Kannada, on the move...

Kannada, on the move...

Kannada, on the move...
Kumara Vyasa would write a new epic if he saw that postgraduate students on a crowded express train from Bengaluru to Mysuru were reading out his verses of Aranya Parva from Gadugina Bharata from a tablet and one of them was texting the discussions to a friend in Mumbai. One doesn’t have to flip silverfish from old decaying editions of his books anymore. From dusty libraries breeding silverfish to slim tabs and smartphones, Kannada is making its journey in the 21st century that is being carried by the revolutionary digital tide.

Technology not only rules our present but also helps in preserving the past — the digitisation of manuscripts and old books — and shaping our future as seen in central government’s ‘Digital India’ and ‘Smart City’ projects. A study by the University of Southern California says that in 2000, 75 per cent of the world’s information was still in analogue form. By 2007, however, all but six per cent had been preserved digitally. With English and a few other western languages forming the basis for programming and encoding of all software, one can imagine what the brave new world holds for the developing countries where local languages have been facing threat during and after colonisation.

Today, when so many Kannada blogs, websites and writing software seem ubiquitous, many would not know that it was a long and difficult road that has brought us here.

Groping in the dark
A Kannada Braille software provided by the StateKarnataka government to help the blind access Kannada made a cruel demand from them — they had to be able see to operate it, said T A Sridhar, a visually impaired banker, who tested the software. This instance, with all its brutal irony, best illustrates the journey of Kannada, and perhaps other Indian languages as well, in the world of computing and technology. Lexicographer Prof G Venkatasubbaiah has said that Kannada is the 30th most spoken language in the world, where everything made now becomes obsolete the next moment. However, there is a need to speed up the two processes that help the language thrive — localisation of technology and globalisation of Kannada. A major step would be accessing in Kannada the World Wide Web, a window to many knowledge repositories. We are still dependent on English to bridge the gap between technology and Kannada. Without English, we are as helpless as a visually impaired person trying to use the government’s software. Individual enthusiasts have developed Kannada browsers and Google translator. These projects can kick off only if the industry or the government joins hands with them.

Kannada was not brought to the computing world with lofty goals. Back in the 1980s, when the DTP technology took the publishing industry by storm, vendors felt the need for fonts of local languages. There were also efforts to develop Kannada fonts at an individual level. K Padmanabha Rao (K P Rao), a pioneer in Kannada computing, developed and freely distributed Sediyapu font as early as in the 1980s. As each publisher developed his own programme to encode Kannada — for example, Shabdaratna, Venus, Prakashak, Srilipi, Akruti, Winkey — the font of one software was not recognised by the other, leading to chaos. The need for standardisation was strongly felt.

U B Pavanaja, a scientist-turned-expert in Kannada computing, traces three stages in the Indic languages’ digital journey: the first websites of such languages could render the text only after the user installs their fonts on his computer. Next came the dynamic font — first used in Kannada’s first website vishwakannada.com — where the font was stored on the server. The global standardisation of fonts that started in 1987 with the advent of Unicode has now made Kannada a part of Windows, Mac and Linux, the leading operating software.

The first step
Among the writers, only a few saw the need for Kannada’s digital growth and one of them was K P Poornachandra Tejaswi. In 2004, he wrote, “I think all of us should make a unified effort to bail out our language from this sad situation.” Poornachandra was referring to the challenges regarding the development of a Unicode Kannada font.

At a conference in 1998, resource persons from Adivesha Cooperative Bank in Shivamogga, which had computerised banking transactions, made Karnataka government realise the importance of Kannada computing. Encouragement was given to the initiatives by individuals and groups that worked for developing Kannada software. The phonetic keyboard pioneered by K P Rao became the foundation for not only the development of many software of Kannada and other Indic languages, but also the much-needed standardisation. Baraha and Nudi, the two software which became as common as the computer itself, gave a new push. “There are many bitter quarrels about who developed fonts and who stole glyphs from others. The truth is it doesn’t matter. It was the standardisation of keyboard that led to the growth,” Pavanaja said.

K P Rao was conferred with Rajyotsava award among other honours in recognition of his work. “There is nothing that is special as far as Kannada computing is concerned. All we had to do was to develop a phonetic keyboard,” he said. Another major contribution by K P Rao was the style setting programme (SSP), introduced in the 1980s, that set the ground for further breakthroughs. The metafont, developed by Donald Knuth, which was used to encode Indian languages, couldn’t define style. K P Rao is still experimenting. His latest all-in-one Apara font, released last year, allows encoding of all Indian languages, bringing them under one umbrella.

Today, we can easily develop a software that can read out for us anything, from Halmidi inscription to the text on a cover page. Pavanaja said the Kannada LOGO, the first-ever Indian language version of the world-famous programming language for children, needs to be used and improvised to develop programming in Kannada.

Virtual libraries
Kannada now has its own online libraries. Apart from the State government’s Kanaja, there are other initiatives like Universal Digital Library, Sampige Granthalaya. An app for an iPhone allows buying of over 1,000 Kannada e-books. Om Shivaprakash, a techie whose mission seems to be making Kannada accessible in the digital world, has built a state-of-art website Vachana Sanchaya.

The website has all the verses of 12th century mystics. He was also instrumental in starting the Kannada version of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia. The past decade has seen a transition that makes anyone who owns a smartphone today the owner of nothing less than a Kannada library.

With all the resources at our finger tips, will Kannada survive the onslaught and rapid takeover of Western culture? Such a question includes grassroots issues — from shutting down of government schools and making Kannada medium compulsory to speaking Kannada. A lot of work needs to be done on strengthening the foundation and must continue in tandem with the progress of digital Kannada.

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