A challenging task

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

The Roja Muthiah Research Library is leading an international collaboration to catalogue Tamil language publications spanning five centuries.


WHEN the Government of India declared Tamil a classical language a year ago, a gathering of educationists, social scientists and technocrats at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in Chennai issued a clarion call to the intellectual fraternity for the preservation of invaluable literary works of the ancient language using modern tools. While sharing the euphoria over the honour done to the ancient language, MIDS Chairman M. Anandakrishnan observed, "If the language is to be protected, mere status enhancement will not do, the value of [the language's] assets also must be enhanced. They must be made performing assets" (Frontline, November 5, 2004). He said, "Tamil's assets are not only Purananooru, Agananooru and Thirukkural... We have a long tradition of assets in literary works, books on varied subjects, including science, newspapers, journals and so on." Regretting that "there is not even a bibliography of Tamil publications, let alone annotative bibliographies", Anandakrishnan called for "concerted efforts" in such directions. Similar suggestions came from several linguistic scholars and language experts as well.

The Chennai-based Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) has now begun to prepare a comprehensive bibliography of Tamil publications spanning a period of nearly five centuries. The library hopes to do this as part of an ongoing programme relating to South Asian studies, which it has taken up in partnership with organisations across the globe. The objective of the programme, the South Asia Union Catalogue (SAUC), is "to gather existing bibliographic records and combine them with new cataloguing created under current projects to create a definitive statement on publishing in the subcontinent." The programme has the University of Chicago as the lead institution in the United States and the RMRL as the lead institution in South Asia. The partners of the programme include the Centre for Research Libraries and the Digital South Asia Library (both in the U.S.), the British Library, the University of Oxford, the Kolkata-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, the Hyderabad-based Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, and the international organisation, South Asia Through Official Eyes (SATOE).

The SAUC promises to be a historical bibliography with details on books and journals published in South Asia from 1556 to the present. It will also be a union catalogue wherein libraries in various parts of the world possessing copies of the catalogued imprints will register their holdings. Scholars will have free online access to the catalogue.

G. Sundar, RMRL director, told Frontline that the library had already catalogued nearly 1.2 lakh articles from magazines and journals from among its holdings under the programme. "This is an ongoing process," he said, and added that his institution had identified five more libraries in Tamil Nadu to undertake similar work. These are the Thanjavur Tamil University Library, the libraries at the Madurai and Karanthai Tamil Sangams, and the Chennai-based Maraimalai Adigal Library and U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Library. "We have also been approaching individuals and institutions that possess rare collections in print and assure them that all material collected will be returned after micro-filming and cataloguing. "We undertake the work with absolute confidence, because we are committed to this cause," said Sundar.

FOUNDED in 1994 with the life-time private collections of Roja Muthiah Chettiar of Kottaiyur as its nucleus, the RMRL provides Tamil research material and facilities in a variety of fields such as humanities, social sciences and sciences. The principal objective of the library is to preserve, catalogue and expand one of the finest collections of Tamil publications in the country gathered over 50 years. Muthiah Chettiar's collection comprised about one lakh volumes of books, journals, magazines and newspapers, including One Pice Tamilan edited by Pandit C. Iyothee Thass, besides non-conventional items such as drama notices, film songbooks and wedding invitations. The books were related to a wide range of subjects, such as classical and modern literature, devotional literature, literary criticism, medicine, cinema, folklore, ballads and women's studies. A substantial number of items are related to the various forms of indigenous medicine, such as Siddha, Ayurveda and Unani. A large number of labour-related books and manuals, as well as some publicity brochures and private letters, also formed part of Muthiah Chettiar's collections (Frontline, September 1, 2000).

The private library was shifted to Chennai from Kottaiyur in 1995 after the death of Muthiah Chettiar in 1992. The University of Chicago agreed to preserve the library in Tamil Nadu itself, thanks to the efforts of C.S. Lakshmi, a visiting fellow in the university's Institute for Culture and Consciousness, who had made use of Muthiah Chettiar's collections for her research on women in India. Among those who did the spadework for the support from the University of Chicago was the poet and folklorist A.K. Ramanujan, who was a member of its faculty. Innovative publisher `Cre-A' S. Ramakrishnan and his Chennai-based trust, MOZHI, was involved in the preservation and maintenance of the collection in the first decade of its existence in Chennai. The library's first director, P. Sankaralingam, and his successor, S. Theodore Baskaran, played key roles in micro-filming and cataloguing materials. The library employed technologies developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, Pune, to create machine-readable catalogue records. The library had the support of the Welcome Research Institute, London, the Ford Foundation, and later the Government of India for the project.

HAVING largely completed its preservation and cataloguing activities in the last 10 years, the RMRL recently shifted from an obscure place at Mogappair to more easily accessible location at Taramani, the Information Technology and knowledge hub of Chennai. Sundar said that its new location had attracted more users to the library. "At Mogappair, the user attendance was very poor. We used to get only one scholar a day. Sometimes we did not get any scholars at all," he said. "But within days of shifting the attendance rose to eight to ten a day on an average." The library has added 50,000 more items to its holdings over the last six years and "we needed a bigger building to accommodate the added assets", he said. With more computers in place, the library could improve the quality of its service too, by facilitating easier and speedier access to the material. Unlike at Mogappair, the library is now open on Saturdays also.

According to Sundar, apart from scholars working on social sciences and humanities, the users include a good number of persons interested in film-related studies, such as film-makers and directors. "This is one of the biggest resource centres for studies on Tamil films. We have a lot of film-based periodicals such as Naradar, Jaganmohini, Pesumpadam and Chitralaya (by noted scriptwriter and director C.V. Sridhar). We have also a collection of 3,000 film songbooks. Roughly 6,000 Tamil films have been made so far and we have books relating to songs of 3,000 of these films," he said.

The oldest periodical available in the RMRL is an 1842 copy of Udaya Taragai (Morning Star), a bilingual magazine. There are also 18,308 film-related magazines. Labour in cinema is a documented area. There are about 25 labour-related associations in the cinema industry. Recent additions available in the library, such as the Cinema Technicians Association Journal, have much to say about the labour movement in the industry.

The new arrivals also include the official publications relating to pre-Independence India, which the library has received from the University of Chicago. These comprise reports on census, agriculture and conditions of prisons, and manuals relating to all presidencies.

In a change of policy, the library has decided to collect audio and video records in addition to imprints. It already has about 1,500 gramophone records of folk music, Carnatic music and South Indian instrumental music. There are also records of speeches by eminent political leaders such as C. Rajagopalachari. "We want to digitise these records. Cataloguing work is also on now," Sundar said. For digitising, the library is planning to collaborate with the American Institute of Indian Studies in Delhi.

The RMRL is now engaged in micro-filming material related to the Dravidian movement. Sundar said that it proposed to have a similar project to micro-film documents on religious studies, provided funds were forthcoming. "For instance, missionary activities, diaries by missionaries, Islamic journals and manuscripts and also papers relating to Jainism and Vaishnavism are aplenty. All these need to be documented," he said.

The current activities of the RMRL include the creation of electronic records for certain government-related documents under the SAUC programme. The documents are: the Madras State Tamil Bibliography, the John Marr Catalogue of the British Library, Fort St. George Gazette supplements containing catalogues of books published since the Registration of Books Act, 1867, came into force, Proscribed Publications of British India edited by Graham Shaw and Mary Lloyd, and the South Asia and Burma retrospective bibliography, compiled by Graham Shaw.

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