Apart from the Text: Book History in India

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.”

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