From shorthand to surukkezhuttu


The shorthand technique in English developed in the 16th century and was refined continuously subsequently, reaching a stage of advanced development with Sir Isaac Pitman launching his eponymous method in 1837. But how, when and why did shorthand come to be developed for the vernacular languages of India, and in particular Tamil? This was the subject of an interesting talk delivered recently by Bernard Bate, Associate Professor for Anthropology, University of Chicago, at the Roja Muthiah Research Library.


Dr Bate traced its development to the rise of Tamil as a political language of expression, which happens to be his present subject of study, the emergence of Tamil oratory – from the Protestant sermon to political speeches – and its relationship to the production of a Tamil public sphere.


The use of Tamil for political oratory began in the late 1800s perhaps with men such as G Subramania Iyer who embarked on a speaking tour of Madras Presidency in 1883 to promote the cause of the Congress. But it was the Swadeshi Movement, which took birth following the partition of Bengal in 1905 that made Tamil and other vernacular languages the chosen media for oration. In Madras city itself public meetings were conducted at the Marina Beach, the Moore Market and the maidan opposite the Pacchaiyappa’s College (then located at the Esplanade). While the beach meetings were headed largely by Subramania Bharati, the Moore Market meetings were in Telugu and featured E Surendranath Arya. In Tuticorin and Tirunelveli, speeches were given by VO Chidambaram Pillai and Subramania Siva. This was therefore a period of oratorical incandescence.


Swadeshi struck at the very foundation of commerce on which the Empire had been built. The Government was curious to know as to what was being said. Officials, largely English, did not understand what was being said. Taking it down in longhand was impossible and many of the words were lost. This was oratory that was free from the pre-written sheet of paper and spontaneous. If the speeches had to be taken down as they were spoken so that they could be analysed later for seditious content and the speaker subsequently arrested on that basis, a technique had to be evolved that would enable police inspectors to attend meetings in mufti and take down the speeches verbatim. In the words of Dr Bate, shorthand in vernacular (known as surukkezhuttu) was developed as a new political communicative technique to counter another new political communicative technique, namely the use of Tamil and other vernacular languages for oratory.


By 1907, while the Swadeshi Movement was being actively suppressed, the Government of Madras was considering the use of shorthand for reporting on political speeches. A technique of shorthand in vernacular had to be developed. Dewan Bahadur LD Swamikannu Pillai, considered an expert on languages, submitted a “memorandum on application of shorthand to South Indian vernacular”. At this time independent of the Government initiative, V Krishnamachari, a local scholar, developed a system based on the principles of phonography, namely the recording of words on paper as they sound and not as they are spelt, which formed the basis of the Pitman system as well. Krishnamachari decided not to publish his work and in 1907 submitted it to the Government for due consideration for being taken on as the official system of shorthand. There appears to have been some kind of rivalry between Krishnamachari and Swamikannu Pillai with the latter weighing in favour of another shorthand researcher M Srinivasa Rao, who was an employee of the Police Academy and had worked on an independent system. So while Krishnamachari received high praise for his work, it was Rao who was asked to conduct classes in shorthand for the police sub-inspectors of Madras. In 1908 examinations were conducted in shorthand and eleven candidates appeared. Nine passed and the two that failed had been trained by Krishnamachari. With that any possibility of using his techniques faded.


In 1910 the second examination was conducted and ten students appeared. Five were proficient in English shorthand and the results in Tamil showed that they could take down 80 to 90 words a minute which was considered excellent. Encouraged by this Srinivasa Rao went on to produce a Telugu manual for shorthand in 1912 and in 1914 the first examination for shorthand in Telugu was conducted. In 1915 shorthand became a part of the syllabus for the SSLC examination.


The benefit of the training received in the system became evident in 1919 when the Home Rule League and the Labour Movement reached their zenith. Usage of local languages for speeches had become very common by then and these were taken down rapidly by the trained police personnel. On the basis of his research Dr Bate concludes that the first person to be arrested based on the shorthand notes taken of his speech was EV Ramaswami Naicker, later to be known as Periyar. This was after his speech on 4th February that year at Uttamapalayam near Coimbatore. A record sixty pages of notes in shorthand had been taken during the speech and this was produced as evidence. Shorthand had come of age.


From being a tool of surveillance it later became an integral aspect of commercial and government day-to-day activity. The Stenographers Guild was founded in Madras in 1937 by C Rajagopalachari. It flourishes even today.