Asian Routes

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A new database is the first comprehensive reference guide for South Asian studies, finds Devika Menon

Sampling history: A large body of research material will be available for the first time
Sampling history: A large body of research material will be available for the first time

RESEARCH SCHOLARS and students have often lamented the lack of organised and well catalogued reference material for South Asian studies. Other fields of study have well-documented online databases, such as the EEBO, or Early English Books Online, an extensive collection of books from the 15th to the 18th century. Even newspapers have archives from inception to the current issue.

The database-gap in South Asian studies was a lacuna keenly felt by academic scholars. But this gap is now being bridged: the South Asia Research Foundation, or SARF, was established by Boria Majumdar and Sharmishtha Gooptu in 2008, to advance research in this area. Its first project, estimated at Rs 5-6 crore, is the setting up of the South Asia Gateway (SAG), an online database of rare and outof- print journals, legislations and manuscripts ranging from 1750 to 1950. Samita Sen, history professor at Jadavpur University says there is a North-South hemispheric divide in catalogued reference material. “South Asian studies do not figure in the scheme of things,” she says.

The project, backed by the PMO, will include 50 lakh pages of published material

The project — monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — is backed by former UN deputy secretary general Shashi Tharoor and deputy Planning Commission chairman, Dr Montek Singh Alhuwalia, and will be useful for both students and scholars. The database will include 50 lakh pages of published material.

Some rare gems in the collection include the entire archive of Modern Review, a magazine owned and run by Ramananda Banerjee who is regarded as the father of Indian journalism, as well as some of India’s earliest film and sports journals such as Dipali, Film India and Indian Cricket.

Initially funded by the trustees, the project now has the backing of a number of prestigious academic institutions, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. While the estimated cost does not include overheads, the foundation has applied for grants and also taken loans to fund the project. International publication partner Taylor & Francis is also helping to fund and market the project.

SINCE THE founder members want to disseminate information within the region, SAG will either be free to access or cost only a token amount. Still, to recover costs a subscription fee will be charged from global universities that want access to the database.

Pankaj Jha, professor of history at New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, agrees that limited access to well-catalogued source materials is a major obstacle for research. “There must be an effort to include pre-1750 material, as there is a huge gap between the modern and pre-modern period,” he says.

While Supriya Varma, associate professor at the Centre for Historial Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, agrees it will benefit students and researchers, Chander S Sundaram, research fellow at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, feels that the digitisation of national and state archives, which are in a deplorable condition at present, is what is immediately required.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, faculty at the History Department, University of Chicago, says, “this could be exciting in promoting new forms of public histories to generate debate and discussion”.

The project has faced some technical snags. “The quality was damaged and inhouse scanners had to be developed. Care must be taken to preserve the initial document,” explains Manoj Joshi, the technical head. The Gateway is expected to be publicly available by 2010.

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