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P.P. Sneha - Mapping Digital Humanities in India

It gives us great pleasure to publish the second title of the CIS Papers series. This report by P.P. Sneha comes out of an extended research project supported by the Kusuma Trust. The study undertook a detailed mapping of digital practices in arts and humanities scholarship, both emerging and established, in India. Beginning with an understanding of Digital Humanities as a 'found term' in the Indian context, the study explores the discussion and debate about the changes in humanities practice, scholarship and pedagogy that have come about with the digital turn. Further it inquires about the spaces and roles of digital technologies in the humanities, and by extension in the arts, media, and creative practice today; transformations in the objects and methods of study and practice in these spaces; and the shifts in the imagination of the ‘digital’ itself, and its linkages with humanities practices.
P.P. Sneha - Mapping Digital Humanities in India

Mapping Digital Humanities in India


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What different forms do digital humanities (DH) research and expertise take around the world? My colleagues and I investigated this question for our report on Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective. In some places, we struggled to find resources on local practices in DH, but fortunately in India we could draw upon the excellent work of P.P. Sneha and the Centre for Internet and Society. In a series of insightful blog posts, Sneha explored the implications of technology for humanities scholarship and surveyed digital humanities practices in India.

Now Sneha has brought this work together in “Mapping Digital Humanities in India.” Rather than falling into naive boosterism or superficial critique, this report plumbs deep questions about humanistic knowledge in a digital age: What do we make of textuality in a digital environment? How might digital tools and platforms contribute to conflicts about authority? How does digital infrastructure affect how humanities research can be practiced? Sneha probes the complexities of these questions, drawing from theorists such as Benjamin, Derrida and Foucault as well as digital humanities scholars such as Franco Moretti and Patrik Svensson.

From this strong theoretical foundation, “Mapping Digital Humanities in India” explores specific challenges and possibilities for DH in India, synthesizing rich interviews with a range of Indian scholars. Sneha notes that digital humanities is in an “incipient stage” in India, given the persistence of the digital divide in much of the country, the association of the term with a specific history in the Anglo-American context, and concerns about the uncritical embrace of technology. The report highlights several Indian projects that demonstrate how technology can be used to create and disseminate humanistic knowledge. Creating online resources in Indic languages poses challenges, especially inputting languages and translating between them. To create an online variorum of Nobel prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore’s works, Bichitra had to develop a Bangla character set. Bichitra enables readers to collate texts at the level of the chapter/canto, paragraph/stanza or word. In the realm of film and video, (which archives Indian films from the pre-copyright period) and (which houses found and deposited audio, video, and allied materials) offer powerful annotation tools and open up the archive into a space for interpretation and collaboration.

As digital humanities scholars attempt to move past a limited, Anglo-American perspective, “Mapping Digital Humanities in India” provides a model for how we can understand local practices in DH and connect them to ongoing discussions about humanistic knowledge. Through this report, readers can navigate central issues in digital humanities, explore the Indian context, and critically examine culturally based assumptions about DH practices.

- Lisa Spiro, Executive Director, Digital Scholarship Services, Rice University, Texas, USA


Executive Summary

In the short time span that the term ‘digital humanities’ (henceforth DH) has been around in the Indian academic landscape, it had generated much discussion and debate about the changes in humanities practice, scholarship and pedagogy that have come about with the digital turn. What are the spaces and roles of digital technologies in the humanities, and by extension in the arts, media, and creative practice today? How has it transformed objects and methods of study and practice in these spaces? What does it tell us about the relationship between the humanities and technology? Perhaps most importantly, what is our imagination of the ‘digital’ itself, and how does it shape our humanities practices?

These are but a few of the questions that this study on mapping key conversations and actors around the term DH tries to explore in some detail. While the study began as an attempt to understand the growing interest around the term itself in India, its scope has extended to explore what specific contexts and conditions are in place in India that give it critical purchase. Five universities now offer various programmes in DH in India - ranging from a Master’s degree to certificate courses, and there have been several workshops, winter schools, seminars and one national level consultation over the last five years. Academic and applied practices focus on building of digital archives, film studies, game studies, textual studies, cultural heritage and critical making to name just a few. While these efforts have managed to create a growing interest in DH, there is still a lack of consensus on what exactly constitutes the field in India. Thus, questions around definition, ontology, and method remain pertinent, as does the need for recognition by the national academic bureaucracy.

Context is another important factor here - most global narratives of DH reiterate a predominantly Anglo-American narrative that draws from a history in the field of humanities computing, as well as a crisis in higher education, particularly in the humanities and liberal arts. The efforts to map different histories of DH in the last couple of years, seen in the emergence of fields such as postcolonial DH and feminist DH, then point to diverse locations, and more intersectional perspectives from which the discourse around the field is being shaped. This is an important opportunity to better contextualise the debates around the digital as well – where conditions and hierarchies of access and usage, transition from analogue to the digital, and the notion of ‘digitality’ itself need to be defined and understood better. In India, with initiatives such as the Digital India programme, and the increasing push for the adoption of digital technologies in every sphere from education to governance, and now a steady push towards a digital economy, there is already a tremendous amount of investment in the idea of the digital by a diverse group of stakeholders. These advancements, and the enthusiasm, must be read within the context of a rather chequered and uneven history of the growth of science and technology in India, the advent of the internet and adoption of ICT4D, and existence of digital divides at different levels. The changing higher education system in India, and criticism around a profit-driven model of education, along with the entry of a large number of private actors in the field in the form of MOOCs and other online platforms in the last few years also contribute to this growing interest in DH, as also much of its criticism. In fact, the global discourse on DH and its linkages with shifts in government funding has seen increasingly polarized positions, with many humanities scholars being uncertain about the political or critical stake of the field, and a concern about the its focus on certain kinds of methods and skill sets at the expense of more traditional ones.

In India, the discourse around DH has largely remained within an academic context so far, although emerging creative practices in art, design and media may have been asking questions of a similar nature for some time now. These include efforts to understand changes in objects of enquiry from analogue to digitised and born digital artifacts, and the need for new methods of work and study that are necessitated by these new digital objects. The process of ‘digitisation’ itself is one fraught with several challenges, and demands a closer look – what are tools, resources and skills available for digitisation or creation of new digital cultural artifacts, and the context that facilitates their creation and active use in humanities research and practice. The ‘text’ as the primary cultural artifact or object of enquiry in the humanities, has undergone several changes with digitisation. Working with digital texts that are fluid and networked, and most often in languages other than English bring forth several new questions that are not only technological but also conceptual. The emergence of new digital cultural archives and online repositories, owing to the (marginally) increased access to internet and digital technologies and the growth of a culture that facilitates collecting and sharing, has greatly expanded the scope of engagement with these questions. The archive in fact forms a significant part of the discourse around DH in India - the challenges and prospects offered by digital cultural artifacts are quite diverse, ranging from modes of documentation, preservation and curation to dissemination over online spaces, and there is a need to understand these in greater detail. Infrastructure emerges as an important political and conceptual question here – while an interest in technological advancement and innovation, and the growth of a culture of free and open access to knowledge to some extent has helped facilitate work in the humanities at large, the lack of access to funding, expertise, and of course adequate, and advanced physical and technological infrastructure , such as computational methods often limits the kind of work that can be done with digital artifacts.

The implications of these changes for the study and practice of humanities are several, particularly with respect to traditional methods of pedagogy and scholarship. The access to resources like Wikipedia and devices like the mobile phone have facilitated a move towards more distributed, non-hierarchical, and individualised models and practices of learning, which simultaneously are premised upon new kinds of centralisation, hierarchies, and aggregation of information. The need to develop new forms of digital pedagogy as well as creating more spaces for such conversations within and outside the academic context would be crucial here. This growth of digitally-engaged humanities practice raises pertinent questions about how exactly the “digital turn” is transforming the humanities, its practice and politics. DH being an interdisciplinary field also offers the possibilities to engage with creative, often alternative practices that exist at the margins of mainstream academia, thus trying to encourage collaborative work across different domains of expertise. The inherited separation of disciplines, or even humanities and technology as suggested by the term DH, may then be contentious here, as it creates the opportunity to explore a twinned history of humanities and technology.

While the field of DH in India continues to develop slowly but surely, and hopefully widely, as more institutions and individuals become engaged with DH and related works, these key questions around its history, methods, and scope will continue to remain pertinent over the next years. For us at the Centre for Internet and Society, studying DH at this historical juncture when the Indian state is rushing towards embracing the “digital” provides a critical lens to understand and engage with the reconfigurations in modes and practices of arts and humanities scholarship and pedagogy in particular, and digital economies of knowledge in general.


CIS Papers

The CIS Papers series publishes open access monographs and discussion pieces that critically contribute to the debates on digital technologies and society. It includes publication of new findings and observations, of work-in-progress, and of critical review of existing materials. These may be authored by researchers at or affiliated to CIS, by external researchers and practitioners, or by a group of discussants. CIS offers editorial support to the selected monographs and discussion pieces. The views expressed, however, are of the authors' alone.



Puthiya Purayil Sneha

Sneha is a Programme Manager at CIS, and co-leads the researchers@work programme. She is engaged in a mapping of the emergent field of Digital Humanities in India, and is also interested in questions on the nature of textuality, reading, and writing practices in the digital sphere. She can be reached at sneha[at]cis-india[dot]org.