November 22, 2023

Assam’s century-old literary body turns a new page, will digitise its rich archive

With a mammoth digitising project undertaken by the 103-year-old Asam Sahitya Sabha, a plethora of material will be available in a single place: an online archive accessible to the public

From the first Assamese language magazine to an ancient treatise on elephantology — publications of yore, some handwritten, some tattered and torn, some considered lost, will soon find a home online, courtesy a mammoth digitising project undertaken by Assam’s oldest literary and cultural body, the Asam Sahitya Sabha.

“This is absolutely new for a 103-year-old organisation,” said Kuladhar Saikia, president, Asam Sahitya Sabha, “For a century, the Sabha was following a traditional route — books were published only as hardbound copies, with limited circulation.”

With digitisation plans afoot, a plethora of material will be available in a single place: an online archive accessible to the public. “And they can be in any part of the world,” added Saikia, “Many members of the Assamese diaspora particularly welcome this decision since all these years, they have had limited access to such material.”

Among the texts that will be digitised includes the first Assamese language magazine/journal, Orunodoi, published in 1846, content from saanchipaats or 13th century manuscripts made of tree bark, old dictionaries as well as other “valuable books and writings.”

“We will also be collaborating with IIT-Guwahati, Tezpur University, Cotton University to build the digital archive,” said Saikia, “So far, there have only been piecemeal approaches to digitising select literature from these universities.”

Saikia, a Sahitya Akademi-winning writer, who was Assam Police DGP till August 2019, was elected as the Sabha’s president in January 2020. In his inaugural presidential speech at Sualkuchi earlier this year, he brought up the role of technology in the Sabha roadmap. “It was widely accepted,” he said, “Digital technology has immense potential, it can take literature beyond boundaries by making it more accessible.”

2,000 state units activated

The Sabha now has an IT Cell which is shouldering the digitising initiative, with state-government owned (Assam Electronics Development Corporation Ltd.) AMTRON providing technical support.

For the team, spread across different Sabha chapters in Assam, the foremost responsibility is to make “contents searchable online.” “Usually material is digitised through images and PDFs – that is not helpful when you are searching for particular words or phrases,” said a Sabha volunteer, who is involved in the project, “But we are trying do it in such a way — using the Unicode — so that even if you search for it, you will be able to find words and phrases.”

Unicode is a computing industry standard where characters of different writing systems are digitised and identified under separate charts made by the Unicode Standard Consortium. The Assamese script has, till date, been clubbed under the Bengali script.

Saikia also stressed on how the 2,000 units of Sabha will be on the ground to catalyse the digitisation process. “They will be in-charge of searching for books and documents from different sources — whether from Naamghars, Sattras, libraries, or even personal individual collections,” said Saikia, who during the lockdown, worked on strengthening the presence of the Assamese language online.

“For example, Google Translate is a community-based venture and it [words] has to be fed by users. Even though some community volunteers were doing it off and on, I gave a public appeal for wider participation during the lockdown,” he said. In September, in what is considered a digital milestone for the language, Microsoft Translator added Assamese as the twelfth Indian language. “Hopefully, the same will happen with Google Translate soon too,” said Saikia, adding that the pandemic and lockdown gave a fillip to the organisation’s digitisation plans. Apart from numerous webinars, online poetry readings, a collaboration with All India Radio’s (AIR) Guwahati division for a children’s storytelling program drew a wide range of listeners.

Bridges of friendship

The Sabha was established in the upper Assam town of Sivasagar in 1917 and is considered the state’s apex literary and socio-cultural body.

According to Avinibesh Sharma, who runs a Vintage Assam, a website dedicated to digitising Assam’s history, the Sabha’s initiative should also include photographs, apart from books and manuscripts. “The digitisation project is a welcome initiative, especially because the Sabha’s popularity had waned over the years. At one point of time, there was a great interest towards scholarly work and folklore. In fact, after independence, the presidents made a sincere effort to include the multiple communities residing within Assam,” he said, “Although, in more recent years that changed.”

However, Saikia said the Sabha is working towards the direction. He said that the storytelling sessions jointly done with AIR Guwahati prominently featured stories from tribes as did the online poetry reading sessions.

“We are working on a dictionary which will feature different tribal words. Assamese books are being translated to other Northeastern languages and vice versa,” he said, adding that the Sabha should be aware of its crucial role in the development of Assamese language, as it serves as a connecting language for multiple ethnic groups in the state.

“This is more so in present times as a lot of languages/dialects are developing and there is a strong feeling of group loyalty. Assamese which traditionally plays the role of a connecting language has to make the bridge of friendship stronger through collaboration and coalition amongst communities,” he said.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article mistakenly quoted Saikia saying that Assamese served as the link language for the multitude of ethnic groups in the Northeast. The error is regretted. 


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