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Deep rivers

 | 
Kannan M.
, 
Jennifer Clare

Occasional Papers

Manuscripts: material culture and method

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1Manuscriptology is, de facto, a very old practice, that has only recently become an independent discipline, recognized as a subject for teaching and even providing some proven material with which to feed seminars. It has now established itself, and here you are today, to talk about the value of your collections, your cataloguing know-how, and about techniques or recipes, old and new, for the preservation of manuscripts. All of you are perfectly competent and your skilled methodological approaches are very specific. Why, then, should you ask a layman to venture into your well-entrenched field and attempt a key-note address?

2My only possible justification is, perhaps, to act as a kind of middleman to remind outsiders of the nature, the importance, and the multifaceted significance of your work.

3While it seems pretty clear that any hand-written document can be called a manuscript, and that it may be irrelevant here to enumerate the various kinds of material support handwriting has had through the ages: bark, wood, palm-leaves of different denominations, from our common Borassus to the beautiful big leaves of the south-east Asian Corypha, from scrolls of cloth or skin and Egyptian papyrus to the many varieties of paper existing today, the simple basic question: "what is a manuscript?" remains relevant to the very purpose of your daily routine. This is attested to in the following four examples.

4The first is the case of lithic records, that is, epigraphs, with their usual appendix, the copper-plates. The compilers of the famous Mackenzie Collection which, during the 19th c. contributed enormously to our historical knowledge of the then Madras Presidency, thought it proper to include copies of some inscriptions of historical interest. From the moment the technique developed of collecting estampages from the walls of temples, from slabs lying in their courtyards, and even from graffiti inscribed on potsherds or in ancient caves which sheltered Buddhist or Jain monks, these estampages, on awkward paper of awkward sizes, bundled together, with, or without, proper labels, became the nightmare of librarians and curators who had to store and catalogue such untidy material. Manuscripts they certainly are, even displaying the signature of the scribe who wrote them on stone (in Tamil for example: "...matyastaṉ, So and So, eḻuttu"), according to the decision of the local Assemblies and under their supervision. Displaying that scribe’s spelling mistakes too, and the grammatical or phonetic particularities of his dialect, epigraphs are, most often, located and dated beyond doubt: the dating is as precise as in the colophons of our literary manuscripts, and, in its absence, the location on a temple wall and palaeographic features of the engraved document are as good a terminus as a watermark on paper. These recorded variations constitute a unique testimony for a scientific history of the language, a very precious cross-reference to the grammatical treatises. They represent, with their many different readings, the basic manuscripts out of which a critical edition of the poetic portion, introducing innumerable inscriptions, (known as praśasti or meykkīrtti) is yet to be compiled. And, unexpectedly, they happen to be the earliest manuscripts within a most respected tradition, thus raising one more puzzling problem. In 1917, at the temple of Tiruviṭaivācal, an ancient site, known from the 7th century, near Tiruvarur, an inscription, belonging to the 12th century, was discovered and published: it contained one Saiva hymn from Tēvāram, ascribed to Campantar and missing in the palm-leaf manuscript tradition, which has transmitted to us only 383 poems, while 384 is said to be the true number of his known compositions. Is the manuscript on stone, the oldest to be preserved, offering us that missing poem? This does seem quite likely but, then again, could it be, surprisingly, a spurious work already? Such conspicuous lithic records are presumed to be genuine, which is not so in the case of quite a few copper-plates, often involving private or semi-private claims and litigation. But the authentic ones, bundled together and sealed by a thick ring bearing the royal emblems, are certainly the most impressive manuscripts we have come across; they are charters of knowledge and enlightenment, as for example the copper-plates of our neighbouring village, Bāhūr, Vākūr, the city of logos.

5The second opportunity we have to question our obvious definition of a manuscript is much less exalted; it is involved with stationery in every kind of form we can imagine being recorded and issued by numerous stationery offices, produced by administrative imagination. Whenever we fill up a form, we generate some manuscript: the questions are printed, we answer in our handwriting. This is not just a joke. Any printed document, from a marriage invitation to a bank-note, from a school report book to an income tax return, is a part of our written patrimony, usually very much neglected, but also deserving of our attention. During an international seminar on "Book and Printing Technology in the Far-East and South Asia", organised in 1983 in Paris at the IRHT (Research Institute for the History of Texts), Graham Shaw, now Curator of the British Library in London, insisted that calendars, almanacs, regulations, and all the innumerable forms, were linked with the development of commercial printing in early British India; and Andrew Dalby, from Cambridge University Library, detailed the rather unusual, but all the more precious, Scott Collection in his library, which has preserved an extraordinary amount of such material for India, Burma, Siam and Indochina. We can easily imagine the importance to economic history of bills of lading, or the possible cultural as well as political impact of permits to export opium. But we should also remember that many Tokharian manuscripts from Central Asia are nothing more than scraps of very repetitive type, used by merchants and customs officers monitoring the traffic of caravans. They are however precious documents for linguists, historians and anthropologists. It is a remarkable feature of the Roja Muthiah Library, now patronised by the Chicago University Library but harboured in Madras, that it includes such material. Let us also try to imagine the amount and consequence of the research conducted in archives, both private and official, by any serious biographer who cares to collect primary sources: his hero can be traced, throughout his lifetime, through stationery, from his birth registration to his registration in church, school, army, and the civil and financial systems, up to the plot held in perpetuity in a country churchyard! A typical western itinerary, no doubt; but we must admit that the lack of such data, or their very precarious state of conservation, deprives India of an important historical dimension in the field of biographical studies. The life-sketches of thousands of freedom fighters have been impeded by this factor, including the deterrent of much data collected during fieldwork which having been written in pencil are thus now illegible. Our researcher must be mentally prepared to cope with the conservation and preservation of any similar material as would be likely to be unearthed in a public or private institution, such as a chamber of commerce, a zamindari family or a temple trust. In France, we make no distinction between an archivist and a palaeographer who study the same syllabus at the same school. Many end up as curators of libraries, often in charge of the most unexpected and odd collections of manuscripts and taking great pride in that.

6The third example to question the current definition of a manuscript is the fact that now we get printed manuscripts. Nowadays, they are mostly a costly and fancy way to announce an event or invite people to attend a function, a marriage, an araṅkēṟṟam, etc.: a replica simply of the menus lavishly embroidered on silk and offered on a silver plate in some luxury hotels. But, interestingly, there is a tradition in Thailand which has been described in minute detail by Gerald Duverdier, a librarian formerly attached to the Collège de France, in Paris. In a very scholarly article on “La transmission de l’imprimerie en Thailande: du Catéchisme de 1796 aux impressions bouddhiques sur feuilles de latanier”, published in the Bulletin de l ' École Française d ' Extrême-Orient in 1980, he recalls how during the 19th century, printing ink was first used to render letters engraved on palm leaf manuscripts more legible. By the end of the 19th century pen and printing ink had been gradually substituted for the stylus used hitherto to engrave the leaf, and, at last, printing came into use, sometimes in colour, on the leaf itself. This phenomenon seems to have been an expression of the religious traditionalism of Thai Buddhism, just as in the west, after Gutenberg, texts were sometimes printed not on paper but on pieces of parchment, especially for church use. What comes as a surprise is the size of such printed palm-leaf manuscripts: a condensed version of the Tripiṭaka in 1620 folios! Such pious and religious publications were mostly issued as part of the funeral rites, at the time of cremations, and were considered as opportunities to acquire and transfer puṇyam, merits. But this developed later into a particular literary, and more secular, genre, a kind of memorial featuring the particular deeds of the departed one. This is, at all events, certainly a rare and wonderful illustration of the indigenization of a borrowed technology.

7The last example I have selected is another kind of printed manuscript which is too often neglected as it belongs to a mixed caste between hand-written manuscripts and printed books: I am speaking of lithographic prints. As the lithographic technique enables us to reproduce drawings, pictures and even photographs, it has gained its nobility in the closed world of book lovers and connoisseurs of rare illustrated works. But it was originally cheap, and it should not be forgotten that this printing technology was a remarkably effective instrument for spreading ideas and knowledge wherever fonts were not easily available, and, especially, all over South and Southeast Asia. As it cuts out the highly sophisticated and costly stages of casting fonts and composing texts, both in Roman and Asian alphabets, it goes straight, fast and cheaply, from the handwriting of the author to the copy handed to the reader in the form of a book; during the transitional, but essential, period of the middle of the 19th century, it was a favourite instrument for missionary propaganda, and a tool of education. We are not aware of any in-depth research on the development of lithographic printing in India or Jaffna except for recent important articles by Graham Shaw. However, many early dictionaries or manuals for learning local languages were processed by missionaries for internal use. Manuals for philosophy and theology were compiled on the spot, as textbooks for young Indian students in Christian seminaries. The first geographical atlas for elementary teaching in the Catholic mission in Pondicherry was a lithographic publication, like so many others. Unfortunately, the cost, and thus the quality, of paper was kept down, and only a few copies have survived; it is all the more necessary to trace and preserve them. Lastly, it would be interesting to enquire about the possible borrowing of this technology by Indians themselves. At the time when this technology became popular in India, native presses were not encouraged: this technology had all the requirements for clandestine use! No comprehensive study is available however; which enhances the interest of a possibly unique initiative, the books printed by King Sarfoji in Tancavur, of which a few rare samples are preserved in the Sarasvati Mahal Library.

8Coming back to a more classical understanding of manuscripts, there is another widely accepted tradition which confronts the manuscript, as the original work from the hand of the author, with the printed version of that work. Here again fake 'originals' do exist. We have heard of authors who had no hesitation in making another hand-written copy of one of their works to satisfy the fancy of a rich amateur. Such stories are reported about Paul Valery's manuscript of La jeune Parque, and about a few pages of Pierre Louÿs. Jean Genet adopted this practice to such an extent that he wrote fifteen manuscripts of his poem La Galère with pen and ink, each autograph distinguished by a different variant reading. This was on 19th of August 1944, and each lavishly bound set of eight leaves in-8 is now worth several lakhs!

9However, an 'original' manuscript has its own mythology: a flavour of authenticity which makes it a most sought after “treasure” and a unique instrument of investigation into the internal process of literary creation. A careful scrutiny of its alterations, repentances, hesitations and deletions, is necessary, and all the more so when tackling authors who are masters of style. I remember an erudite scholar who lost his eyesight perusing the appalling seventeenth century handwriting of Bossuet in order to trace the way in which he let his inner rhythm and sense of harmony invade his orations from one draft to the next, to the extent that this Doctor of the Church was brought to the verge of misinterpretation when quoting from the Bible! This sounds like a tale of bygone days and of a methodology rendered irrelevant and impossible from the moment writers start using computers to erase and replace everything but the final version. In anticipation of this novel situation, and going one step further, modern literary critics, such as Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes, have claimed the end, or at least disappearance, of the author to the advantage of the inter-textual world. Interestingly, western literary criticism is facing here a situation similar to its Indian counterpart: manuscripts which can be traced back to the author himself are only very few, while the variant readings, which are many, are the contribution of copyists and commentators who reflect the inter-textual milieu through which the work has survived. While any attempt to reach the author and the original version is next to impossible (and the inter-textualists, rightly or wrongly, suggest that this elusive quest is an empty one) the manuscript tradition of a work through the ages remains, on the contrary, of the utmost interest in terms of cultural history, and the minute task of scrutinising it properly has not decreased at all. That is why manuscripts must, as in the past, be shown every care and respectful attention. We may remember how U. Ve. Caminata Aiyar recalls vividly and with emotion his first contact with a manuscript, and his feverish quest for the texts of ancient Tamil literature in the collections of the maṭams which received him. We could as well quote from texts of agamic provenance prescriptions for the keeping and honouring of manuscripts, written for the attention simply of the layman. This would only give a more bitter taste to a short story published recently by a promising young writer, Jeyamokan, in which he describes in appalling detail how the important and unique collection of palm-leaf manuscripts kept in a prestigious maṭam is irretrievably destroyed in the course of the deadly fight between two generations of maṭātipati. The story may convey some historical innuendo as well as having symbolic value, but it evokes the kind of cultural sacrilege and disaster all of us want to avoid at any cost. In order to make sure that such nightmares be unrealisable, I shall now briefly mention some of the tasks you are facing: to collect, to preserve, to catalogue, and to publish.

10The collecting of manuscripts is no longer an individual endeavour, though the awareness of individuals remains extremely necessary if we are to bring to an end the frequent losing or destroying of manuscripts out of neglect and ignorance: this is a matter of public concern, and I regret, in a way, that such a seminar as this could not be also an opportunity for public lectures and popular exhibitions, as would give members of the public glimpses of their own cultural patrimony. However this may be, the task of collecting existing manuscripts in India is stupendous, and we all know several institutions, private or government-sponsored, which are actively involved in some aspect of it. An important initiative might be to identify and list them all. They happen to be quite heterogeneous. Some are religiously oriented, Jain, Buddhist or Hindu; some are purely academically oriented, often attached to a university or to a research institute; some are under international co-operation, as in Nepal; some rely on very important foundations, like the I.G.N.C.A.; some call for the generosity of patrons, etc. While we cannot but be very happy to see such tremendous good will in operation, we must also be aware of the fact that this dispersion brings an element of confusion, as everyone follows his own guidelines when it comes to preservation and cataloguing, not to speak of a certain amount of over-lapping. Furthermore, with or without it being stated outright, each institution may operate according to its own choice: this presents two dangers.

11The first is to give importance to some categories of text to the cost of others. Some people may look for complete manuscripts of major works; this is the type of collection we have in various important libraries, such as those in royal palaces, where texts were gathered together, if not copied to order, for the prestige of the library. Obviously, institutions with a religious proclivity will reflect that preference in their collections, etc. But what is at stake here is the fundamental point they have in common: they all pay more attention to texts which are complete and already accepted by the tradition than to 'minor' ones which may be of equal importance. To give a simple example, I will refer to the edition of the Tēvāram hymns by the French Institute in Pondicherry. It is based on the consultation of 54 manuscripts, most of them complete, and we safely take for granted that, though this selection is quite representative of the manuscript tradition, it is not yet a comprehensive list of the available copies. But, due to the nature and purpose of that edition, another category of manuscripts, which I would like to call the 'subaltern' manuscripts, not of the complete Tēvāram, but of parts of it, were deliberately set aside, however unfair that may appear. Each ōtuvār, or traditional professional singer of the Tēvāram in the Saiva temples of Tamil Nadu, used to keep one or several notebooks, in which his own repertory of songs was written down. Such versions are usually ignored, if not looked down upon, by pandits who view them as collections of mistakes, and they may be right. However, in terms of the popularity of the hymns and of the alterations of language, these notebooks should also be collected and studied, even in their tattered condition. Such a study may represent an anthropo-logical approach to the cultural transmission of tradition in a particular milieu more than an exercise in textual criticism, but it remains the duty of the people responsible for collecting manuscripts to pay equal attention to the two categories of source material: the main one and the subaltern one.

12There is another set of precious notebooks, the recipes handed down from generation to generation that an aṣṭavaidya from Kerala will keep in his office, and from which he draws the formula of the remedies he himself prepares. When we read the fundamental texts of Ayurvetic medicine of pan-Indian fame, we should consider that the actual practitioners know them only through their personal notebooks or, at best, through local commentaries in Malayalam, or perhaps through some kind of medical and botanical maṇipravāḷam compilations. The same is also true of the notebooks, sketches and manuals in various local languages which the sthapati peruse rather than the Sanskrit Śilpaśāstra, which are usually beyond their reach even when they claim to draw their knowledge from them. Any sastric discipline is transmitted with reference to the fundamental texts, and even more precisely through the local expression of those texts in another catagory of documents we hardly trouble ourselves to collect. Fortunately, there have been a few, more recent, attempts to come closer to the true reality of the transmission of knowledge in traditional India.

13The second danger is that the way manuscripts are entered in huge collections may too often destroy forever their former arrangement in a smaller ensemble, whose significance, though of first importance in terms of cultural history, is irretrievably lost. Private collections, like private libraries, are a reflection of a cultural milieu and they answer to practical needs and aspirations. They are the true cultural pulse of the readers. The moment they are split and redistributed into the new categories of a bigger library they surrender a part of their identity and their significance. Here again, with your permission, I will evoke the experience I had with the collection of Sanskrit manuscripts in the library of the French Institute in Pondicherry. That collection has specialised from its very beginnings in agamic Saiva literature and, from the texts assembled, some of which were published by the FIP in the course of time, the myth has flourished that we possess and have edited all the 28 Saiva agamas. But the reality gives us rather a different picture. Most of those manuscripts come from houses of temple priests, who were rarely rich or fortunate enough to own the complete text. Most often, they were collecting fragments for their own purpose, not from agamas principally but rather from the enormous literature derived from them: manuals for ritual practitioners, short guides to the proper performance of their duties and to advising the laity, series of stotras, prayers, etc. And they also kept some basic reference works for elementary, or more refined, Sanskrit studies, perhaps some nikaṇṭu, a manual of logic, some samples of classical kāvya and the epics. A detailed study, which ought to be statistical and comparative, of all these somehow artificially assembled fragments, may bear witness to the existence of fundamental texts otherwise not available, but chiefly to the popularity of already known, but rediscovered, agamic texts, truncated here so as to be suitable for daily use, rearranged in scattered pieces for purposes of an argument, still very much alive and relevant to every step of their owner's life and professional activity. For a long time, the general editor struggled to restore some ur-texts in their entirety and argued about their antiquity, but a close scrutiny simply of the nature of the material collected invites us, as well to look at the very recent past, at the history of the gurukkaḷ and the structure of their intellectual world: an attempt towards cultural history which remains possible only because our own entries have never destroyed the memory of the initial arrangement of the batches of manuscripts as it existed when they were acquired, notwithstanding the editorial requirements which were the acknowledged purpose of the collection. You will excuse me if I insist that good cataloguing is not possible if the acquisition policy was scientifically faulty at the beginning. New acquisitions are like adopted children. Peremptory attitudes and despotic rules never help. It is only through love and careful understanding that their personality will reveal itself and blossom.

14That is why I would like to make a special appeal regarding folk-literature. In the field of sastric texts, we have seen how the chain goes from the pan-Indian Sanskrit authorities, through commentaries and local interpretations to a set of aids for practitioners, which are obviously linked to an oral teaching and suppose a direct, physical, contract between master and disciple. But, in the case of folkliterature, we ordinarily miss whatever is prior to the oral state-of-the-art. This does not mean that there is no way to go back and reach out further, to a common treasure of inspiration which has its pan-Indian nature and its written evidence. But this means, however, that no reference, no authoritative source book, is either immediately, or spontaneously, available to authenticate what we are listening or recording. Most often, no manuscript is available either, unless written down to order at the request of the folklorist! However, it has become quite common to append to the manuscript collections, records and video-tapes which have suddenly fixed a fluid reality, or to publish versions of folk tales, folk dramas, or folk songs which slowly take over from the old fashioned cheap popular editions attributed to any prolific legendary writer, Pukaḻēnti or some other.

15A performance is a new and unique event every time, but the video-tape is fixed for ever. How many such 'transcriptions' simply erase, also for ever, the particularities of the dialect, not to mention the fact that the environmental conditions of the recording are too often artificial? What is the point of accumulating, under the pretext of documentation, cassettes recorded by professional artists in an urban studio? Some disputed views about the true nature of so-called street theatre show how deeply the genuine development of those performing arts has already been affected and influenced by patrons and theoreticians. The very subject is controversial, but we must face our responsibilities: we build archives for the future and must not misguide that future with inaccurate labels. Perhaps, it may prove difficult to check how genuine a document actually is, all the more so, given a kind of inflation which is common in that field, while, surprisingly, more classical genres receive less attention. But we should remember one thing. We all acknowledge that the destruction of an old document is an irretrievable loss and that it is a tremendous responsibility, for the pre historian, to excavate because he destroys irremediably every page he reads! In like manner, we are aware that, when we freeze a folk performance with a video-camera, imagining that we are dealing with life, our instrument puts it out of action on the spot, perhaps also forever.

16When it comes to preservation, one has to be more precise and less lyrical. Therefore I will be extremely brief, which does not mean that the struggle to retain all our documents in the best possible conditions is not essential. The technologies of restoration and conservation are ever more and more sophisticated, that is to say, more and more expensive. In other words, it is a matter of policy, and, in the face of those who make the decisions, the scholar and the technician feel rather hopeless. Let them more happily remember that in front of the theory of conservation there are quite a few practical tips for keeping on with a practice and for avoiding the misfortune of the Lutheran library in Halle which took thirty years to complete a wonderful catalogue, only to discover that the original documents had been eaten up by cockroaches meanwhile!

17One more piece of advice is borrowed from computer technology: always make a back up! The cost and energy output increase all the time, but today we know we can scan any manuscript and digitize any image. The future certainly lies in this capacity to transfer any collection of palm-leaf manuscripts onto CD-ROM or perhaps more sophisticated support. The reconciliation of the computer with handwriting is already achieved: it is possible to customise your machine to decipher your manuscripts. Tomorrow, not only will the digitisation of manuscripts be possible, but also comparative studies between various versions, without any wear and tear on the original documents which will remain untouched once the scanning is over.

18Another fundamental problem will anyway prevail, one that the computer simplifies but does not bypass: that is cataloguing. Until now, this has been the privilege of the scholar: the descriptive catalogue is an academic exercise which highlights his qualities of erudition, memory, sharpness and minuteness. Tomorrow a lot of such work will be dealt with through the computer, connected to a good data bank, and we cannot afford nostalgia because we have to work hard till then. We already know that we are wrong to work in isolation. Science is one and universal, and we must face the consequences: documentation is likely to be computerised tomorrow, if not this very day. This means that we must look for a universal and unique system of description for our documents, and, as we know, we still have a long way to go to reach that point. Nonetheless, we are aware, as an example, of the existence of such attempts as Text Encoding Initiative, to enforce a somehow universal language for all the data banks, the S.G.M.L. (Standard Generalised Mark-up Language). The trouble is the continuous updating of the guidelines which, during the last four years, have already run into at least three different versions.

19Before reaching the dreamed of stage of universal intercommunication through the Internet, all the problems of our routine work will not be so easily solved. While any manuscript devoted to a single work can be catalogued as simply as a book, what about those bundles which are crammed with fragments of a few leaves each, often not connected in any way? We can separate the fragments and dismantle the wad, provided we establish a device allowing us to reassemble it. It was certainly a crime to saw off the copper ring holding together the leaves of the regal copper plates, as it happened in the Madras Museum under the directorship of an epigraphist, some decades ago. With palm-leaf wads, the temptation remains, but we should resist remembering what we said about the policy to be implemented at the time of collecting manuscripts. The rule is fundamental: we apply to cataloguing the same principles we have defined as regards collecting: we respect the initial condition of the manuscript, so that we can always retrieve its original arrangement. The indications of origin, which are a must for any catalogue, are not enough; evidence must be kept of the original economy of the entire collection. The problem will only increase with future data banks; they will always have a tendency to bring together whatever they grasp, irrespective of origins, and, possibly, of property rights, relinquishing as negligible information that which we claim to be of the utmost importance. Such principles should be enforced as well when we create data banks or publish a manuscript.

20“To publish” is an unspecified term designating nebulous activities. Manuscriptology stops before the publication of the manuscript and, in Paris, the Institute of Research on the History of Texts, known as I.R.H.T., does not think that its job is to issue critical editions. However, no critical edition is possible without the critical assessment of the manuscripts and, naturally, without the palaeographers who decipher manuscripts and also happen to edit them. Their skill may seem to be sufficient, and all the more so when there is only one manuscript available. But even then, things are not that simple. The text may be known and quoted somewhere else, anywhere in the ocean of commentaries, grammatical or otherwise, and perhaps in another, already edited, literary work. All such stray references, which, according to Indian usage, are usually not explicitly identified when and where they are quoted, the job being left to the perspicacity of learned readers, should normally be taken into account by any serious editor, and duly referred to as testimonia, which are probably more crucial in the authentication of a reading than a rich manuscript tradition would be. You will immediately understand why we put so much emphasis on testimonia in western critical editions if I evoke the controversies raised in India around the Pune 'critical' edition of the Mahabharata and the Harivaṃśa over passages belonging only to southern recensions, and rejected as later interpolations, though used and quoted by southern sources, perhaps not of great antiquity but considered nevertheless as reasonably authoritative. The debate remains open, and can be re-activated if we extend it to any 'critical' edition of a Mahāpurāṇa, to show that, even before inter-textualiy became the order of the day, it was considered essential to give a text its due place by referring to any other text which acknowledged its existence and quoting a small part of it, however fragmentary.

21Recently, the Diary of Vīra Nāyakar, an Indian police officer in Pondicherry under the French regime, before and during the French Revolution, was exhumed from the National Library in Paris and printed in Madras, from that unique manuscript. The original is lost; the copy available, from Edouard Ariel's collection, is only a copy of a copy, made around 1850 by at least two copyists. But, in fact, we know, from two independent sources, not only that another version was available in Pondicherry, but that some kind of a French translation was also made, at least of the portion dealing with the French Revolution. Further, the first chapter of Nayakar’s narration, which relates the siege of Pondicherry by the British in 1778, is a mere translation into Tamil, very faithful indeed, of a French document, rather apologetically written and printed in 1779, of which several manuscript copies exist, including in Pondicherry, with slight variations. All this information put together shows the complexity of what at first seemed to be an elementary task, and the conclusion is that the actual publication falls well short of a satisfactory critical edition, not to mention the problems of consistency in spelling and splitting the Tamil prose of the early 19th century.

22The problems only worsen as soon as we are dealing with an Indian text of which many manuscripts are available. The first thing is to locate these innumerable manuscripts and to collect them, if and when accessible. This is the first nightmare. The second will be examining those manuscripts and deciding on their hierarchy. It is not correct just to improve upon an earlier edition, nor to select arbitrarily at face value a single manuscript which would serve as the basis for the edition. And, after we have been able, with luck, to decide about the main branches of the tradition and to select in each one the most appropriate material, the third nightmare arises from the critical apparatus, full of stray words, ramblings, abbreviations and symbols. The western tradition favours a positive apparatus, but in the case of Indian texts a negative one may lighten our task. The difficult art of giving only the strictly necessary information on the history of the tradition, while enlightening the reader on the value of the text he is to read, as well as of the unselected readings, is a painstaking discipline and cannot be mastered without tears. It is a matter of great concern that not enough attention is paid to such an ungrateful but unavoidable task when, at the very same time, everyone in India and abroad is so eager to create data bases of all classical and fundamental texts, without questioning the quality of the texts entered. This is like a virus in a computer: a bad edition, once entered into a scientific network spoils the very scientific essence of that network, and we can anticipate some bitter experiences from such a blind rush for lists and concordances. Already, more discriminating scholars are becoming noticeably choosy. There is, nonetheless, always a possibility that Gresham's law applies here as well, and that bad tools chase away better ones.

23We came back, once more, to the computer and its integration in our future scientific activity. That might have been my conclusion, except that, while imagining a world in which the laptop will replace the bundle of palm-leaves and the magnifying glass, we have also discovered that the dusty world of the manuscript collections has acquired a new dimension in the realm of social history. Great royal collections, (e.g. the Gaekwad of Baroda), learned selections of university professors (Vaiyapuri Pillai, in the National Library of Calcutta), or the modest and almost anonymous wads of a village priest, all these monuments of learning find a privileged place within a new kind of study.

24Leaving aside the formerly prestigious world of authors, people are pleased to focus on readers, on the way they read, on the material support of their reading, and on the impact of their reading on their life and habits. The most important revolution in the field is no longer Gutenberg, which, by the way, has never really impressed the people of Asia who were familiar already with a similar contraption known as a xylograph! The most important technical revolution, according to Roger Chartier, is twelve or thirteen centuries older. It took place when the volumen, the text inscribed on rolls, was replaced by the codex, the book composed with assembled and joined leaves, the book as we know it. We are drawn back to our manuscripts, even when threatened by a dematerialisation of the book into floppies and CD-ROM. And when we pay attention to the works of modern historians we are also brought back to the central problems of the collections. From the time Daniel Mornet studied “the intellectual origins of the French Revolution” through the inventories of many private libraries of the 18th century, till today, when so many studies, flourish: on censorship, on the library as a counterweight against the spiritual authority of the Church, on the crucial part played by printing and spreading books in the construction of the modern German Realpolitik, etc., we find there many sources of inspiration for deeper scrutiny of our own manuscript material. Studies on reading practices and book-publishing have started to appear in India, especially under the inspiring model of the methodological approach of Roger Chartier and his American colleague Robert Darnton. This is a clear invitation to approach manuscriptology with a new perspective, giving it the equitable place it deserves among the sciences which help us to build our modern vision of history.

25Key-note address delivered at the National Seminar on Palm-leaf manuscripts, jointly organized by the Institute of Asian studies and Pondicherry Central University, 11th to 13th January 1985. Published in Palm-leaf and other manuscripts in Indian languages (proceedings of the national seminar), Institute of Asian studies, Chennai, 1996.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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