Gift Siromoney, polymath who used AI concepts in the 80s to solve historical mysteries

He used AI concepts to identify dates of medieval Tamil inscriptions. He also used science to solve Mamallapuram mysteries.

ByPoorani Balendra

Published Mar 21, 2023 | 4:12 PM Updated Mar 22, 2023 | 1:41 PM

Prof Gift Siromoney in front of the Varaha panel at the Varaha cave temple in the Mamallapuram hill

“Application of computer methods in the analysis of sculpture remains an exciting field in India, and we are developing new methods to answer old questions,” Dr Gift Siromoney wrote in 1985.

Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram or Mallai) and its monuments hold many mysteries. Those mysteries have led to fiery debates in history circles for many years.

In the 1970 and 80s, a few answers to these questions came from a statistics professor with a keen interest in computer science.

Cluster analysis to study sculptures

Cluster analysis, a common data analysis technique used extensively today, was employed by Prof Gift Siromoney to study sculptures, inscriptions, ancient scripts, and even Paleolithic stones.

Today, GPT-4 can automatically build websites, generate recipes with just an image. But at the time when Prof Siromoney was using computers, AI and character recognition techniques across various disciplines, information theory was barely a decade old.

With enthusiastic help from his colleagues, he wrote programmes in FORTRAN, Basic, and ran them on computers of that age, including an IBM 370/155.

Prof Siromoney bridged the seemingly disparate worlds of art and mathematics. He passed away today, 21 March, in 1988 at the age of 56.

After his death, Prof Narasimhan who was instrumental in building India’s first computer — the TIFRAC — wrote: “His tragic and untimely death has resulted in the disappearance of a much-loved teacher and a highly productive research scientist with many-faceted interests … For nearly four decades he taught and guided students and younger colleagues on a wide range of topics from statistics to computers, epigraphy, art, history, linguistics, anthropology, and music.”

(Note: A good part of this article contains quotes and references from Prof Siromoney’s papers which have been generously shared online here: https://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/)

Also read: C Minakshi, Trailblazing historian who unearthed the Pallavas

Prof Siromoney’s work spans many disciplines. Here’s a small snippet:

    • Dating medieval Tamil inscriptions with AI
    • Used Cluster analysis to identify authorship of sculptures in Mamallapuram
    • Image enhancement of ancient inscriptions
    • Developed the first teleprinter Tamil keyboard 
    • Identifying time period of Paleolithic stones 
    • Kolams, music and more: a true polymath

Cluster analysis to identify sculptures

S Vijay Kumar, co-founder of India Pride Project, an organisation that helps bring back stolen antiquities from collectors and museums abroad, told this author how he was inspired by Dr Gift Siromoney’s work.

There have always been debates about whether the monuments in Mamallapuram were built during the time of one king or multiple kings.

“For the first time, someone brought a mathematics and science point of view to settle the historical debates. He used measurements of sculptures, analysed them with algorithms, and identified that most of the idols were finished by one master sculptor … This, despite him having a very good day job as a professor of statistics at the Madras Christian College,” Vijay Kumar told South First.

In his widely read blog, Poetry in Stone, Vijay Kumar writes of Prof Siromoney: “The posts he had graciously left behind on the net, quality content, absolutely free, easily accessible, spurred me, 20 years after his death, inspiring me to use the advances in technology.” Even a chance encounter by a casual visitor to the website “will make him sit up and take notice of the treasures that our great land bore out of its intellect, and help protect and preserve them for future generations,” he added.

Prof Gift Siromoney views the inscription in the Atiranachanda cave temple, Tiger caves Complex, Saluvankuppam (near Mamallapuram) (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

Prof Gift Siromoney views the inscription in the Atiranachanda cave temple, Tiger caves Complex, Saluvankuppam (near Mamallapuram) (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

In 1976, a paper from the University of California spoke about using computers and algorithms to analyse a century-old problem: whether there was a relationship between early Greek and Egyptian art. Prof Siromoney was inspired by that and set out to study sculptures in Mamallapuram.

“In cluster analysis, which is used for discovering related groups or clusters within complex data, calculations involve comparison of objects pair by pair. For a set of, say, 50 carvings, 1,225 comparisons are made and the Euclidean distance is found in each case. The Euclidean distance is a mathematical distance between two points in an n-dimensional space …. The calculations can be done in seconds with a computer, and the results can be plotted in the form of a dendrogram, a diagram in which points representing similar objects are clustered together,” wrote Prof. Siromoney.

Identifying time period of Paleolithic stones

Gift Siromoney also used cluster analysis to understand stone implements from the Paleolithic period.

Paleolithic objects found in Arakkonam and Sriperumbudur were measured and the data was put through a cluster analysis using a computer.

Image processing of ancient inscriptions

Inscriptions across various temples and monuments in India are valuable first-hand sources of history. Researchers painstakingly copy them to various materials to then read them later. The clarity and quality of these copies are significant to their research. 

Also read: Arittapatti, village near Madurai with a 2,100-year-old inscription

To solve this, Gift Siromoney turned to image processing. In the mid-sixties, image processing using computers was getting popular. Techniques like averaging, complementation, sampling, and thresholding were being used.

Book cover titled 'Mathematics for the social sciences' authored by Profs Gift and Rani Siromoney

Book cover titled ‘Mathematics for the social sciences’ authored by Profs Gift and Rani Siromoney (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

“Dr Siromoney was a pioneer in applying computer methods of image enhancement to inscriptions which should prove most valuable to Indian epigraphy. This work was carried out at the Picture Processing Laboratory of the University of Maryland, College Park, when Dr Siromoney was the recipient of the Homi Bhabha Fellowship,” Rani Siromoney wrote in Contributions of Professor Gift Siromoney in the Area of Pattern Recognition, IETE Journal of Research.

Prof Rani, his wife, was an expert in her own right and had also worked with Prof Siromoney on many papers.

Prof. Gift Siromoney and his wife Rani leaving the US by ship in the late 50s

Prof Gift Siromoney and his wife Rani leaving the US by ship in the late 50s (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

AI to identify authors and dates of inscriptions

Prof Siromoney used AI concepts to identify the dates of medieval Tamil inscriptions. His work meant that experts and novices could be enabled to identify dates of inscriptions by using computer applications. 

“It has been demonstrated that it is feasible to develop and employ computer programs that can aid both experts and novices in dating medieval Tamil inscriptions. The use of advanced computing techniques, such as expert systems, can assist in solving some of the challenges associated with Indian epigraphy and archaeology, such as the authentication and dating of inscriptions of unknown origin,” Prof Rani wrote.

In fact in 2022, DeepMind released an AI model named Ithaca that helps decipher, date, and locate ancient inscriptions. The model was trained on a dataset of around 78,608 ancient Greek inscriptions. (Read how it works here) 

Information theory and the first Tamil keyboard

Prof Siromoney was also interested in scripts — from Brahmi to modern Tamil. After finishing his course on Information Theory in 1959 from Columbia University, he came back to Tambaram and applied those concepts to Tamil. 

It was not easy to create a keyboard for Tamil because of the sheer number of alphabets. He analysed a large sample of Tamil prose, identified the frequency of occurrence of alphabets, and identified the most important ones. Then, he built the first-ever Tamil keyboard of a teleprinter.

Also read: Ponniyin Selvan, A not-so-beginner’s guide to the Cholas

Kolams, music and more: a true polymath

Gift Siromoney applied mathematical concepts such as array grammars to kolams.

He published papers on the classification of types of kolam designs and also devised methods to generate n number of kolam patterns with arrays. Prof Siromoney was also interested in cracking the problem of using computers to read musical notations. 

Prof Siromoney's sketch titled 'sub-patterns known to kolam practitioners'

Prof Siromoney’s sketch titled ‘sub-patterns known to kolam practitioners’ (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

His passion for identifying scripts did not stop there.

He even published a Thirukkural book that was written in modern Tamil and progressively went back to older scripts from chapter to chapter.

The last chapter was written in the Tamil-Brahmi script.

Book cover of 'Tirukkural in ancient scripts

Book cover of ‘Tirukkural in ancient scripts’ (CMI Gift Siromoney Gallery)

It was not surprising to read this tribute to Dr Siromoney’s Tirukkural book considering how generous he and his family have been in sharing his work online. 

“In order that the book should reach everyone, he fixed the selling price at the minimum cost price of ₹60/- while a book publisher would have unhesitatingly fixed the price at ₹120/-. With the excellent get-up and quality it looked like a foreign edition. Realising that even ₹60/- was beyond the purchasing power of the common man he immediately brought out a cheap edition at a selling price of ₹9/- only. Not satisfied with this he wrote on the title reverse (back of the title page), ‘Any part of this book or the whole book may be reproduced and freely transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopy or any information storage and retrieval system’.”

And as he wished, you can read the book here, even today.

Also read: A temple near Chennai named after Uttama Chola

(Poorani Balendra was a journalist with The New Indian Express. She now writes on history and is a marketer in Cyces, a tech company)