BENGALURU: From the outside, it looks like a marriage hall – not the kind you see in Palace Gardens, of course, but one of those traditional places that people of a certain age would call a “choultry”. But climb up the dog-leg red-oxide stairs, and you’ll find a neat little office, the PCs and peripherals making it look like a small town startup. This is the office of Lakshmi Thathachar. Thathachar is 80 years old. But he radiates vitality. On his desk is a laptop, connected to a larger screen on the wall. Next to it is a booklet, beautifully put together, which details the structure and evolution of Melukote’s kalyanis. It traces out the history of these temple tanks, their structure and construction and the reasons and religious meanings behind the different shapes. It’s a professional job, the kind of effort that combines modern technology with a painstaking meticulousness that seems so rare today. The last page is a simple dedication to Thathachar, without whose inputs the document could not have been put together.
Thathachar is a man of many interests – but most of all, he’s a Sanskrit scholar – one of the pre eminent Sanskrit scholars in Karnataka today. “There are many misconceptions about Sanskrit – the primary one is that `anything in Sanskrit is associated with religion’. The usual idea of a `Sanskrit scholar’ is about a person who can recite some portions of the Vedas, conduct some rituals and play the role of purohit etc.” He smiles.”I’m not like that.”
“I’m not a traditionalist. But I believe that if there are some things that have relevance in the modern context, then we should make use of them. If there are things that are irrelevant, they should be thrown out. So what I’m looking at is an integrated knowledge system, one that examines ancient knowledge systems in the context of modern science and technology,” he says.
He opens up a PowerPoint presentation and scrolls to the slide he wants. “That’s from the Yantrarnavah.It’s a definition,” he says. “Generation of power, energy or motion, through the continuous movement of lever, pulley, toothed wheel, inclined plane and screw is called a machine,” he translates. He rattles off another shloka, this time from the Samarangana Sutradhara, a 1150 AD text, attributed to Raja Bhoj, which sets out the qualities of an ideal machine. “It should combine the proper union of effort and result; it should have good contact; durability; strength; softness; be streamlined; attain the required results; show results at the time desired; have the ability to return to normalcy at other times; adhere to rhythm and proper timing; have no break in action; maintain proper contact at all times; must not loosen or clog; be noiseless or make the right sounds when sound is required; be self-sustaining; require no outside intervention and be light and smooth,” he translates again.
The problem is that Thathachar is engaged in a hopeless task.According to the National Mission for Manuscripts, there are around 30 million manuscripts in archives around the country. Of these, around 70,000 – around 9.4 lakh pages – have been digitized. What Thathachar wants to do – or see done – is to have every manuscript studied for content, annotated and catalogued. “Not all of those manuscripts are of equal value. Some of them may just be trash. But others may have insights that may still be relevant – or shed light on their times.There are manuscripts on astronomy and chemistry, on physics and mathematics and metallurgy and engineering. They need to be studied by people who know these areas, and not just blindly translated. Then the information needs to be stored along with the manuscript scans,” he says. He pauses for a moment. There’s a twinkle in his eye as he says, “Maybe Sundar Pichai can help.”
Thathachar himself learnt Sanskrit the traditional way. His father was reluctant to send him to the local school, preferring to teach his son in the oral tradition. “You have to remember that one of the earliest written versions of the Rig Veda dates back only to the 6th century AD. The Vedas themselves go back to the 15th century BC, but were not written down for nearly two millennia. There was a belief that writing the Vedas was a sin.When you put something down in writing, the attention you pay to the preservation of that knowledge in your mind becomes lesser,” he says. It’s an argument that was made by Socrates and Plato as well, a thousand years after the Vedas, that the written word is an incomplete representation of knowledge, and that words are to knowledge as pictures are to their subjects. “It would make for an interesting neurolinguistic study . Should the mind be exposed to both the orthographic representation of the text and the teacher’s voice, or should it be exposed to the sounds only?” Thathachar has his own little collection of manuscripts as well.He shows one, it’s in pretty good condition, but then it’s only about three centuries old. It’s quite a work of art, the rounded rectangles look machine made, and the blue-black letters look like print.The leaves are held between two rosewood blocks, the dark wood bound by thin cotton cord in an intricate series of `X’ shapes. “I got this from a family in Bengaluru. They couldn’t maintain it any longer, so they gave it to me,” he says.
” The knots have to be tied in a specific way. The leaves are treated with lemongrass to keep the insects away, and traditionally covered in red cloth.” He handles the manuscripts gently. It makes you wonder how the other millions of manuscripts around the country are faring. Are they rotting away, uncared for, in damp rooms in government depositories? Are they being cared for? It’s probably the former. In March this year, an RTI enquiry revealed that the Odisha State Museum, home to one of the largest manuscript collections in the country, had only 19,744 manuscripts left, down from around 60,000 in the 1990s. The number becomes even more shocking, if you consider that only two years ago, the government figure was 40,000 manuscripts and you actually start hoping that the missing 20,256 manuscripts were taken by collectors who appreciate their value, and didn’t rot away because of negligence.
And it makes you wonder about people like Thathachar, still working, still living in a time that seems long gone, trying desperately to protect something they believe is of value, despite limited resources and support, in a world of ATMs and internet porn and ferocious consumption. “I’m 80. I won’t be around for much longer. But I want this work to continue after I’m gone. Because my motto is: `My roots are in the past, I live in the present, I want to perform for the future’,” he says.