How Bengaluru techies are saving Kannada literature

How Bengaluru techies are saving Kannada literature

Back in 2006, Omshivaprakash HL, a techie working in Bengaluru, was enthused about the ‘free software movement’. Having been educated in Kannada, he was quite passionate about the language, and wanted to do something about it. So he started blogging in Kannada about free software and open-source codes and raising awareness about the developments in the free software movement. He named...

Back in 2006, Omshivaprakash HL, a techie working in Bengaluru, was enthused about the ‘free software movement’. Having been educated in Kannada, he was quite passionate about the language, and wanted to do something about it.

So he started blogging in Kannada about free software and open-source codes and raising awareness about the developments in the free software movement. He named it Linuxayana, akin to Ramayana.

Over the next four years, he garnered friends who shared a similar passion for Kannada language and technology development. They soon realised they needed more efforts in linguistic technology. So they started Sanchaya, a tech-collective and started writing and publishing e-books about free software suitable for Kannada language development. They made their content accessible to all under a creative commons license.

Their first e-book Arivina Alegalu, (meaning Waves of Knowledge), was on how one could adopt free open source software technology, switch from Windows to Linux, and more.

Blogs to books

Around 2014, they were exposed to the literary world. and started different projects to preserve Kannada literature by digitising rare books and converting them to a readable and searchable format using optical character recognition technology.

It opened the digital world for Kannada books that were copyright-free. Some of these books are barely available in one or two libraries in the country.

Around the same time, laureates in Kannada literature were wondering how to make literary works reach the masses amid the fear of dwindling readership.

“If a new Kannada book gets released, it will be available for a month in the market. After that one has to go searching for it,” says OL Nagabushana Swamy, a writer and literary critic.

“Notable late novelist Aa Na Krishnaraya’s book ‘Natasarvabhowma’ (of 1944) will barely be available in any of the libraries in Karnataka. One of the copies can be found in Osmania University (Hyderabad). Not everyone can go there to read or refer the book. So digitisation is the only solution,” Swamy said.

Swamy noted the difficulty in accessibility and also restricted the research to Kannada language and literature. “There are thousands of manuscripts and centuries-old literature material available in the state. But there weren’t much efforts by the government to preserve them,” he adds.

Swamy believed that digitisation could democratise the availability of information. And then he came in touch with Omshivaprakash and his team. He then asked them to digitise the massive collection of Bhakti Movement vachanas (couplets) that became popular during the 12th century, much on the lines concordance of William Shakespeare’s works.

Literature preservation programme

Although they were not into Kannada literature until then, Omshivaprakash and his team were drawn in by the community’s initiative with the sole motive to preserve the work and make it available for future generations.

“I was not introduced to books at the time, I was very naive with respect to literary work,” Omshivaprakash says.

With the help of his friend Devaraj K and wife Pavithra H, who assisted with the linguistic tool development, and with Swamy’s assistance, they developed a portal in which one could search a particular word usage in about 20,000 vachanas or read vachanas based on authors and more.

However, almost 21,000 verses in 15 volumes were published by the state government in the online portal—Samagra Vachana Samputa, but the platform wasn’t user-friendly.

But the Sanchaya team converted the fonts to Unicode to make the verses searchable on this project. So far they have enabled about 1.2 million searches through the platform.

“We replicated it for other Kannada classical texts of  Ranna, Janna Purandara Dasa and others. We are also working on building a dictionary for classical texts,” Omshivaprakash says.

It was the dream of noted Kannada scholar and rationalist the late MM Kalburgi, who edited the book Vachana brought out by Karnataka’s Basava Samithi in 2012-13 volumes, to publish vachanas in a pocket-friendly format at affordable prices. He had done extensive research on Vachana writers of the 12th century. He regarded vachanas as equivalent to the Bible, Quran and Bhagavad Gita, but said it had failed to reach the masses.

Also, while the digital library of India archived close to 6,000 Kannada books, they were not easily searchable. So Sanchaya’s team took the effort to transliterate the author name, publisher name and title into Kannada.

Then they started their own archival platform Pustaka Sanchaya where close to 11,200 books have been digitised and are available for people to read for free. It includes books as old as from the 1900s, taken from some of the libraries spread across the country. The team has also digitised 50 years of Kasthuri, a Kannada monthly magazine.

“For this, we searched book stores, appealed online and offline for people to send across whatever editions they had. Thanks to people, we could get 50 years of data, which is today in digital form,” Omshivaprakash adds.

The real work, he says, started in 2018-19 after they met Carl Malamud, a US technologist and public domain advocate, who helped his team connect with the Indian Academy of Science and use the resources available to scan and convert documents in clear readable format.

Malamud was already working on digitising works in other Indian languages.

Today, Omshivaprakash’s team works in two other libraries, one in Chennai (Roja Muthiah Library), Osmania University library (Hyderabad) digitising Kannada books online.

They started the initiative Servants of Knowledge to archive books. At the Roja Muthiah library project, archives of early Kannada publications produced between the early nineteenth century and 1924 are getting digitised.

“All this is possible because of the passion we have for Kannada language. I also started an initiative called Sanchi Foundation, where we started documenting audio visual data, about 600-700 hours of high-quality videos and theatrical performance related to Kannada literature, arts and culture,” Omshivaprakash says.

Like Sanchaya and Sanchi, many others are also digitising content with an aim to preserve the state’s art and literature.

Kuntady Nithesh, co-founder of the website Ruthumana, with two others. Nithesh, a software engineer, again did it for the love for Kannada language.

“I was searching for poet Gopalakrishna Adiga’s works. But I found it difficult to source. But I was getting literary works from other poets. That’s when I thought I should start archiving whatever was freely available,” he says.

Kannada writer Dr. Dharanendra Kurakuri feels that amid the lack of government support, it’s only platforms like Sanchaya and Ruthumana and a select few libraries that are making resources available online for free.

“For the next generation, unless these are digitised and made easily accessible, people will not read or get to know the history,” he says.

All of this is either crowdfunded or self-funded. They do not approach publishers or authors who do not want to give content under a creative commons license. Also, there’s no government collaboration or support extended to these groups.

“The government never showed any genuine interest to work with tech communities. They always gave false hope. They just wanted to say that the project was initiated by the government itself, not by anybody else. That was problematic for us,” Omshivaprakash says. “I have sent multiple proposals to various ministries seeking support. I am fed up as I don’t get any response.”

Swamy too had his share of frustration over the lack of government support. “We (the state officials) are only showing off. They talk of Pampa and Kuvempu without even having read it. They make noise, that’s all. It’s largely the private organisations and interest groups that are doing the value add,” Swamy adds.

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