A small band of dedicated scholars unravel the story of the book

01 April 2010

IN 1995, A BOX OF VERY OLD AND BRITTLE Hindi and Urdu pamphlets at the Heidelberg University library was about to be discarded, when Ulrike Stark, a researcher of modern Hindi literature, realised she was looking at something very valuable. What she had before her were the few surviving remnants of a booklet printed more than a century ago by the Naval Kishore Press of Lucknow, one of the most successful publishers in 19th century north India, and the largest Indian-owned printing press on the subcontinent at that time. Stark, who wanted to go beyond studying literary texts, felt she had found her subject: the history of the book in India.

In her book on early print culture in India, An Empire of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and the Diffusion of the Printed Word in Colonial India (Permanent Black, 2007) she notes, “The history of the book in India is a history largely untold.” And it may have remained that way if it hadn’t been for a small but growing band of intrepid scholars and bibliographers.

Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakravorty are the editors of two anthologies on Indian book history: Print Areas (Permanent Black, 2004) and Moveable Type (Permanent Black, 2008). In their introduction to the first volume, the editors note, “Despite being a country with a long, rich and complex book culture, India does not have a comprehensive history of its books. Print Areas is the first attempt to write such a history and brings together the work of leading contemporary historians of the book in India.”

What, though, does book history have to do with the common reader?

The interest begins unselfconsciously: from reflecting on what is inside a book you begin thinking about the book as an object. You grow curious about the year it was published and who published it. You begin noticing things like binding, typography and jacket covers. From there it’s a short step to the question: what did a book look, feel and even smell like in 19th century India? What kinds of books were printed

then? Who read them? How, in fact, did publishing begin in India? Like the book historian, you too go from being reader to bibliophile to


The pleasures of bibliophily come from fully embracing the book as material object; its binding, edition, condition, rarity and typography matter as much as its literary content. When reading, or even just touching a book, we are—even if not fully conscious of it—in the presence of one of the most valued and venerated objects in a culture. And among the protagonists of production—the author, editor and publisher—we must include the printer. The printer and typesetter, the true heroes of the book, often go unheralded.

But bibliography is only a starting point for the book historian. In order to understand the book as both material object and a force in history, book historians study general patterns of book production and consumption, focusing on the most ordinary books in order to uncover the literary experience of ordinary readers.

Francesca Orsini’s Print and Pleasure (November 2009, the newest book history title from Permanent Black), for instance, examines “the boom in commercial publishing in 19th century north India. How did the new technology of printing and the enterprise of Indian publishers make the book a familiar object and a necessary part of people’s leisure in a largely illiterate society? What genres became popular in print? Who read them and how were they read?”

What is just as exciting as these emerging book histories of India is that at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Chakravorty and Gupta teach a course in book history at the university’s School of Cultural Texts and Records. They teach students to prepare bibliographies, compile bibliographical catalogues and create book search engines, edit manuscripts and printed texts, investigate the history of publishing and printing, collect all sorts of ephemera and street literature, and archive documents and manuscripts of modern writers.

What brought Abhijit Gupta to bibliography when his colleagues in English departments around the country had stayed closer to literary criticism and theory?

My interest in printing and publishing began during my first job, a nearly two-year stint as a subeditor in the newsroom of The Statesman. My time working as a journalist gave me an opportunity to reflect on mainstream English studies and what I had learnt in my five years as a student. I knew I was bored with the traditional emphasis on textual hermeneutics, and was much more interested in the material processes which resulted in the creation and consumption of texts. Being in a newsroom was particularly revealing, for here the interface between materiality and the text was evident at every point. As a result, I became more interested in the process rather than the product.

I have been working for the last six years on a database of all Bengali books printed between 1801 and 1947, with full bibliographical description, title-page transcription and location details in the major libraries in Bengal and the UK. Work on the first phase, 1801-67, has recently been completed and the second phase, 1868-1914, is in an advanced stage. From this data, I hope to be able to write a history of the book in Bengal in the next five years.

When Gupta began his doctoral research at Cambridge in the early 1990s, he hadn’t even heard of the term ‘book history.’ In 1997, he attended his first book history conference and learned of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), the apex body of international book history. Two years later, when he joined Jadavpur University as a lecturer, he was gratified to find a postgraduate course in Book History already in place, begun by his erstwhile teacher, Swapan Chakravorty. While studying for a DPhil at Oxford, Chakravorty had been a student of the legendary Don McKenzie, and this is likely to have been an influence on his setting up the course.

Book history at Jadavpur was further strengthened when they were joined by Rimi B Chatterjee in 2003, whose Empires of the Mind: A History of the Oxford University Press in India During The Raj went on to win SHARP’s book history prize in 2007. Other than starting a publishing series on book history in India (a new volume titled New Word Order: Essays in the Transnational Histories of the Book is slated for release this year), the team at Jadavpur University also held two conferences: the first, ‘Towards Book History in India’ in 2002, and then two back-to-back conferences in 2006—‘New Word Order’ and ‘Print and Palimpsest.’ It was around this time in 2003 that Sukanta Chaudhuri set up the School of Cultural Texts and Records, which is now a major centre for creating resources in book history and textual studies.

PRINT AREAS OFFERS A RANGE of essays by such book historians as Priya Joshi, Rimi B Chatterjee, Francesca Orsini, Siddhartha Ghosh, Veena Naregal and Anindita Ghosh. The essays cover subjects such as the histories of Macmillan and Oxford University Press, bibliographical notes on the first edition of a book of nonsense verse, Benares as a centre of publishing, and the impact of popular books in Bengal.

Its companion volume, Moveable Type, offers further, and equally fascinating, examples of India’s encounter with books. AR Venkatchalapathy’s essay, for instance, is on the making of a Tamil encyclopaedia (his fascination with printing began when he was six!). He told me:

My forthcoming book from Permanent Black is called The Province of the Book: Print Culture in Colonial Tamil Nadu. It looks at the period from about the 1850s to the outbreak of the Second World War. It is concerned with how Tamil publishing was largely sustained by forms of traditional patronage (of zamindars, religious monasteries and caste leaders) which broke down at the beginning of the 20th century.

A limited market emerged through the birth of an educated middle class. While I talk of structures of publishing I also look at the emergence of new literary genres, especially the novel, which helped to bring the middle class within the ambit of reading and books…I also have a chapter on how new reading practices, especially the mode of silent reading (as opposed to reading aloud) arose in colonial Tamil Nadu.

I asked Rukun Advani, Permanent Black’s publisher, how they came to recognise the significance of publishing work on book history, and the answer, though not the one I had expected, was inspiring:

I don’t think Anuradha Roy or I foresaw the importance of book history at all. We only try to judge whether a specific academic, or bunch of academics, studying any area connected with South Asian history, culture, and politics happens to be of very high calibre or not.

I suppose we had some inkling that book history would burgeon in our region since there was quite a lot of it in the West and very little here, but the central fact for us was that people such as Vasudha Dalmia, Francesca Orsini, Swapan Chakravorty, Abhijit Gupta, Sukanta Chaudhuri, AR Venkatachalapathy and Ulrike Stark were all focusing on this area and asking us if we’d publish them. If this bunch of people had been focusing instead on changes in the breeding habits of the rosy pelican during global warming, we’d probably have had an inkling of this as a breakthrough in the historical ethology of South Asian ornithology and published them equally happily.

In An Empire of Books, Ulrike Stark, who now teaches at the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, illuminates the life and work of several pioneer 19th century publishers (Fardunji Sorabji Marzban in Bombay, Munshi Harsukh Rai in Lahore, Maulvi Abdul Rahman Khan in Kanpur and Mustafa Khan and Munshi Naval Kishore in Lucknow) for whom publishing was “as much entrepreneurial as intellectual.”

I was curious to know what the experience of writing about early print culture had been like for Stark, and she spoke of the difficulty of finding source material.

Book history in India is a relatively new and fascinating field of inquiry, which offers tremendous scope for pioneering work. However, the South Asian book historian faces particular challenges. The lack of primary sources was the greatest difficulty I was facing when researching the Naval Kishore Press. But for a few stray documents nothing has survived of the publisher’s archive. I was working without the very documents that a book historian usually relies on and that constitute his most important source, i.e. publishers’ account books and ledgers, business correspondence and private papers.  The regular coverage of the firm’s business activities in British colonial records could only partly fill this lacuna.

Stark’s current project is in some ways a by-product of her work on print culture and intellectual history in 19th century north India: a biography of ‘Sitara-e Hind’ Raja Shivaprasad, (1824-95), a leading public intellectual, man of letters, historian and educator.

Before these book history volumes came along there had been little focus in academia, let alone journalism, on Indian book culture and history. As a bibliophile, I am grateful to these pioneer book historians who travelled beyond literary analysis to investigate our hidden and neglected literary history.

Pradeep Sebastian PRADEEP SEBASTIAN is a literary columnist for The Hindu.

Keywords: Rukun Advani Pradeep Sebastian New Word Order bibliophily modern Hindi literature Naval Kishore Press wapan Chakravorty An Empire of Books Abhijit Gupta