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The idea of publishing an encyclopaedia in Sindhi was conceived several decades ago by a group of scholars in Sindh. In 1991 the establishment of the Sindhi Language Authority (SLA) included the publication of an encyclopaedia among its main objectives and functions, others being the preparation and publication of dictionaries, reference books, scientific literature as well as literary and other types of periodicals.

The SLA’s mandate to encourage the teaching, promotion and use of the Sindhi language is given due diligence and seminars, workshops and symposia that highlight Sindh’s prodigious literary output as well as Sindhi language classes (called Aaiye Sindhi Sekhen or Lets learn Sindhi) are conducted in Urdu by its faculty.

However, the short tenure of SLA’s chairperson does not engender the ambience of continuity that is necessary for projects such as the Encyclopaedia Sindhiana which was launched in December 2010.

The SLA originally grew out of the as yet unimplemented (and underfunded) Sindhi Language Teaching and Learning bill of 1972. The SLA was established in 1991 through a bill passed by the Sindh provincial assembly. N.A. Baloch, who was its first chairperson established offices within the premises of the Sindh Museum in Hyderabad where he initiated the Sindhiana project.

In 1994 Sindh chief minister, Abdullah Shah, inaugurated the SLA’s Latifabad facility in Hyderabad where the project now flourishes. At various points the poet Tanveer Abbasi and other accomplished Sindhis contributed to this arduous labour of love. But it was not until 1998, when G.A. Allana placed the Sindhiana project under the supervision of lexicographer Shaikh Mohammad Ismail that the project found new impetus.

When Shaikh recruited skilled researchers and appointed field workers in various districts the project finally began to hum. Thus Allana’s team succeeded in preparing the first volume of Sindhiana. Unfortunately a data transfer glitch in an Apple version update resulted in the accidental deletion of this precious first ever volume.

For 10 years after that the project remained moribund. Chairperson Fahmida Hussain and scholar Taj Joyo revived the project and once again appointed researchers to comb the province for data. They also formed an editorial board that represented a wide range of scholarship.

Work was conducted in two shifts over an 11-hour work day which resulted in the completion of the first volume in August 2009. The second volume followed in October 2010 and the third volume is due for publication in early 2011.

However, meagre resources and short administrative tenures remain the bane of the SLA which struggles to live up to the literary needs and expectations of the people.

But perhaps the organisation’s fortunes have changed recently because although up until 2008 only 150 books were published in the Sindhi language (including dictionaries of various disciplines), more than 60 books (including books on phonetics, grammar, the history of Sindhi language and literature, dictionaries and two volumes of the Sindhiana) have been published in the last two and a half years.

Of these perhaps the Encyclopaedia Sindhiana is possibly the most impressive publication for its sheer size. Eighty per cent of its entries relate to Sindh’s own scholars, writers, poets, artists, artisans, political, religious and spiritual figures.

The description of Sindhi sites (including archaeological), flora, fauna, tribes, castes, beliefs, rituals, rites, culture, civilisation, language, dialects, literature and fine arts are also included. The other 20 per cent of the entries relate to other universal, religious and science subjects.

Although smaller encyclopedias exist on Sindh, the Sindhiana is the first ever near-comprehensive document on Sindh in the Sindhi language. Its first volume consists of 3,712 entries based on the first three letters of Sindhi alphabet which consists of a total of 52 letters.

The second volume consists of 2,571 entries based on the next six letters of the Sindhi alphabet, with an addendum of 323 entries for the first volume, thus making a total of 2,894 entries. Both these volumes have been published on art paper with colour and black and white illustrations.