22nd October 2023,Mumbai: Archive hunters discover treasure trove of rare documents on Sree Narayana Guru showing how social reformer rewrote caste equations in early 20th century Kerala
Unveiling Narayana Guru’s Legacy
On a rainy day in November more than a century ago, two Christian missionaries from Europe arrived in Sivagiri in present-day Kerala to meet Sree Narayana Guru. Narayana Guru, whose universal and humanitarian outlook shook up caste hierarchy in late 19th century Travancore, Kochi, and Malabar, reveled in his wit and wisdom even while negotiating the most treacherous topics.
Unearthing the Narayana Guru Digital Research Resource Platform
Thanks to a massive digitization project undertaken by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, and Sree Narayana Guru College of Commerce, Chembur, many unheard stories about the Indian philosopher and thinker may just be unfolding. Launched in April this year, the project has so far digitized 160,000 pages of documents on Narayana Guru’s life and work dating back to more than a century.
Unveiling the Hidden Treasures
The two-year project has been only scratching the surface in its first few months. Nearly a third of the 160,000 pages digitized was found in the first month itself in a private collection in Varkala, near Sivagiri where Narayana Guru came to live at the beginning of the 20th century.
Intricacies of the Archive Hunt
“Narayana Guru’s movement was a milestone in modern Indian history,” explains George. The archive hunters of the project found reports about court cases against Narayana Guru, old magazines and books containing writings about his activities and even a published copy of his will.
The Race Against Time
“Some materials are very brittle and won’t be able to go through another scan,” laments Girija K P, project coordinator and consultant, about the documents that may soon be lost forever. “These old and rare documents are a huge treasure,” she adds.
Journey through Kerala’s Archives
The project team spent a significant amount of time scanning documents at various locations, including Priyadharshan’s home, Brahma Vidyalaya Library of Sivagiri Madom, and Narayana Gurukulam, set up by his disciple Nataraja Guru in the 1930s. The next destination for the team is the Kumaran Asan National Institute of Culture near Thiruvananthapuram, which houses the diaries of iconic Malayalam poet and social reformer who was a contemporary of Narayana Guru.
The Role of Funding and Access
Funded by the Mumbai-based Sree Narayana Mandira Samiti, the project is expected to see more private collectors of documents on Narayana Guru coming forward to help the digitization. Funds for web hosting and related expertise will be another support the project will be looking for because of the abundance of archival material. “Access, however, is a major roadblock,” says Damodaran.
-by Kashvi Gala