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Saving India’s Urdu heritage, one book at a time

Priceless pieces of Urdu poetry and books on art, literature and history confined to dark corners of private homes and public libraries have found a new home all 1,00,000 of them digitised and ready to access for students, researchers and bibliophiles.

The world’s largest repository of Urdu books is the brainchild of Sanjiv Saraf, the man behind India’s first and largest Urdu festival Jashn-e-Rekhta, who took it upon himself to collect and digitise books that were otherwise destined to be lost forever in the ruins of time. Childhood memories of listening to ghazals on vinyl records kindled love for the language. And then, as he grew up, the strong urge to read the masters of Urdu poetry in the original script inspired Saraf to start learning the rasm ul-khat’ (Urdu script).

But to his dismay there were virtually no resources available on the internet. Saraf told PTI. That was eight years ago. The mission that began in 2012 with the love for Urdu poetry culminated in July with the Rekhta Foundation digitising a colossal 1,00,000 books. Saraf, who is based in Delhi and comes from a business family of Rajasthani origin, did all that was expected of an heir-apparent he did his schooling from the Scindia School in Gwalior, graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1980, joined the family business in 1984, and later established Polyplex Corporation, a multinational business in polyester films.

But the old love of listening to ghazals, courtesy his father’s fondness for Urdu shayari’, tugged at him. Later, when business got established and was growing well, I stepped back from business to focus on learning Urdu. In the process, I realised there wasn’t enough content or resources available on the Internet and what was available was incomplete, non credible and mostly in Urdu script. The younger generation, attracted to the eloquence, beauty and versatility of the language had no easy recourse, Saraf said in an email interview. The initiative began small and soon mushroomed into a massive project that covered not just rare books but also all other forms, including recent books, manuscripts and periodicals that were digitised with the aim of preserving them for posterity.

Teams of enthusiastic volunteers were sent to public and private libraries all over the country to look for books and found entire Urdu collections lying forgotten and often neglected….as we progressed and as students, scholars and others started benefitting through e-books, whether for study, research or simple reading, we started receiving a welcoming response from the libraries/individuals that we contacted, and they started coming forward to share their holdings, said the businessman-turned-Urdu connoisseur.

Festive offer

Terming the initiative extraordinary, Urdu scholar C M Naim said he used the website ( almost on a daily basis for one reason or another. I regularly check to see what is new. I’m sure the same is done by many enthusiasts of Urdu, in academia or outside, across the world. I have recently been working on crime fiction in Urdu, and was happy to see that the Rekhta archive has managed to find a fair number of these otherwise hard to find books, Naim said.

He added that while Rekhta wasn’t the first to take up this initiative, it was the one to do it with respect to old books and journals. Naim, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, remembered Carnegie Mellon’s 2007 Million Book project which also covered Hyderabad and said, Regretfully, it was done in a criminal fashion….they freely unbound books in order to scan the pages and then paid little attention to their being rebound properly. The Rekhta project was respectful of the material, and used only the most appropriate ways to achieve their goal. It made their progress slow but they also did not leave behind hundreds of unbound Urdu books lying on the floor as I saw in Hyderabad, Naim recalled.

A dedicated team of 53 members works on the ebooks project — 30 high-end machines in 16 libraries across the country scan and add 2,500 books a month to the digital collection.This unique e-library comprises books on science, arts, religion, history in its different genres, literary journals issued by various institutions and organisations, apart from contemporary books, and classical books that can be searched and sorted by genre, period and author.

The collection, running into nearly 19 million pages, includes the lost treasures of Munshi Naval Kishore Press, the complete works of classical poets Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib, all 46 volumes of Persian epic Daastan-e-Amir Hamza, the works of 11th century Persian philosopher Imam Mohammad Ghazali, and 13th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau as well as the works of obscure poets and scholars.

If one wants to read the entire 19 million-page Rekhta stack – without blinking and at a statistical 65 pages an hour rate – it would take 33 years and 36 days! Saraf said. Over 25,000 people visit the e-book section at the Rekhta Foundation website every day, he said. It would be ideal if there could be a public-private coordinated effort and cooperation for digitisation of our literary heritage. However, this is easier said than done. There are a large number of agencies involved and getting everyone on the same page is a herculean effort, he said.

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In 2015, the Rekhta Foundation started Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival of the letters and the arts to popularise Urdu. In 2017, it launched Aamozish, an e-learning platform, where over 60,000 people have learnt the language till date. The Rekhta Foundation also launched Sufinama, an online collection of Sufi poetry, in 2019 and Hindwi, a website dedicated to Hindi literature, in July this year.

Primarily funded through Polyplex Corporation Ltd’s CSR commitments and Saraf’s personal funds, Rekhta Foundation also receives donations from corporations and friends of Rekhta. However, to be sustainable in the coming years, Rekhta Foundation has been working on models which will make itself self-sustaining through content syndication services, book sales through its marketplace and host of other self-sustaining models without impacting users and their engagement with Rekhta platforms, Saraf added.

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