\ Aksharsanvad – A Talk by Shreenand Bapat

19 December 2011 \ Auditorium of Sir J. J. College of Architecture, Mumbai

19 December 2011 \ Auditorium of Sir J. J. College of Architecture, Mumbai

Entitled with a masters degree in Archeology and a doctorate in Sanskrit, Dr. Shreenand Bapat, assistant curator and in-charge of manuscripts conservation at the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, Pune, enlightened us with extensive knowledge about the several aspects involved in the making of a manuscript. His intensive knowledge of the subject and attention to detail, unfolded to the audience, innumerable aspects involved in the process and also clarified meanings of certain terminologies that are often used incorrectly.

A manuscript is called ‘Hastalikhit’ in Marathi whereas in Hindi it is called ‘Pandulipi’ where ‘panu’ means old and ‘lipi’ means ‘script’. The term ‘manuscript’ clearly indicates that it is a document written by hand, but what is important to understand here is that any handwritten document cannot be called a ‘manuscript’. For a text to become a manuscript it must necessarily be produced by hand without machine process, should either bear some culturally and historically important content or must belong to some important personality and the content within, has to be of non-archival nature. The estimated number of manuscripts in India is as huge as 2.5 crore!

Manuscripts contain abundant information, but this content may have several versions and recensions depending upon different socio-cultural influences. Also, the techniques of making manuscripts differ from region to region with respect to the materials, tools and processes. Dr.Bapat described in detail, all these different techniques and how they have affected the writing styles.

The materials used as surface for writing manuscripts include palm leaf, birch bark, parchment, paper, cloth, leather, kaditha and metals. Among these, evidences for use of cloth, leather, kaditha and metals are minimal. Cloth was used rarely due to its expensiveness and also that it is difficult to write on a cloth. Use of leather is mostly seen only in the Arabic and Persian cultures and not in Hindus, Jains and Buddhists due to religious beliefs. Another surface used is metal, that is copperplates and also some exceptions like gold plate are also found. The more commonly found surfaces used for manuscript writing are palm leaf, birch bark, parchment and paper. The reasons why the palm leaf in particular is found to have been used to such an extent is the unique combination of its cellulose proportion in the inside part and the waxy layer outside that has a high water resistance. This makes it durable and keeps its flexibility intact for several centuries.

Dr.Bapat described in detail, the methods of preparing other surfaces like palm leaf, birch bark, parchment and metals too. Likewise he spoke about the different tools of like stylus, quill, brush, lekhani (boru) etc. Alongside he also spoke about other tools and instruments like lipyasana (ink pot/ writing desk), kambhi (ruler), wooden boards etc. The ‘kambhi’ is a wooden board on which strings are attached parallelly from edge to edge. The surface on which the manuscipt is to be created is made wet and the kambhi is pressed on it making an impression of lines thus creating a reference guideline to draw letters by avoiding any aditional markings to ensure writing on straight lines. Wooden boards were used in a dual manner such that thew acted as writing boards and also as a cover for the manuscript from both sides. He also explained the processes of preparing different types of inks and colours used in the manuscripts and clarified that except for indigo, the colours seen in manuscripts are mineral colours and not vegetable colours as is often mistakenly believed by people.

Influence of tools materials on script
On a palm leaf, only curved incisions can be created and straight lines incisions can tear the surface. This justifies why most south Indian scripts, which were originally written incised on palm leaves are rounded in nature and the horizontal shirorekha is absent. On the other hand, inspite of this physical property of the surface, the shirorekha is prevalent in Devnagari palm leaf manuscripts. This is possible because here, the letterforms have been drawn with a flat brush rather than incision with a stylus or writing with a reedpen, which are both likely to tear the palm leaf. The influence of the surface, tool, medium and script on each other is thus evident here.

Layout and design aspects of manuscripts
Dr. Bapat elaborated on the illustrated manuscripts with examples displaying the step by step process in which a manuscript is laid out and formatted. The writing is done first and some areas on the surface are left blank for the purpose of illustration and it is accompanied with instructions about the expected illustration in that space.

Through samples, he displayed each of the steps of manuscript making like giving a basic colour wash to the surface (vartika), doing the rough layout (bhoomi bandhan), defining the overall shapes (aakar rekhan), drawing the shapes in detail (karsha karma), adding colours to the drawing (vartanakraman) and the final step of adding the most minute details in colour (lekhana).

Often in manuscripts, there is very less or no word spacing. Dr. Bapat explained the reason for this as a conscious decision taken by the manuscript writers in order to economically rationalize the resources used while making the manuscript. Also, since oral tradition was prevalent and respect was given only to those who could recite the content, the purpose of the manuscript was not to be read but simply act as a reference for the recitation.

As regards layout, in palm leaf manuscripts the layout was designed around two pierced holes that were created for binding the manuscript using a string. Moreover the same layout is seen being followed even for in manuscripts on paper athough it is not required there.

In the ‘Dasbodh’ Swami Ramdas has beautifully described an ideal layout for writing in the shloka:

भोवते स्थळ सोडून द्यावे
मध्येची चमचमीत ल्याहावे।
कागद झडताही झडावे
नलगेची अक्षरे।।

Roughly, the essence of the shloka can be translated as ‘One must leave adequate margins, the writing should be done in the central area of the page, so that even if the paper wears at the edges the letters would remain intact.’

In another shloka he has also spoken about the beauty proportions and how letters should be.

वाटोळे सरळे मोकळे
वोतलो मसीचे काळे।
कुळकुळीत चालिल्या ढाळे
मुक्तमाळा जैशा।।

This shloka says that ‘letterforms must be circular, straight and well spaced out with the blackness of ink poured in them and they should consistent and uniform like strings of beads.

How to preserve manuscripts
Preservation of manuscripts is one of the most challenging tasks. the first and foremost enemy of manuscripts is dust since it can easily stick form a layer on the surface of the manuscript and it may also contain other hazardous factors like chemicals, eggs of insects, fungus pores etc. the four main steps to be followed for preserving manuscripts are sto store them carefully to ensure protection from dust, to handle them only when required, ensure adequate ventilation of air at the storage place and maintaining cleanliness. Ideally they must be stored in a wooden cupboard but if its is not possible to do so, manuscripts can be stored in an iron cupboard by covering its inner surfaces with thick handmade paper that would provide insulation and protect them from extreme heat or cold. Usage of chemicals for preservation must be avoided as far as possible but in case if there is a need to preserve an already damaged manuscript, different methods such as removing the acidity, giving a tissue lining etc. can be applied. It is important to note here that in any of these processes plastic or cellotape should never be utilised as it may further hamper the manuscript.

Concluding the presentation with the highlight of the event, he displayed to the audience and also allowed them to handle an original copy of a palm leaf manuscript, a birch bark notebook, wooden board and a metal stylus! With such deep insights and practical knowledge about manuscript making, Dr. Bapat opened up for all typography enthusiasts and students, this area for study. He very rightly put forth that since manuscripts provide such voluminous content about the history and culture of humanity, ignorance towards them, would be nothing but national suicide!