In the field of languages, two of the great underresearched questions are “Why do some scripts vanish?” and “Why does writing look the way it does?”
Come with me now as I tell you a story that sheds light on both issues—the story of the Karani script of Odisha in Eastern India.
This story gives us a chance to consider not only the rise and fall of the Kirani script but to ask bigger and more interesting questions about the natural history of writing itself. It introduces five potent forces, four influential technologies, and two sacred cows, all of which helped to dictate the shaping of the Oriya script, many of which have helped shaped countless other scripts worldwide.
The five potent forces are the British colonial administration, the royal court, missionary societies, the introduction of literacy (that is, the expansion of reading and writing beyond the scribe class), and the already known and recognized aesthetic traditions of Oriya script—its existing visual identity.
The four influential technologies are, roughly in chronological order, the palm leaf, the metal stylus, paper, and the printing press.
The two sacred cows (a phrase I use hesitantly in describing anything connected to Indian culture) are cursive script and speed.
Cursive is a sacred cow to us, because, ironically, we misuse the word. When we say cursive, we use it as a shorthand to mean “beautiful handwriting” or the art of script, and many people of my generation are willing to draw swords to defend it. But in fact, very few scripts in the world have a cursive form, complete with ligatures, yet many are astonishingly beautiful.
In the case of Karani, cursive was introduced not to be more beautiful but to be quicker—which brings us to our second sacred cow, speed.
One of the most powerful influences on the way we think about writing today is our belief that it is in our interests to write as quickly as possible, and our technologies have in fact left the pen and the pencil and the stylus behind, in large part so we can write more quickly. Again, this misunderstands what writing is all about. There are circumstances when we may want to write more quickly. Equally, there are circumstances where we may want to write more legibly or more beautifully. If we put all of our writing eggs in the speed basket, we wind up–as in fact we have–with children and young adults who cannot write legibly or beautifully, even when they want to.
With these caveats in mind, let’s get back to Karani.
The Oriya script we see today developed between the 14th and 16th centuries CE.
“Oriya is encumbered with the drawback of an excessively awkward and combrous written character,” writes the author of Development of Oriya Script, Language and Literature, (Shodhganga. 27 September 2016). “[It] is in its basis, the same as Devanagari, but is written by the local scribes with a stylus on a palmleaf. These scratches are in themselves legible, but in order to make them more plain, ink is rubbed over the surface of the leaf, and fills of the furrows which form the letters. The palmleaf is extremely fragile and any scratch in the direction of the grain tends .to make its split. As a line of writing on the long narrow leaf is necessarily in the direction of the grain, this peculiarity prohibits the use of the straight tap line or Matra which is a distinguishing characteristic of the Devanagari character. The Orissa scribe is compelled to substitute a series of curves which almost surround each letter.”
The Devanagari graphic or aesthetic tradition, then, was trumped by the needs of the technologies involved, just as the lontara palm-leaf script of Sulawesi was changed when it arrived in the Philippines and was inscribed in bamboo. The materials and even the posture of the writer radically affect the act of writing, and the written product.
“However, with the introduction of paper and the growing use of Oriya in court work, a new cursive script emerged to enable faster writing. The new script was called Karani, after Karan, the caste of the scribes, and was used for writing on paper with pen and ink.”
(In fact the word Karan may have derived from koroni or karani, a metal stylus that was used for writing on palm leaf and then on paper.)
Another important force is not mentioned in my sources, but is well worth considering in its absence: the use of a script for sacred purposes. In many ways this is the exact opposite of the need for speed: in many sacred manuscript traditions, each word is so important, so holy, that error is not only wrong but sacrilegious and potentially disastrous. Writing is an act of devotion, and as such is likely to be beautiful, ornate, illustrated—more or less everything we have abandoned in our haste.
But perhaps this force was not entirely absent: early writing in the rounded Oriya palm-leaf script was mostly sacred, so that historic visual character and identity may well have survived even when Oriya was being used for secular purposes, as we’ll see.
Okay. Moving on. We now come to the moment of showdown, when a new technology and three new forces arrived, forces that in script terms were usually on the same side, but in this case lined up against each other.
One of these forces was the British colonial administration, which arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Usually, the script that survives is the script used by those in power, and the Karani script, the court script, was adopted by the British precisely for its efficiency and for its association with authority.
“From the beginning of 19th century to first half of 20th century Karani letters were used in courts, revenue offices, royal families, Zamindari offices, Mathas and horoscopes, and in almanacs of temple of Lord Jagannatha.”
As late as 1872, according to Dr. Jagannath Prasad Das, a poet and playwright and author of a book on the palm leaf manuscript tradition of Orissa, the Commissioner of the Orissa Division assumed the Karani would prevail and survive: “[W]ith the greater extension of the use of paper, which has taken place since the establishment of our rule, especially in our courts of justice, the round top line of the Oriya script is gradually dying out, and many contractions have been introduced, which it is to be hoped may be by degrees imported into the printed characters.”
This didn’t happen, though, and it is tempting—fascinating, actually—to ask why not. I haven’t found any clear documentation of the process, but that isn’t going to prevent me from indulging in speculation unimpeded by fact.
What had lined up against the British administration were a force and a technology that, as I’ve said, typically worked hand in glove with the colonial authorities but in this case, from what I can gather, turned out to be more powerful in the long run: the arrival of missionaries and the introduction of printing.
Outside of the bible societies, the impact of the joint influences of Christianity and printing has been massively underrecognized. Yet often the first printing presses and the first typefaces in any given colonial region were brought by missionaries, and India was no exception.
“Oriya orienting was introduced by missionaries soon after the British conquest of 1803,” wrote Dr. Das. “An Oriya typeface was devised in 1804 by the Serampore Press of the missionaries and the first Oriya book came out of the press three years later.”
And then, the crucial sentence: “The typeface followed the script of the palm-leaf manuscripts rather than the Karani script used by the courts.”
Dr. Das does not say why. Perhaps it was because the rounded palm-leaf script was more closely associated in the Oriya mind with sacred matters. But from that moment on, the Karani script was fighting a losing battle against the triple forces of missionary Christianity, the printed word, and the combination of those two—namely, the teaching of literacy through the printed Christian word.
Reading between Dr. Das’s lines, the missionaries had the force of the printed word to themselves so completely that the first non-missionary book to be printed in the region did not emerge until 1866—and the typeface used was again the rounded palm-leaf style, which by then must have been the de facto font of printing in Oriya. Das does not even mention printing in Karani, which apparently continued in manuscript form only, increasingly limited to legal and administrative purposes, losing ground on both the sacred and secular fronts.
As the philosopher Joni Mitchell has observed, we often fail to notice the end of things, and if Karani is no longer used, we don’t know who used it last, or when. On the other hand, it is impossible to prove a negative, and no news is not necessarily bad news. Just as COVID was arriving, one of my interns inquired about Karani among her relatives in India, and her father thought he remembered seeing it used, though he couldn’t remember any details.
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