Career In Cultural Documentation

Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Co-founder and Vice President, Sahapedia has dedicated her life to exploring in an interconnected way the various cultural and literary traditions of India and showcasing these to young generation through use of technology

While racing for modernisation and interacting with other cultures, we tend to leave behind our prestigious and rich culture, which itself is an assimilation of various worldly beliefs and practices. Sudha Gopalakrishnan is among a handful of scholars in the country who is striving to fill a crucial gap of documenting our traditions through Sahapedia. Established in 2010, Sahapedia is an unique online platform for exploring the cultural and historical resources of India. The website aims to connect people with the culture of India and strive to make it accessible to them. Gopalakrishnan is a founder and vice president of Sahapedia's governing body.

A Masters in English Literature and a PhD in Comparative Drama, Gopalakrishnan was Mission Director, National Mission for Manuscripts, from 2003-2007. Among her important contributions is preparation of successful nomination dossiers of three cultural traditions of India — Kutiyattam, Vedic Chanting and Ramlila — as ‘UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Her role in documentation, archiving and preservation of our cultural resources is immense.

Exposure to multiple traditions

Describing her journey across range of interests, Gopalakrishnan says, “My basic interest was drama, performance and also literature and I was very moved by Malayalam literature. I got interested in Sanskrit which triggered my interest in the performing arts. Sanskrit theatre Kutiyattam from Kerala is a very unique theatre language and theatre, which inspires a lot of theatre people around the world. It is a very elaborate drama theatre. One act of the play takes 40 days of performance.” She studied Kathakali for 10 years and performed too.

Further, she highlights her exposure to the literature in multiple languages that led to her pursuing PhD in comparative drama. 

Gopalakrishnan has also worked for Sahitya Academy and where an encyclopaedia of Indian literature was coming out in six volumes. This is how she got in insight into pan-India literary scenario, across languages, spanning time, geographies, authors and genres. Embracing ideas across languages gave her different perspectives. “For example, what is Realism? Realism is a western concept, but how has that impacted Indian romanticism and what is romanticism in Kashmiri, Maithili, Marathi and Malayalam? So, it gave a wonderful perspective. It was very good grounding for me.” 

She went on to work at Indira Gandhi National Centres for the Arts (IGNCA), under its Founding Director Kapila Vatsyayan, and that further gave a lot inputs from arts from a very broad point of view. “There she understood art not just in terms of music, dance and drama but as a unified and integral ecosystem,” she says.   

About her remarkable action to nominate Kutiyattam for UNESCO recognition in 2001, she informs that it was the first time when UNESCO had started something for recognition of intangible cultural heritage of the world. Gopalakrishnan had taken a troupe performing Kutiyattam to Paris at that time and the director of the newly formed Department of Intangible Heritage in UNESCO called Kutiyattam - a wonderful form of dance and asked her to file the nomination immediately.  

Sharing her experience, she says, “I was writing a book on Kutiyattam at that time, so I had quite a lot of material with me. I organised all the people who were doing Kutiyattam, described the UNESCO initiative to them and requested Adoor Gopalakrishnan (noted film director) to do the video documentation, to which he happily agreed. We made this film and submitted the form all in one go. And then it was submitted along with other 18 forms across the world. Later it was recognised as the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. That was a big thing in 2001.” 

In further years, Gopalakrishnan nominated other intangible cultural practices - the Vedic Chanting and Ramlila.  

Preservation drive

Gopalakrishnan also worked as Mission Director of the National Manuscript Mission that was inaugurated in 2003 by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Gopalakrishnan says, “The mission was to document and put together the big manuscript wealth of India, from all repositories, right from ancestral houses to sacred houses to libraries, archives, museums in India. In our country, every old house, every scholar and everyone who is an expert on something, be it architecture, any religion, sciences or literature, has so many manuscripts in different scripts, different languages and scripts, some of which are not even so much readable now. So, the National Manuscript Mission set out to make an electronic database and digital library of those manuscripts.” 

By the time she left the mission after five years, they were able to document more than 27 lakh manuscripts and as per her sources the mission has now documented nearly 5 million manuscripts, she informs.  

The way that the mission approached the task was not to acquire the scripts. But to recognise more than 120 institutions across the country as manuscript resource centre to perform the task. These centres would be provided computers, conservation facility and conservation training to handle fragile manuscripts. If individual owners of manuscripts wished to give away their collections, these would then be taken over by one of these 120 centres. 

Sahapedia’s role

There’s a need to document not just manuscripts but other aspects of culture and to put information together. That gave rise to the idea of Sahapedia. ‘Saha’ implies collaborative approach. Giving clarity, Gopalakrishnan says, “Unlike Wikipedia where anybody can write anything, we wanted people who had the knowledge to contribute – it could be to it can be a student or an eighty-year-old person. And we moderate and edit the content.”

Describing further the approach, she cites the example of Bharatanatyam, which is a performance, a belief and about a social structure so one tradition can be looked at from different angles. And many people can contribute to a single topic. While being collaborative, Gopalakrishnan says that they have steered clear from politics and always preferred a middle ground and at the same time being liberal. 

One impact area of Sahapedia has been the long interactions with people of core knowledge. From great musicians talking about their work down the years, to crafts persons like potters, metal workers who have deep understanding of their craft are interviewed. Sahapedia has been able to document legacy of those individuals. It has also built multimedia knowledge resource around several domains. Yet another impact it has created has been through intermingling of culture and technology so that it’s appealing to the young generation too. 

State of preservation and archiving

For a society to take interest in history, culture and art, what is also required is advanced preservation and archiving techniques. As Gopalakrishnan emphasises, “Archives are very important. This is the time when we are in transition stage. There is so much to preserve and safeguard in our country. The capacity is less, considering what is out there. So is funding and wherewithal for training.” 

Another dimension of preservation that she takes up is language. 

“We know a bit about Hindi and recognise some other classical and regional languages but what about the wealth of languages that are going every day out of usage because people are not speaking it, people are not being trained in it. For example, in the Northeast, there are so many dialects that are dying out. With that goes out richness of our literature, thought systems, traditional medicine, sayings.” 

Career advice

Such a mammoth work necessitates a large and dedicated team with expertise. Gopalakrishnan talks about the young people who have been part of her journey, who belong to the fields like history, language, theatre and Sanskrit literature and other fields. Therein lie opportunities too. 

As a piece of advice to young students, Gopalakrishnan suggests, “Keep learning; there is so much out there. If you go deep into it any area, study that carefully, then you become the expert on that and there is nothing to counter expertise. It’s not easy but keep at it. If you have expertise in anything, then I think someday or other, you will definitely win.”

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