameras continues to this day. “Scanners for books cost lakhs; we have meanwhile devised our own mechanism to click pages,” says Davinder. Contraptions are routinely invented by PDL. Like, there is a huge structure for the cameras to move and click a large phulkari in 21 frames, to be pieced together later. Another one holds the book diagonally and raises it to the required height; it is surrounded by lights and two cameras on either side to click opposite pages. Also, as a rule, PDL never brings manuscripts to its office. They are digitised at the site, free of cost.
Back to 2003. Davinder wanted to move on to their next assignment and approached surgeon-scholar Dr Man Singh Nirankari. Already aware of his exploits, Dr Man Singh was forthcoming and agreed to the digitisation of his manuscripts lent to the Chandigarh Museum back then. However, the late VN Singh, its then director, had reservations. Next day, Dr Man Singh visited the museum with Davinder. This time, VN Singh agreed. More than 30 manuscripts, including Janamsakhis and Guru Granth Sahib, were digitised. The project ran for several months.
One day, while going through old newspapers, Davinder came across a news item from a year ago: Kurukshetra University would be digitising the manuscripts in its library. He was surprised to know of an initiative similar to theirs. Curious, he decided to pay them a visit and came to know that the announcement had not been followed up with action. However, the then librarian was very supportive and allowed them to digitise their manuscripts, a massive 17,000 — among them old copies of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita and Bhagavata Puranas. A lot of documents here were in the Sharda script. “Even if we had deployed our entire team (of two-three people then), it would have taken them years to do it. We decided to digitise one manuscript and train their staff,” he recalls, sharing that the training was not put to use after they left.
When PDL had started out, they believed that the manuscripts lying in villages were in danger, but KU had proved them wrong. They realised that those with libraries and museums were far more vulnerable as the staff deployed to take care could never do justice to the huge volumes in possession. “Comparatively, those with families are safer as they revere them in most cases.”
Most threatened, says Davinder, are single-copy manuscripts and it is imperative to save these first. Fires are his worst nightmare. “A fire can happen anywhere; it threatens heritage like nothing else. Like a 2015 fire in the Amritsar DC’s office. All records from 1849 to 2015 were burnt. Amritsar was the hub of activities during Partition. We don’t even know what all was lost.”
In 2007, they started getting donations. That is when they shifted out of Davinder’s Mohali house and rented an apartment. They now run from a charitable building in Chandigarh. PDL still survives on donations in cash and kind; only projects undertaken for the government are paid for.
The coming years were of consequence and besides manuscripts lying with scholars and academicians, institutions like the Punjab Languages Department, SGPC, DSGMC and Chief Khalsa Diwan were approached. One of their biggest projects so far has been digitisation of the Himachal Pradesh government’s records and those with the Punjab State Archives.
The latter is a storehouse of history, with 20,000 manuscripts awaiting digitisation. More than 50 people have been employed to accomplish the humungous task and they are churning out 1,000 digital pages daily. One day, Davinder came across a series of manuscripts that left him bewildered. These were records from the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He immediately took out his car and left to meet historian Dr Kirpal Singh since he was a scholar of Persian and all records were in the language. “I asked him if he had ever seen the records of Ranjit Singh’s court. He said he had. I asked him how many had he come across and he answered, ‘Two.’ I told him I had just seen 4,500 volumes lying with the Punjab State Archives! He just couldn’t believe it,” recalls Davinder.
This general apathy towards history is what irks him. An exhaustive list of documents available with museums, libraries and archives is still elusive.
Most of the documents digitised by PDL are from the 18th and 19th centuries. Thereafter came the lithographs in the late 19th century and handwritten copies went out of fashion. Surprisingly, the documents from the 20th century are not in as good a shape. “The acid makes lithographs brittle, while older documents are just made of cloth and remain in a better condition,” says Davinder.
Digitisation is a boon for owners and scholars. Some years ago, PDL digitised a 1735 Janamsakhi for scholar Bhai Sikander Singh. Marvelling at the efficiency of the team, he says: “They are doing a great service to Punjab by preserving its heritage for future and authenticating the documents to some extent.” Digitisation also makes it easier to disseminate it among people who have genuine interest in history without posing any risk to the owners, he adds.
And this is how knowledge then trickles down. The Ramgarhias in Assam are a major subject of research for historian Dr Himadri Banerjee, Professor Emeritus at Jadavpur University. He was briefly able to see the Ramgarhia Gazette at the Ramgarhia gurdwara in Shimla’s Lower Mall Road. However, he was able to get the entire manuscript in digital form, courtesy PDL. “I have a soft copy with me now and refer to it whenever I want,” he says. Writer Amarjit Chandan, who has contributed a lot in the form of photographs to PDL and helped in facilitating the archives of MS Randhawa’s photographer SB Durga, calls PDL “an oasis”.
Digitisation is an unending project and PDL might have just scraped the surface. Love for history and knowledge dissemination will have to go hand in hand. As a next step, PDL plans to develop exhibitions on historical and social events related to Punjab’s rich heritage.
Meanwhile, delightful little details stumble out of the pages at the State Archives all the time: from a leave application by an employee to the exchange between rulers of Patiala and Malerkotla states. In one, the ruler of Patiala is thanking his counterpart for his generous donation towards building of a pond and inviting him to its inauguration; in response, the Malerkotla ruler apologises for not being able to make it owing to Muharram. Sometimes, it is just mundane government exchange, at times a sweet ‘thank you’ letter for the mangoes sent.
Accessing the archives
A large part of PDL’s archive is online. Launched in 2009, it has, however, not been upgraded due to lack of resources. The entire archive is available for access offline. Those interested may call on +91 172 465 3047 or mail to [email protected] Those who want to get a manuscript digitised can also contact PDL.
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