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Vaishali Phadnis

A Modi script expert

People are often amazed at the hundreds of dialects that are spoken in India. But with such a vast vernacular treasure comes the challenge of survival. There are linguistic jewels on the brink of disappearance, like the Modi script, a shorthand form of Marathi.

In conversation this month with Vaishali Phadnis, one of the connoisseurs of the Modi script in India. She comes from the family of Nana Phadnavis, a great Maratha administrator during Chhatrapati Shivaji Mahraja’s reign when Modi was in practice. A translator and teacher, she talks to BnP about the Modi alphabet in its heyday, what led to its downfall and the importance of its revival.

How did the Modi script develop in India?

Modi is the shorthand form of the Devanagri script in which Marathi is written. This script was developed in Devagiri (Daulatabad) somewhere in the 13th century during the Yadav dynasty. Hemadpant, a prolific administrator, was in search of ways to write Marathi faster to facilitate administration and commerce. When he was in Sri Lanka for trade, he was inspired by the cursive Sinhalese script. When he returned to Maharashtra, he started developing a similar one for Marathi where a person could write seamlessly without lifting the pen too often.

What is the speciality of the Modi script?

Marathi employs a lot of strokes to denote different accents. The Modi script facilitates continuous writing without lifting the pen very often. You will not see punctuation marks either. The Modi script thus saves half the time spent writing in the Devanagri script!

For how long was it in use?

After appearing 700 years ago, Modi continued to be in practice until the first half of the 20th Century. It became particularly popular during the rule of the Maratha King Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. While travelling across India, scribes accompanied traders to document dealings and correspondence with accuracy and speed in the Modi alphabet. Till as late as 1952, Modi was being used for personal and financial documentation.

So what led to the downfall of the Modi alphabet?

During the British rule, printing presses were developed on a large scale. Though Modi was easier to write, it was cumbersome for typesetting given its cursive style. Its popularity started dwindling with the growth of the printing industry and in 1954, the script went out of practice completely.

You are a Modi script translator. What are the different kinds of documents that you are typically asked to work on?

I translate a range of documents into Devanagri Marathi or Hindi – from commercial documents dating back to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s time to old court papers, land agreements, wartime correspondence and books. I have also translated works which had been produced on copper sheets and birch paper dating back hundreds of years!

Any famous works related to the Modi script?

V.K. Rajwade has done extensive research on Modi. Samarth Ramdas’s works as well as a number of temple records are in Modi. Administrative material from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s era also used this alphabet. However, it is very rarely seen in literature. For my part, I have penned down a biography of Jeeubai, wife of Nana Phadnavis, based on her accounts written in Modi.

Wow! That is terrific! So what do you think about the revival of Modi today?

Besides saving time, Modi serves to decode and understand history better and to avoid the mistakes that we made in the past. The script is a valuable part of our cultural heritage which must be saved from extinction.

What can be done to revive the Modi alphabet?

The most important thing is to teach the script to bring it back into practice. Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal is working hard in that regard. Since English and other languages have gained precedence in the business world, revival of ancient languages and scripts becomes a challenge. I am also trying to seek help from our government to access ancient manuscripts in Modi stored at the British Library in London.

Will the task of revival be easier if the script is computer enabled?

Definitely! Efforts are already under way to help bring it to the computer screen. CDAC has developed an app to type Modi. We can expect more progress in the future.

As a parting shot, tell us about your interests apart from languages and history.

I enjoy the quiet comfort that resides in knitting and sewing. And I love beating people at bridge on evenings at Deccan Gymkhana (laughs).

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Sonali Kulkarni - Editor-in-Chief, French-English Translator A novice at adulthood and an ardent disciple of Dan Brown and Ayn Rand, Sonali is a pathological bookworm, a borderline nerdy introvert and a hardcore adventure junkie who cannot live without chocolate. She is currently studying French and manages to speak some Spanish too. Having represented her state in national level Athletics for the better part of a decade, the nomad in her has now given it up to venture into the exciting world of languages, writing and travel.