catalogue - from Conversion to Subversion

250 years of the printed book in India

Download PDF catalogue

This catalogue features 125 works spanning the history of print in India and exemplifying the vast range of published material produced over 250 years.

The western technology of printing with movable metal types was introduced into India by the Portuguese as early as 1556 and used intermittently until the late 17th century. The initial output was meagre, the subject matter overwhelmingly religious, and distribution confined to Portuguese enclaves. This early material was used for administrative and devotional purposes, and had little or no impact on the indigenous Indian population. It was only in the following century that print culture came into its own, marked by such pioneering efforts as The Lutheran Mission Press at Tranquebar near Madras, which was set up in 1712 to print Christian texts in local languages for the conversion of Hindus to Christianity. Two samples from this press are present here (See items 1-2), both with an as yet unidentified royal provenance, probably Danish.

While printing in southern India in the 18th century was almost exclusively Christian and evangelical, the first book to be printed in northern India was Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (3), a product of the East India Company’s Press at Hooghly in 1778. Thus began a fertile period for publishing, fostered by Governor-General Warren Hastings and led by Sir William Jones and his generation of great orientalists, who produced a number of superb books on Calcutta presses. Many were the result of a detailed study of Indian languages (3, 8, 12, 14), literatures (7) and history (5, 11). All achieved a remarkable quality of production despite the difficulties of acquiring paper and other necessary materials, and the complications of printing in the harsh climate of Bengal (See for example, 11).

catalogue - from Conversion to Subversion

This same period also generated records of (13, 15) and justifications for (4) East India Company rule, reports on important scientific research (9), and the first Indian newspapers (5). By 1800 Calcutta had more newspapers than London, establishing the tradition of a strong English language press that has persisted till today. But perhaps the most important publication of the period was the world’s first journal devoted to Asian studies, Asiatick Researches (10), the organ of the Asiatic Society of Bengal founded in 1784.

Printing in India in the late 18th century exhibited the twin governmental functions of education and control, and with the beginnings of commercial publishing also sought to entertain the growing expatriate population. European painters and engravers moved to India to exploit the new market, illustrating books and journals as well as issuing separate sets of topographical prints. Many, daunted by local conditions, published their work only on their return to Europe, but some, notably James Moffat (16), produced their prints locally in Calcutta.

The first half of the 19th century saw an explosion of publishing in India. The missionaries William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward set up and ran the Baptist Mission Press (20 & 23-24) at Serampore in Bengal, issuing more than 212,000 volumes of Biblical translations printed between 1800 and 1838, in some forty different languages or dialects. For many of these, fonts of type had to be designed and cast for the first time. Similar books were published in Madras (21-22, 30-31) and Bombay (27).

The unforeseen impact of missionary publishing was profound. Increasingly, the works of Christian presses were read as open attacks upon indigenous religion, which then called for defence. Ram Mohun Roy (26) was one of the first Indians to use the printing press to promote his own ideas, seeking to find serviceable common ground between Vedanta and Christianity. Both Hindu and Muslim communities in the subcontinent soon adopted printing to promote their own faith. The use of the printing press in the cause of religious revival led to its crucial role in the wider rediscovery and dissemination of India’s cultural and literary heritage.

Outside the areas of East India Company control, a number of private royal presses were set up. The greatest of these was established by Ghaziuddin Haider, Nawab of Oudh, at Lucknow in 1817. Both his finest production, Haft qulzum (29), and an equally beautifully printed work on astronomy (45), are present here.

catalogue - from Conversion to Subversion

As the 19th century wore on, printing fanned out from the capitals to many towns throughout the sub-continent: Surat and Poona in 1821, Kottayam 1823, Patna 1828 (39), Delhi 1834 (53, 68), Agra 1835 (56), Ludhiana 1836 (66), Allahabad and Trivandrum 1839, Bangalore 1840, Benares 1844, Lahore (70, 73) 1850, and Hyderabad (94) in 1869. This spread of printing was largely the result of commercial enterprise, with the publication of a weekly newspaper or monthly magazine (73) often crucial to the economic viability of a provincial press. More v presses meant more Indian operators, with the ever-expanding indigenous market taking on a more active role. It is worth noting that the books listed in this catalogue were printed in 27 different towns.

In 1835 the Metcalfe Act initiated the widespread ownership of presses by Indians, democratizing print in India. This led to a surge of printing in all the major regional languages (66, 72, 77), with newspaper and magazine journalism as seen in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Tehzib ul-Akhlaq (80) becoming important vehicles of public discourse.

The introduction of lithography as a new printing technique in the 1820s had a far greater impact in India than in Europe. As a relatively simple and economic technique, lithography became the ideal medium for the professional and amateur artist, as illustrated by the work of Charles D’Oyly (39 & 43) at Patna and Colesworthy Grant (50 & 61) in Calcutta. D’Oyly’s Behar School of Athens was the most prolific publisher of prints in India in the early 19th century. The first book printed in India to contain lithographic plates is present here (33). More importantly, lithography allowed the reproduction of indigenous scripts without the need for an alien font. It entered the mainstream of publishing, being adopted above all by Muslim communities in the subcontinent to reproduce the cultural and visual authority of the manuscript. The Nawal Kishore Press of Lucknow was a pioneer in the revival of Islamic learning, publishing many classical Persian and Arabic texts (95 & 112).

The expansion of education in the 19th century with the widespread establishment of government schools also created a huge new market for books. The Calcutta School Book Society (25) had issued more than 100,000 copies of educational books by 1821, and this process accelerated throughout the century.

By the 1860s the first generation of Indian university graduates spearheaded an unprecedented outpouring of public debate, thought and creativity known as the ‘Indian Renaissance’ – a movement that began in Bengal and spread rapidly to other urban centres. Print fanned the resurgence of pride and interest in regional literatures, a process that would culminate in the emergence of literary giants like Tagore (113) and Iqbal (119).

The second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw two distinct strands of publishing: the English language press serving the needs of the British, and the regional language presses promoting India’s culture and heritage.

The colonial project of control intensified after the 1857 rebellion (70-71), collecting and codifying every detail of Indian society. In defining and packaging an India perceived as inferior to western civilization, print contributed directly to the agenda of colonial rule. In print we see at its height the remarkable elaboration of British administration into the Raj, through such routine data-gathering as mapping (54, 67 & 87), district gazetteers (102), ethnographic studies (82, 101), and Grierson’s monumental linguistic survey (105). The gradual extension of British rule can also be traced through the medicogeographical works on Darjeeling (48 & 74) and Dacca (52). Even the off-duty existence of army officers and civil administrators was recorded, in volumes of poetry (32) and humorous sketches (68-69), often detailing the boredom and tedium of cramped expatriate life.

Indian publishers focused on indigenous history and tradition (76, 85, 88-89, 97, 106) and promoted the development of political consciousness. Syed Ahmad Khan’s Mohammedan Social Reformer (80), Rabindranath Tagore’s famous satire on education, (113), and Mahatma Gandhi’s crusading newspaper Harijan (117) all served to encourage the nationalist cause, as did more directly 18 posters (116) denouncing British rule and advocating full independence for India.

The modern national identity of ‘India’ has been indelibly shaped by the introduction of printing and its spread throughout the subcontinent. From its origins as an imported tool used to convert and control the indigenous population, the printed book in India had become by the close of the 19th century an Indian engine of subversion, fuelling religious and cultural revival, movements for social reform, and ultimately, in the first half of the 20th century, political consciousness.

Books printed in India are rare on the market – the Indian climate has not treated them kindly, and few copies were sent home to Britain. The books in this catalogue have been gathered over a 30-year period. Some bear exceptional provenance: Governor-General Lord Bentinck’s copy of Ramaseeana (46), Sleeman’s great study of thuggee, presented to him by the author; the Indian National Congress founder Allan Octavian Hume’s annotated copy of his Hindi translation of the Indian Penal Code (72); the artist William Simpson’s copy of a charmingly illustrated Urdu book of magic (85). Others have been de-accessioned from libraries where they languished unread for a century or more.

Graham Shaw Putney, November 2013

Forthcoming Catalogues

Indian Languages – 19th century dictionaries, grammars and related works