sri lankan tamils

Sri Lankan Tamils around the world have built an online library to replace one torched in 1981

Among the Noolaham Digital Library’s 16,000 documents are four volumes of one of the oldest Tamil grammar books, and copies of over 24 palm-leaf manuscripts.

Seran Sivananthamoorthy is only 25 years old which is why his knowledge of the Jaffna Public Library is limited to memory and anecdote. The library with some 95,000 volumes including the only original copy of the Yalpana Vaipavamalai or the History of the Kingdom of Jaffna was set alight by a mob in 1981 as tensions rose between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the prelude to Sri Lanka’s civil war. Miniature editions of the Ramayana, accounts of early explorers in Ceylon and a trove of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts important to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking communities were also lost in the fire.

“There are chances it could happen again,” said Seran. This is not a reference to the possibility of renewed conflict or arson, but to the fact that the integrity of such collections are threatened by a host of factors – from pests and mould to censorship imposed by casteism and patriarchy.

This was also on Kopinath Thillainathan’s mind when he, along with a friend Mauran Muralitharan, established the Noolaham Foundation that set up the Noolaham Digital Library in 2005 whose 16,000 documents now make it one of the largest Tamil digital archives available online.

A rare repository

Sri Lanka’s colonisation and subsequent political movements have been particularly effective in marginalising voices that belong to the nation’s minority Tamil-speaking communities. Outsiders perhaps see Sri Lankan Tamils as a homogeneous group but the community comprises not just the Tamils of the north and east of Sri Lanka, but Indian Tamils whose ancestors were brought over by the British from India to work on plantations, Coast Veddas from the island’s indigenous population, and Tamil-speaking Muslim communities.

The archive is funded by the community and driven overwhelmingly by volunteers. Its contents include photographs of 5,000 timeworn pages that make up 24 palm-leaf manuscripts, and books such as Yalpana Samaya Nilai or Religion in Jaffna that date to 1893. The longest documents it has stored on its servers are four volumes of Tolkappiyam, one of the oldest Tamil grammar books.

At present, the archive also collects thirty magazines and eight newspapers. This includes the regional newspaper Valampuri, which continued to report through some of the most violent years of the island nation’s civil war, as well as Paathukavalan, the oldest Catholic weekly to be published from Jaffna, which was first printed in 1876.

Extensive archives

The library gives scholars access to documents they will not find elsewhere including pamphlets produced by Sri Lanka’s Muslim political parties and traditional documents Tamil families produce as a kind of a comprehensive obituary for their deceased loved ones.

The foundation has also started building what its members call a “biographical dictionary.” “So far we have collected details of about 2,500 personalities,” said Kopinath.

He added, “This is the first ever reference resource of this magnitude on Tamil people. We expect to document 5,000 personalities by the end of 2016 and are planning to publish print volumes as well.”

Noolaham hopes to create audio, video and photo archives too.

A passion project

Its core members make time for the foundation from their busy schedules. For instance, Kopinath, who lives in Australia, is a production manager at a factory, while young Seran has just begun to work as an engineer. Seran confesses that in many ways his heart lies with Noolaham: “I don’t want to say this archive is my part-time work. This is my spiritual work. This is what I want to do with my life.”

With three offices in Sri Lanka and working groups in the UK, Canada, Norway, Australia and USA, and more than 200 volunteers and 350 individual donors across the world, the Noolaham Digital Library seems like an extended community project. Nevertheless funding is a constant challenge as is handling copyright permissions.

An engaged community

Kopinath credits the group’s commitment to their passion project with having pulled them through a challenging decade. He judges their success by the importance the archive is seen to have among the people. A majority of visitors to the site come from Sri Lanka itself.

“Our communities are using Noolaham as a repository where they can store, preserve and retrieve their documents and knowledge,” said Kopinath, citing increasing requests for the foundation to archive personal and institutional records.

Kopinath said he feels a deep joy when he looks at the books and manuscripts the digital library has now. Born on a small island off Sri Lanka’s northern coast, he reminisced how keenly he, as a child, felt the loss of his family’s large collection of books because of their multiple displacements. After being displaced for the third time, Kopinath recalled “I had nothing in my hands.” To him and the others involved with this project, Noolaham offers a promise that such losses are not permanent. That somewhere all that lost knowledge is waiting for them to find and preserve it.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.