India is full of legends, epics and diverse cultures. A vast amount of information on her glorious past has been memorized and retold by generations. Sagas that are now bed time stories find their roots in ancient manuscripts. Writers of the bygone era have carefully documented the classical information on palm leaf manuscripts.
A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai reports that there are about a 100,000 palm leaf manuscripts surviving in South India alone with a majority of them scattered across the globe. These manuscripts lie unattended and are on the verge of destruction due to dampness, pests and most importantly, ignorance of the ones who possess them.
Melukote is the hub of the Sri Vaishnava heritage and has been a notable centre of Sanskrit literacy for thousands of years. The Academy of Sanskrit Research is an esteemed institution (est. 1977) located in Melukote and has been striving towards collecting, preserving and cataloguing the ancient manuscripts. This academy is a repository of over 6000 manuscripts and 10,000 bodies of work spanning categories like epics, sciences, medicine & history.
The entire story was shot in the premises of this institute. The institute has several scholars who work in tandem to understand and translate the content of manuscripts into other languages so that literary work that was long lost and forgotten, could be published as books now.
This is an ongoing, self initiated documentary project. This project was a collaborated one. I worked with another photographer Sreenivasa L. Sreenivasa and I are trying to help the academy to chalk out plans to spread awareness and also reach out to other repositories of manuscripts. We made several visits to the institute during the course of story telling.
Editor’s Note – Anil Cherukupalli
Indians are largely ahistoric. The past is not given much value and remnants of the past often get lost or are forgotten due to neglect or sometimes due to the shifting landscapes of language and caste. But more importantly, caught up in the daily struggle for survival, an active engagement with their history is unfortunately a luxury that the vast majority of Indians cannot afford. Constantly concerned with their unchanging present and an uncertain future, history rarely merits more than a glance as it does not offer any value for their daily survival. Consequently, the practice of research, documentation and preservation of cultural artifacts is still not very strong in India even though it is one of the oldest continuous civilizations with a vast history and culture. Compare this with say Europe where even the smallest place or artifact having the vaguest of cultural importance will have a richly documented history and a proper conservation plan.
Therefore, in this context, it is fascinating to see the dedication and care The Academy of Sanskrit Research in Melukote is taking to preserve a slice of Indian history and culture. Raghuram and Sreenivasa through their seamless collaboration highlight the center’s dedication and efforts through their simple and straightforward photographs. Eschewing a dramatic approach and adopting instead a classical documentary tone the photographers have constructed an essay that is beautiful in its simplicity. Making effective use of available light they highlight the care that must be taken to preserve the delicate palm leaf manuscripts. The title of the essay which translates to ‘Lets preserve them with a deliberate effort’ aptly sums up the monumental effort the Academy has taken on.
India is a land of a million stories, both heartbreaking and heartwarming that largely go unnoticed and unrecorded. Raghuram and Sreenivasa through this essay do a commendable job of bringing to our notice one of the latter.