I wrote the below article for “Inaimathiyam” – a celebration to mark the 30th year of Murasu Anjal Tamil software, to be held on Saturday 14th March 2015 in Kuala Lumpur. Murasu Anjal and Sellinam are a collection of expertly crafted Tamil Fonts & Keyboard input methods for Windows, Mac OS, iOS & Android. This article was first published in Selliyal.
Murasu Anjal was built on sheer hard work and vision
“It was a day just like any other in the late 1990s, I was alone in the corridor of Hotel Residency near Vani Mahal in Chennai. After knocking on a room door, I was expecting to see an elderly person open it. I was startled when a smartly dressed young man, a few years elder than me, opening the door and welcoming me in. I double-checked the room number and asked his name again, he smiled at me and said “Venkat, you have come to the right place”. And that’s how I met Muthu Nedumaran for the first time!
Before that first meeting, we had known each other through emails only, as members of Tamil.NET forums. Fresh out of college, in those days I was a hands-on software engineer, familiar down with assembly language coding. At that age, for me to respect someone else on technology was not common. In many heated arguments in the Tamil IT forum, Muthu’s reply will be a one-liner with a working prototype included, that too with source codes. He would be one of the few technical voices in the forum, naturally, I was drawn to him.
Tamil.NET has the distinction of being the pioneer in connecting Tamil diaspora around the globe through email. You could speak in Tamil (surprise!) in the email forum, thanks to the software Muthu had written a few years back, called “Murasu Anjal” which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. Today we have nearly a million people use the Sellinam app on their Android and iOS devices to type in Tamil script and share the content. For many of them, it will be a surprise that Sellinam in its original avatar as Murasu Anjal first came out 30 years back for Microsoft DOS & then for Windows platforms. From the earliest versions of Murasu Anjal for Windows, I have been a loyal user of the product and one of the handful to be beta testers of early versions.
Since early computers supported only select Latin characters, often called ASCII, a non-Latin language software developer those days had to be a linguist, calligrapher, kernel programmer and an evangelist. Why?
Because unlike today’s modern operating systems like iOS 8 or Windows 10, the older operating systems had no idea of other languages, including Tamil. As a result, the developer had to roll his sleeves and start from the basics. This included creating a font type, attaching the font type to the OS memory, writing a keyboard layout driver so that when a user presses “A” you display Tamil letter “அ” and so on. You need to do this mapping for all letters in Tamil, this was called the character-encoding scheme, which was nothing but giving a unique number for every Tamil character. Non-Latin languages like Tamil have more characters than, say, English. This brought its own challenges. All of these required deep knowledge of the operating system and the use of advanced techniques, like hooking, which is generally not used by common applications.
Working out a scheme was not the end of it, it just meant users of your app can type in Tamil and read their own creations.
For users to share the content with someone else required a commonly agreed character-mapping scheme, called an encoding standard in industry parlance. This proved tricky. Each developer of Tamil fonts and applications had painstakingly built their system, so rightfully each of them felt their encoding scheme is superior. At one point Tamil had half-a-dozen popular schemes with Murasu Anjal itself supporting at least 3 of them for many years. Getting to collaborate with other schemes meant you had to be an ace negotiator, a skill that I have seen in close quarters demonstrated by Muthu on multiple occasions with repeatable brilliance. Finally, you needed to be an evangelist as well. In those days there were no social media, even the world wide web was not common, so you had to get the word out on your own about your application. Murasu Anjal did all the above and did each of them exceedingly well, which is evident from its longevity.
Today, modern platforms like Windows 8 have native support for Uniscribe, Apple iOS & Mac OS have AAT (Apple Advanced Typography), Linux and Android have variants of PANGO or Harfbuzz in their modern versions. Each of these platforms brings out-of-box support for complex text rendering for hundreds of languages including Tamil. Thanks to the Unicode standard which has unified the way each language is represented in digital media. As of version 7, Unicode supports over 122 scripts. Murasu Anjal was a pioneer in supporting the Unicode standard for the Tamil language nearly two decades back.
Today Murasu Anjal and Muthu Nedumaran have expanded far and wide from starting with Tamil. You have the technology embedded in almost any modern device you may have, whether it is an HTC phone, iPhone, iPad or Mac OS. Sister products to Sellinam support more than a dozen Asian scripts including Devanagari, Khmer and Burmese.