Dressed in a crisp linen sari, her salt and pepper hair pulled back in a bun, Sudha Gopalakrishnan explains the philosophy behind Sahapedia. “Nothing like this has been attempted in India before. We are trying to bring in as many voices as possible through the enabling medium of the internet... Culture is such a vast word and means different things to different people. One article doesn’t do justification to any topic.”
It has been a month since she launched Sahapedia with her team of 20 from an office in South Delhi and the website already has hundreds of articles, videos, images and virtual walks.
There is a photo feature on the Mithila art of north Bihar, an essay on Chola temples with accompanying videos, and an introduction to Sufi literature. There are posters of Satyajit Ray’s films, write-ups on Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry, a video of EP Unny crafting a political cartoon, and a recitation of Ramcharitmanas by a street performer. A page on the Kalamkari textile art form of Andhra Pradesh explains its origins, and an institutional archive holds gems like the history of Thumri written by eminent musicologist Prem Lata Sharma.
“I see Sahapedia as one more experiment in archiving and knowledge production,” cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote told Open magazine in April.
Gopalakrishnan however views the site more as a “one-stop destination” on Indian culture and history – a place which give its readers exhaustive information on India’s arts and histories through text and multimedia.
Launched on April 23, Sahapedia’s name is a conjuction of the Sanskrit word “Saha”, meaning together, and pedia, from the Greek word paideia, which means cultural education.
An open call for contributions on its Facebook page says: “Whether you are a proud citizen, aficionado, scholar or student, help preserve the diversity and rich heritage of South Asian culture.”
But, unlike Wikipedia, not anybody can write in.
“You have to have prior knowledge about what you’re writing or contributing to,” said Gopalakrishnan. “We, of course, credit their name so that there is a certain responsibility from the author’s side, and we are also accountable for what is being put on the website.”
A small platoon of in-house editors and researchers vet the contributions before they are uploaded. The staff historians, anthropologists, conservationists and writers are guided by a team of advisors, which includes Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Carnatic music vocalist TM Krishna and Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson.
The design of the site may be a little rough-edged but that shortcoming is made up for by the content. Besides the contributions, Sahapedia also holds a growing repository of archival information from partner institutions like the National Centre for The Performing Arts and National School of Drama.
In the month since its launch, Sahapedia has garnered about 68,000 page views, but that is not how it is measuring its impact. Gopalakrishnan, an author and researcher who started the Sahapedia organisation in 2011, sees the site as a way to archive and disseminate India’s histories.
“In the past month, since the website went up, we have had many people and institutions come forward and express interest in writing for us or collaborating with us on various project,” said Gopalakrishnan. “There is a wealth of knowledge in the archives of many public and private institutions in the country. So many of these have a treasure trove of already documented information, but no means of dissemination.”
The content is mostly curated as multimedia modules – comprising articles, interviews, photographs, videos and timelines – to explore each subject in depth. At present, the site has 10 broad sections, including Knowledge Traditions, Visual and Material Arts, and Performing Arts.
The Performing Arts theme has, among other things, conversations with theatreperson Moloyashree Hashmi, Kathak exponent Kumudini Lakhia, and a performance of Balivijayam by Kathakali great Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. Equally vibrant is the Histories section. It includes a module on the Pattanam excavation site in Kerala, an interview with Romila Thapar, essays, video interviews and a bibliography on Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and a photo essay on Humayun’s Tomb.
One of Sahapedia’s biggest tasks has been simplifying content to make it accessible to all. “We don’t want Sahapedia to be a website for scholars,” said Gopalakrishnan. “We want it to be more of general interest and to educate its reader even if they are looking at a subject with no prior knowledge about it.”
The page on Kalamkari textiles, for instance, has quick facts, an interview with the wood block makers, images from a workshop, and an essay that explains the narratives within the art form besides its history.
The not-for-profit also has its own team doing fieldwork and bringing in interesting folk stories that are embedded in India’s oral traditions. For example, it discovered a little-known pond in Hampi, called Pariyon ka Talaab (the pond of fairies), which is believed to be visited by fairies and angels.
“We had to distinguish belief from fact, but that’s what the local legend said,” explained Gopalakrishnan. “Even now only women are allowed to visit that pond. This is another thing we are trying to achieve. Not just capture knowledge, but also localise it. Give it some colour.”
Gopalakrishnan says that in 10 years “we want to have done enough to be seen as the portal for all cultural knowledge by schools, universities and educational institutions and also sync the various institutional archives with the website”.
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