Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian
Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian

Five centuries of print

The book in India, old and new.

Southasian books are ancient; Southasian printing is not. This is in spite of the fact that printing was invented in Asia, probably by the Koreans, and wooden blocks were extensively used in Southasia to print textiles from medieval times. It is significant that Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type just before the Portuguese pioneered the sea route to this region, bypassing the Arab world and making it possible for Europe to interact directly with Asia. The 'codex' book, the form of the book that we know and love today, was made possible by a constellation of technologies of which movable type was the brightest star. All this made the codex eminently portable and thus exportable. The printed codex became the vehicle in which European thought travelled the world.

In Southasia, contact with Europe quickly produced various attempts by the Europeans to manufacture codexes locally, mainly to facilitate their dealings with locals. In this, the Catholic Church swallowed its dislike of printers and worked alongside the Protestants to adapt printing technology to conditions in this region. The Portuguese introduced printing with movable type into Goa around 1556, on a press originally intended to be a gift for the ruler of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) but becalmed by a series of improbable events in Goa. The Catholic brotherhood were very eager to please any African potentate they came across, due to the legend of Prester John, the mythical king of a lost Christian nation in Africa whom all the empire-builders wanted to find. (The African church had indeed been the largest Christian congregation in the early centuries of Christianity.) When the king of Abyssinia asked for one of the newfangled writing machines, one was dispatched from Lisbon; but on its long and eventful journey around the coast of Africa, including shipwreck and the death of its pressman, it reached Goa, too late to be sent to the king, who had died. For a while it lay unused in Goa, until another pressman could be sent out to make use of it. Thereafter, it became part of the imperial establishment in Southasia's premier European territory.

During the 17th century there were a few colonial centres of printing, such as the Danish colony Tranquebar, near the mouth of the Kaveri River in modern-day Tamil Nadu, the headquarters of Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, the Lutheran missionary, from 1712. In Vepery, near Madras, the scholar Fabricius used a press captured by the British from the French to print his Tamil hymnbooks, since the Europeans apparently spent a lot of time and effort in Southasia stealing printing presses from each other.

Because European labour cost a lot to export and maintain in the tropics, from the very start European printing relied to a great extent on local labour. European printing house masters were therefore at pains to train their indigenous employees in the craft. Goldsmiths, blacksmiths and jewellers (and among locals there were some very expert examples of these) constituted the groups who provided the requisite skilled labour, particularly in the delicate and complex business of creating new typefaces. The workers who learned these skills then moved around and joined other concerns, thus spreading skill sets through the industry. Such was the case with Panchanan Karmakar, who worked with Charles Wilkins to create the first Bengali typeface.

Portable debate

Quite rapidly, the culture of print began to spread in 'native' circles. Printing began in Bombay in 1674-75 when Bhimji Parekh, a Gujarati, applied to the East India Company for a press and pressman for 50 pounds a year. In 1790 and 1791, the Courier and the Bombay Gazette began to appear, around the same time that newspapers were becoming all the rage in Calcutta. By 1812, Fardunji Marzaban's press had printed the first Gujarati almanac. Ganpathi Krishnaji brought out the first Marathi periodical in Bombay, Digdarshan, in 1840, followed by Bahu Mahajan in 1843 with Prabhakar. 

Newspapers began as instruments of colonial communication among Westerners, but the people of the Subcontinent soon saw what a great idea newspapers were, and wanted to set up their own. For locals, newspapers soon performed new functions. While some papers, such as the semi-serious 'news' reports published in Bengali by Battala printers in Calcutta retailing salacious stories about babus and rulers, retained their original purpose as scandal sheets and gossip-shops, others, in the hands of the educated elites, became more like the coffee-shop papers of 18th-century London: reformers of manners and forums of debate. Indians had always been talkative people, but before print, debate had been a face-to-face thing, with the written manuscript only marginally extending the reach of the word beyond the circle of actual listeners. Now debates could be folded, tied neatly with string and carried all round the country, to be unfurled where needed and argued all over again.

The colonial centres catalysed this process. In the south, after the establishment in 1812 of the Press of the College of Fort St George at Madras, the 1830s saw the rise of the 'pundit presses', with Kalvi Vilakkam, the joint venture of Charavanaperumal Aiyar and Vichakaperumal Aiyar, established in 1834. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed's Grammar of the Bengali Language appeared in 1778, and was printed with Bengali types designed and produced by Charles Wilkins and Panchanan Karmakar. Interestingly, the Honourable Company's Press initially had nothing to do with the East India Company: it was a private venture begun in 1780 by James Augustus Hicky, formerly in prison for debt, and took Company work on contract. Hicky printed the Bengal Gazette, which carried much scandal and rumour but was also an important voice against corruption, until Arthur Wellesley outlawed freedom of the Southasian press in 1799, largely because England was at war with France. Wellesley's strictures on the press remained in force till the 1830s and generated much friction with the native intelligentsia; Rammohan Roy along with Several Indian magazine owners and James Silk Buckingham, editor of the The Englishman, unsuccessfully challenged Wellesley's directives in 1823. It is to be noted that the press in England during the time was also heavily censored, through taxation and surveillance, because of fears that the French Revolution would infect the general population and cause an uprising at home.

Rammohan Roy's Persian paper, Mirat ul Akhbar, was an important forerunner of middle-class print culture, and perhaps it was this middle-class engagement with newsprint that scared the government more than the scandal sheets. Along with Roy, who was writing for a highly educated, cosmopolitan, Persian-speaking but largely Hindu traditional elite, James Silk Buckingham, in his Calcutta Journal, addressed the European friends of freedom, in other words liberal-minded Britons in Calcutta, in their joint campaign for the end of censorship in 1823 – a rare example of colonial cooperation across racial and political divides. To the Supreme Court they presented a plea, titled the 'Areopagitica of the Indian Press', taking the name of John Milton's famous anti-censorship tract. Roy fought his case all the way to the Privy Council, but was eventually forced to close his paper. In the final issue he cited as forerunners both Milton and Hafiz, and rued that he had not been victorious in his quest for Indian intellectual freedom. Wellesley's restrictions were lifted in 1835, but the war of 1857 led to further clampdowns in the 1860s.


While working for an indigo planter, William Carey had translated the New Testament into Bengali. His plans to print it were scuttled by the Company's antipathy to missionaries, which forced him to shift to Srirampur, a Danish colony. There the new press, joined by Panchanan Karmakar, produced Carey's Bible, Krittibas's Ramayana (a popular Bengali transcreation of the original Sanskrit epic) and the first four parts of Kashiram's Mahabharata (1803), as well as Bengali textbooks for the mission's schools. In 1818, the Baptists began two Bengali periodicals, Digdarshan and Samachar Darpan, both landmark periodicals aimed at providing useful information on science, current affairs, administration and history to the youth. Between 1800 and 1832, when the press burned down, the Baptist Mission Press printed 212,000 volumes in forty languages – the first truly industrial print house in Southasia.

By 1807, Babu Ram's press in Kidderpore was printing Hindi and Sanskrit books for Fort William College, by which Babu Ram was said to have earned lakhs of rupees. A decade later, Gangakishor Bhattacharya was printing the first Bengali periodicals. Around 1815, the first printer (probably Biswanath Deb) set up shop under a banyan tree (which is also called battala and from which the press derives its name) in the Shobhabazar area, laying the foundations of the popular Battala press. The early Battala books were printed on imitations of palm-leaf manuscripts, in 'landscape' format on a strip-like page, bound at the top margin and without copyright notice. Most of the Battala output was religious or cultic texts, often dealing with the Indian erotic sublime (with appropriate illustrations) – earning the press a reputation of being a pornographer, at least in European eyes. Collections of obscene songs sung on wedding nights by women were also popular, and much of the Battala readership was female. Organisations such as the Brahmo Samaj, influenced by European disgust, campaigned to 'clean up' Bengali literature and life, including Battala books. Eventually, this led to a change in the religious landscape of Bengal, sending the Tantra-influenced Vaishnav and Shaiva/Shaktite sects and their sexually uninhibited literatures underground or concealing them in esoteric enclaves.

Books did not just allow the pre-Independence Southasia to peep through the European eye; they also brought a whole new way of arranging one's life. Previously, people had always written sitting on the floor, using one hand as a rest and the other to write with a metal stylus, usually on a palm leaf or a piece of paper folded to fit the dimensions of the hand. Or they might use a low desk, in front of which they sat cross-legged. But now European reading and writing desks were on show at the big shops in the Western parts of town, and foreign-returned travellers furnished their lavish houses in the latest fashion, with rococo gilt-edged mirrors, dining tables and dinner services, kissing-seats, grand pianos, sofas and sideboards. A study had to have walls of leather-bound books – leather would never have wrapped a Hindu holy text, of course, though tooled-leather covers for Qurans were often things of beauty. The new way of dealing with words transformed the interiors of our houses: the codex book came trailing clouds of wood varnish.

The 1830s saw the spread of printing to the Ganga plain. A feature of presses in these areas was the widespread use of lithography, since many of the texts used the Perso-Arabic script, for which the cutting of type that can match the sinuous beauty of calligraphy is difficult and expensive. So, the preferred method was to print from a litho stone, on which a skilled calligrapher had written the laterally inverted script. Lucknow, Benaras and Kanpur became centres of printing. The Newal Kishore Press was established in 1858 by the journalist Neval Kishore Bhargava, and printed on the latest European presses. In the second half of the 19th century, with the spread of British rule up the Ganga plain, the cantonment towns of Meerut, Allahabad, Agra and Bareilly acquired nascent printing industries, as did some pilgrimage centres such as Mathura and Gorakhpur. Missionaries also brought presses with them as they pushed north and west into the Punjab. The output of these presses included Urdu qissas, dastans (tales and exploits) and masnavis (long poems).

By the 1870s the, spread of primary education in both English and the vernaculars had created a huge book market. The Battala presses added notebooks and 'keys' to their repertoire, as well as a little piracy of 'set' textbooks. The Calcutta presses, both respectable and otherwise, supplied books and pamphlets to Lucknow, Allahabad, Delhi and the Punjab, north to Assam and states of the Northeast, or south to Orissa and the nizamate of Hyderabad. Meanwhile, Bombay served the western coast as well as East Africa, and Madras served the south including many princely states. Wholesalers could get the latest books and journals from London within 18 months, reduced to six months after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Hands-off approach

Thacker & Spink, trading as 'Thacker' in Bombay, was one of the best known 'Anglo-Indian' booksellers. Another was A H Wheeler & Co, which had bookshops in most of the major railway stations. Wheeler was set up in 1887 by Emile Moreau, T K Banerjee, two Englishmen and another Indian; since 1950, Banerjee's heirs have owned it. A H Wheeler now has 258 railway bookshops, but its exclusive right to serve the railway is gone. Oxford University Press(OUP) published many Indological titles during the 19th century; in 1912 E V Rieu set up the Indian Branch in Bombay. OUP's first Indian titles were Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's Essentials of Psychology and J N Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism. Blackie was also active, especially in Bombay, and published one blockbuster title, Wren & Martin's Grammar.

By the 1910s, subsequent to Viceroy George Curzon's criticism of Indian education, many rounds of 'Indian-isation' were undertaken by the increasingly Indian-staffed and native-funded school system, and books such as the Panchatantra were now favoured over European texts for children by many textbook committees. Statistics gathered by the Departments of Public Instruction show that the number of children in primary education rose steeply in the early 20th century, and new universities began to come up everywhere. Subcontinental publishing included small scholarly presses such as Shams ul Ulama Zakaullah of Delhi, which won a case against Macmillan regarding the translation of mathematics textbooks. There were presses such as S K Lahiri & Co, run by scions of aristocratic families (Lahiri's grandfather was Ramtanu Lahiri, an important Brahmo reformer). There were booksellers such as D B Taraporevala, who traded not only all over India's western coast but in East Africa as well. There were also firms such as Radhabai Atmaram Sagoon of Bombay, run by a woman. There were missionary presses, like the centuries-old SPCK at Vepery near Madras, the YMCA Press in Calcutta and the Basle Mission Press at Mangalore. There were presses that printed nationalist, revolutionary material, often underground outfits functioning in secret locations.

From its inception, print had been a double-edged sword, with the Goa press producing both tracts against the Jews by orthodox writers, and a catalogue of spices, herbs and simples by Garcia da Orta, a Sephardic Jew. For every tract praising the government and furthering its agendas, there were twenty that did the opposite. Few in the steel frame of colonial Indian government approved of this, but they did remarkably little to check it, moving in to break up seditious presses only if the people running them were also active wagers of war against the state. By and large, the press was watched, but not warded: information was gathered but rarely acted upon. This was partly due to practical issues: the English press was watched more closely than the vernaculars because the bewildering variety and diversity of Southasian languages constituted a conceptual jungle into which the British, with their notorious ineptitude with languages, were not prepared to hack very deeply. If a book or press was censored, it was usually after the fact, when the effects of the text or activity were so noticeable as to constitute a problem. Only then did the colonial power review the intelligence regarding the text and go after those responsible; otherwise, it was content to let things be. If Europeans were involved, however, it was another matter, as happened with the Reverend James Long's translation of Dinabandhu Mitra's anti-indigo Bengali play Nil Darpan in 1861, which resulted in the embarrassment of indigo planters when it became a sensation in London and caused a lot of questions to be raised about the planters' treatment of Indian workers and farmers.

Hence, when the Indian colonial era ended, the printing and publishing industry lost none of its vigour. Remarkably quickly, Southasia acquired a library of path-breaking social-science titles, fiction, cheap and handy reference, and even nationalist comic books, all thanks to native entrepreneurs and flourishing in a hefty bouquet of Southasian languages. Companies such as Asia Publishing House, Popular Prakashan, Allied Publishers and Jaico Books rushed to fill the vacuum that the flight of British capital would leave, and to create a truly Indian book culture. They published the new scholarship that was being generated by the pioneer scholars of this time. Jaico Books was established in 1946 by Jaman Shah, who named his company 'Jai' (victory) in celebration of the region's imminent independence. Allied Publishers was begun by M Graham Brash, who had once been employed by Macmillan but had left to marry a 'native' woman in Lucknow, scandalising his employers. In 1947, Allied was taken over by R N Sachdeva and became one of the largest wholesalers in India. The late Anant Pai set up Amar Chitra Katha to take the message of nationalism into the heart of every schoolchild, and the effects of his iconic series in moulding the early sensibility of the first generation of Indian citizens was incalculable.

Liberalised volumes

Having expanded during the 1950s and 1960s, Indian publishing largely stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s due to restrictions on imports, scarce capital, poor market returns and heavy regulation. The book scene was trapped in a vicious cycle whereby the lack of good publishers (with a few exceptions) meant authors who got published in the region remained unknown. So, many emigrated to be published in the West, thus depriving publishers of good books to publish and ensuring they did not get any better. With the 1990s and liberalisation, this changed, and the Indian publishing scene is today vibrantly alive. There is a healthy mix of large houses doing titles for mass appeal, alongside small, individualistic presses catering to familiar niche markets. We have also seen the maturing of the 'language' markets and the rise of bilingual publishing. With at least 20 major literary languages and many minor ones, the possibilities for translation set the region's book market apart from all other markets, even Europe, although there is still a great deal to be done in that area.

Print in the Subcontinent has merely been the latest means for a culture of the word to develop and thrive. Unlike in Europe, the cult of the beautiful book has never really caught on here, and books were, and to a large extent still are, utilitarian objects. Perhaps this is because unlike in Europe, the printed book in India never became a vehicle for the holy scriptures in the way the printed Bible became an object of reverence and ritual in the West. In this region, at first, printed books produced by the unholy White man were for passing exams and getting jobs, two functions that they continue to steadfastly perform. It is only now, as Southasian publishing seems set to explode into a new post-liberalisation phase, that the situation appears to be changing.

Perhaps we have finally shaken off our post-colonial hangover and decided to make the book our own, as well as to make our own books. The freshness and willingness to experiment by publishers of India today, and the explosion of fiction and non-fiction in new and edgy genres, is very heartening. Standards of printing, book design and presentation have been getting better and better, although editorial standards do show some glaring lapses. In this climate, there is no telling where the Southasian book will go next. Foreign investment in Southasian literature has been coming in a steady stream, unfazed by world recession and downturns in sales over more traditional markets. Not only have foreign publishers been opening offices here at the rate of one major publisher per year (latest biggies include Random House, Hachette and Routledge) but Southasian publishers have been going global, making their presence felt at international book fairs and bidding for the rights to hot new titles. The vast potential for translated literature in the melange of languages spoken in the Subcontinent promises in sheer volume to dwarf Europe's similar sales across languages, provided publishers can get their quality right. The global quality of Southasian writers has been proven again and again, and now finally the publishing world is acknowledging that here is where the action is, in the bookshops, cafes and sitting rooms of the reading Southasian public.

— Rimi B Chatterjee is an author and academic. She has published three novels and teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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