Heritage and the Politics of Culture
This paper reflects on Indian manuscript archives as sites of preservation. It begins with a review of the advantages and disadvantages of the national project to create a massive online digital archive of India’s manuscripts. The Government of India created the National Mission for Manuscripts (NAMAMI) in 2003 with a mandate to identify, digitize and make available online manuscripts in archives across the country. This digital archive has been a boon for scholars of South Asian Studies since it eliminates expenses of travel and time once routinely borne by scholars who needed to visit India to access manuscript collections. Despite the usefulness of preserving works of Indian knowledge in an ever-expanding archive, this paper proposes that intense attention on digitization has also re-oriented the manuscript archive. The range of ways to engage the archive as working spaces are reduced and opportunities to inspect paper or palm leaf manuscripts as artifacts ( full sensory ambit of scents, sights, and textures) are diminished. Digitization runs the risk of erasing the archive’s material context, organizational logics, architectural peculiarities, and spatial aesthetics. Drawing on a photo-ethnography project I began in 2016 to document spaces and staff at manuscript archives in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Telangana, this paper asks whether another, very different digital archive of the manuscript and its spatial arrangements can possibly curb the erasure of these spaces as heritage sites. This paper asks what becomes of the manuscript archive, when the manuscript archive ultimately becomes art?