Dr. Souvik Mukherjee
Department of English, Presidency University
The Digital Humanities initiative at Presidency University started in 2012 in the very early days of DH in India. When DH (then fashionably called ‘Digihum’) was more about digital archives, what we aimed at was opening up the field (as it was seen in India) to a larger discussion of digital cultures as well. Although based in the department of English like most other DH programmes at the time, we also pressed for a trans-departmental engagement. In 2012, Presidency organised what would be, arguably, the first international DH conferences in India. In the first conference, scholars from all over the country presented papers and the keynote lectures were delivered by international experts on hypertext (Mark Bernstein) and game studies (Barry Atkins). The first conference was followed by a workshop where Elizabeth Losh and Amlan Dasgupta gave talks on the digital in politics and on digital surrogacy respectively. At Presidency, the ensuing discussions opened up ways for us to collaborate with the history, geography and sociology departments.
Presidency has completed collaborative projects on the Dutch cemetery in Bengal, the Scottish cemetery in Bengal and a digital reconstruction of the Bishnupur temples is now ongoing. The projects on the colonial cemetery have now been completed and they explore and attempt to reconstruct the stories of the people buried in these cemeteries from sources scattered across the web and in forgotten corners of libraries and archives. Reading history from the margins, these websites aim to serve as resources for further work by colonial historians, genealogists and archaeologists. The Bishnupur project is the first project that attempts to digitally recreate the temples of Bengal and to provide a scholarly digital commentary on these temples.
As far as Digital Humanities in India is concerned, our projects certainly fall under that broad umbrella category that we have pitched for DH. We also train our undergraduate students in DH in a gen-ed course run by the department of English. In the past, we have invited scholars and industry personalities from all over the world to deliver lectures. As part of our efforts, we are more interested in broader collaborative projects and reaching out to potential partners across institutions and outside academia rather than individual projects. Besides theorizing about DH or working on projects, our interest is in looking at how the digital can be useful in helping rethink Humanities research and teaching in India, in general. Also, we are interested in dialogues with the government about recognising DH as a discipline that can be taught as part of university curricula and the skillsets of which are formally recognised by the UGC and the DST.
Our problems are many. Back in 2012, we had students who had no access to computers and had to walk miles to access email. The realities of working with the digital in West Bengal are quite different certainly from the places in the US or Europe, where we have learnt our DH craft in. Students have now started recognising the potential of using the digital for research and of thinking through how the digital informs Humanities disciplines. Nevertheless, there is much need for collaborative work on DH pedagogy in India, given the disparities in access and awareness. We are toying with issues in minimal computing and various other projects. Jugaad was also brought up in our own meetings as one of the approaches but the risk of glorifying jugaad as a be-all and end-all also persists. The difference between jugaad as innovation and jugaad as making-do also needs to be considered. Nevertheless, jugaad in digital contexts remains an interesting option for us to explore, as do systems of bricolage and innovation from cultural systems in other parts of India.