The Asiatic Society in Calcutta, and eventually in Bombay and then Delhi was established by the English to capture the studies conducted in India particularly, but throughout Asia. Collections hold ancient documents in Tibetan and Chinese as well as Sanskrit and Persian. Not everything went to England after the British left India. And the fascination with everything Indian was shared not only by the West, but by Indians from all backgrounds. Contributions to the Journal, Archives, and Library have been collected over the centuries from a variety of sources.
Today we went to see the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. I went to seek what I could learn of my great great grandfather, Ferdinand Hahn, knowing he had published some articles. Indeed I found the books he had written of the Kurukh language. Three books, first editions, each in delicate condition after 100 years in the moldy and dusty archives.
Upon entering the building, which is the "new" building that was built concealing from the street the original building, we were asked to sign in. I went with my cousin and sister-in-law. I asked about the archives so they sent us to floor 2 where there was a Museum. We took the elevator (the kind with double cage doors that must be mannually open and shut). Various people standing around directed us to a desk. I explained to the woman behind the desk what I wanted in the archives and if the other two could look at the museum.
"Have you shown your passport?" she asked? I was puzzled, for no one had asked to see ID.
"No," she continued apparently annoyed at our niavete, "You must sign in at 3rd floor and then go to Library on 1st floor to get your pass."
While this confused me about which floor to go, I dutifully followed the instructions and indeed found an office on the 3rd floor that asked for us to record our names with passports. Then down to 1st floor (in US that would be 2nd floor), where we were met at the elevator by a man who would take our bags. Again registering our names in another records book. We filled out a form each that was in triplicate and the supervisor signed each and gave us the pink copy. This granted us permission to go to any part of the building. By the end of my two hour visit I would sign 7 different registers.
I went down one floor again to look through the card catalogues and then filled out the forms and gave it to the circulation desk where someone dissappeared in search of the books. I then approached another woman who appeared to be the main librarian. I inquired about the journal articles and asked her what had been the process for submitting an article. She was not forthright with information until I explained this author was my great great grandfather. Then suddenly her face was transformed by joy and she responded with maternal care.
At the turn of the last century a Dr. Greirson (may have written name incorrectly) conducted a language survey of India. When he came to the Jharkhand region he met Ferdinand Hahn who was studying the language of the people's that he lived and worked among, the Oraon and Asur tribal people. He suggested that Hahn write his findings to the Asiatic Society. The librarian said that submissions get paid something today, but she wasn't sure if there was anything paid in those early years. My guess is that would have been one reason why Hahn submitted the articles, some supplemental income for their meager income. I wasn't prepared to do any deeper research this time, but I thought I'd look up some other German missionaries who had worked on other languages, notably Alfred Nottrott there was nothing.
This suggests to me that Nottrott, who wrote about the Mundari language and people, was submitting papers only to German Orientalist journals, not British. I understand that Nottrott was from a better situated family and had higher education then his peer, Ferdinand Hahn, who came from a shoemaker family and was not as well supported financially. The Nottrott family had close associations with scholars in Halle and Berlin in German. Nottrott's work in Mundari eventually earned him a Doctorate degree in Germany. Not that Ferdinand Hahn was overlooked for his contibution to tribal studies, his scholarship, along with his community work in health and education earned him the Kaiser-E-Hind award in British India.
The librarian called over another woman who was the Anthropologist of the Asiatic Society. I was surprised to understand most of what they were discussing in Bengali. I asked, in English, if I had heard correctly that she knows of Ferdinand Hahn.
"Oh yes, I'm knowing. No, I have not read his books, but I am knowing the name."
I end with a lone song of the Asur people's that Ferdinand recorded in one of the articles I saw today
Bir do ranjolena
Bir geter geter
Tanka bir ranjilena
The grass is burning
Grass knack! crack!
Well is the grass burning
In splendid beauty
I don't know the significance of burning grass to the culture of the small, now extinct, tribe of Asurs. They were iron workers. Ancient people working in iron. Fire was the life blood of their craft. The embers of my craft as a writer are being fanned by this trip to India, through encounters like this one today. Oh can you see the splendid beauty?