Now, an online encyclopaedia on Indian and South Asian culture

Mumbai , dna: Chaayavaad was an important movement of Hindi literature in the early decades of the 20th century, with prominent writers like Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma, ‘Nirala’ and Harivansh Rai Bachchan who adhered to its principles. But if you were to look it up on the net for information, you’d be disappointed. There’s a Wikipedia page on Chaayavaad which is very thin on details – and anyway, how far can you trust the net to give you the truth?

It’s this insight – the dearth of a reliable, comprehensive online resource for Indian and South Asian culture – that led Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Delhi-based exponent of the 2,000-year classical Sanskrit theatre form, Koodiyattam, to think of Sahapedia around five years ago.

A compound of Saha, the Hindi word for together, and ‘pedia’ from ‘encyclopedia’, Sahapedia went live yesterday with about 5,000 pages on every imaginable aspect of India’s cultural landscape. It’s got everything, from heritage monuments, dance forms, poetry and philosophy to film and theatre directors, religious festivals, wildlife parks and even cuisines. But this is only a start.

Sahapedia’s ambition is to be exhaustive and ‘open’. It’s free to access for users, receptive to user feedback, though, unlike Wikipedia, users can’t make changes at will. “At a later stage, we would like people to contribute local or oral histories, much of which remains undocumented,” says Dhritabrata Bhattacharjee, editor, Sahapedia. “The idea is to set standards of accuracy and objectivity,” he adds.

Thus, all Sahapedia entries have been curated by experts, who have contributed articles giving information along with the dominant debates in the area in order to give a well-rounded perspective. There are also videos and images for those who might not be interested in reading long chunks of text. In some cases, the portal gives access to digital content – books, articles, photographs – from premier research institutions such as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla and the National School of Drama in Delhi.

In this, Sahapedia is doing something very similar to what Neville Tuli of Osians had, at point, wanted to do, before financial troubles with his art fund curtailed his ambitions. Osianama, the “integrated knowledge base on the Indian Fine Arts, Culture and the worlds of Cinema” that has been up since 2013, is a limited online resource, comprised primarily of images of artefacts from Tuli’s own collection of masks, photographs, miniature and Thangka paintings.

Then there’s the Google Culture Project, which uses technology to give the armchair browser a virtual experience of a heritage monument or a cultural artefact lying in an obscure museum.

Since its launch in 2012, the Project has digitised archives of 18 cultural institutions such as the National Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art and Salarjung Museum, and also offers virtual tours of 26 heritage sites including the Ekattarso Mahadeva Temple and the royal train saloon, which was once part of the Palace on Wheels. Though Google allows you to see images of the paintings and sculptures of such high resolution that are unseen with the naked eye, it doesn’t offer any other details – unlike Sahapedia.

Both Sahapedia and Google Cultural Project are testimony to how great an enabler the online space has been for culture. Of course, it requires a company with very deep pockets or government support to fund such endeavours, to pay for server space and human expertise, and a wide reach. In the case of Google, the world’s largest technology company, the question of resources may not be a moot one. But for Sahapedia, a not-for-profit supported by Tata Group company TCS until now, it might not be so simple. While Gopalakrishnan has plans to monetise Sahapedia – using the rich corpus of knowledge in tourism and education sectors – culture is not really a paying enterprise in India.