The true tradition of print in India

By 27 Feb 2013

Chintamoni Ghosh, Raja Ravi Verma and Mahatma Gandhi are legends. PrintWeek India pays a tribute to their contribution to print in order to celebrate Printer's Day on 24 February.

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A friend, who is a raconteur, told me about The Indian Press and Chintamoni Ghosh its proprietor and founder.

The Indian Press was founded and registered on 4 June 1884 in Allahabad when Chintamoni Ghosh was 30 year old.
 
Both Prabasi and Modern Review were printed at the Indian Press.
 
According to his biographer N G Bagchi, "The first and best printed book in Hindi was produced at The Indian Press. Chintamoni was considered the Caxton of the Hindi world. And he made it a point to learn the rudimentary of the trade – typesetting, make up and imposition; while working for a salary of Rs 10 at the Pioneer newspaper.
 
His dream of becoming a printer was fulfilled when he purchased a secondhand Crown hand press with accessories; and since he could not afford an assistant, he did the printing himself - after a day job at Meteorological Department.
 
Two years later he produced a series of graded readers or Hindi called Shikshavali. Compared to the book then available which was printed by the government press on indifferent paper and been prepared 30 years earlier, these Hindi readers broke new grounds in terms of language and content; as well as lay out and typography.
 
Rabindranath Tagore heard about Chintamani Ghosh and Indian Press through Prabasi to which he was a regular contributor. Tagore assigned the sole right of printing and publishing of about 100 titles of Tagore including responsibility for making arrangement for sale of those books against biennial settlement of royalty to the author.

Tagore’s classic Gitanjali was printed at The Indian Press. This is the work that fetched him the Nobel Prize in 1913.
 
Later when Rabindranath Tagore formed the institution of Santiniketan-Visva Bharati on 18 September 1922. He donated his Noble Prize earnings and royalties to the creation of this institution. He wrote to Chintamoni if he was willing to transfer the copyright of The Indian Press books to Visva Bharati so that the profits could be accrued for the building of the new University and requested him to join hands for a satisfactory arrangement of printing the books henceforth. Chintamoni readily responded and, ignoring self-interest, transferred the entire stock of books at a nominal one third of the price, and thus the foundation of Visva Bharati publications was laid in July, 1923.
 
The reason I mention all this is something Chintamani Ghosh told his son Hari Keshabh to whom he would leave the running of the press: “This is not merely a press. It is a permanent contribution to the nation.”
 
 
Raja Ravi Verma 
 
Malavali is perhaps inconsequential. But this village, eight kms from Lonavala that was home to Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press in the early 1900s.
 
In 1894, Ravi Varma purchased a German lithographic machine. Land was expensive in Mumbai, and so, the artist from Kilimanoor in Kerala shifted the press to Malavali in 1898. As Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, authors of Popular Indian Art–Raja Ravi Varma and The Printed Gods of India, write, "His paintings of gods and goddesses, epic heroes and heroines, virtually defined the new pan-Indian iconography.
 
Using a German printer and high-speed steam-driven presses, Ravi Varma published millions of copies of these famous paintings as well as other religious icons. These paintings were also used to advertise goods and services, as indeed for political propaganda, where heroes, gods and national leaders merged into one another."
 
The prints of Verma's paintings can be found on calendars, matchboxes and even playing cards. Neumeyer states, they are "the best loved visuals in India", adorning puja-ghars of homes. It was print which made Verma's paintings accessible to every household and kirana shop; and even gripe water bottles in India.

A fire in 1972 ruined the press and its kit.
 
Raja Ravi Verma's press may have shut down; but print lives on.
 
 
Mahatma Gandhi
 
I came across this quote: "Contributors should have some pity for the editor and poor compositors. We should take pride in writing a clear and beautiful hand in our own language ... 
 
Especially when writing for a publication, everyone should regard it as his sacred duty to be doubly careful." The author is not a compositor or typesetter.
 
It is Mahatma Gandhi and going by his advise, it seems nothing has changed since 1919.
 
The thing is, Gandhi was an astute printer, publisher and journalist.
 
Gandhi edited Indian Opinion, Young India, Navjivan and Harijan.
 
Gandhi counted bad printing an act of himsa (violence). He insisted on clear types, durable paper and neat simple jackets. He knew costly books in attractive jackets were out of the reach of readers of a poor country like India. During his lifetime, the Navajivan Press printed many books at a low price. His autobiography in Gujarati was priced 12 annas. There was also a cheap edition of this book printed in Devanagari.
 
Gandhi had simple, practical suggestions. He felt children's books should be printed in bold types, attractive paper, and each item should be illustrated with a sketch. He preferred thin booklets. They do not tire out the children and are easy to handle.
 
Curiously, Gandhi was not obsessed with saving money while printing. Once the Navjivan Press decided to publish a Gujarati translation of Gokhale's writings and speeches. The translation was done by an educationist. When the book was printed, Gandhi was requested to write the foreword. He found the translation poor and stiff and asked it to be destroyed. When he was told that Rs 700 had been spent, he said: "Do you think it desirable to place this rubbish before the public after spending more on binding and cover? I do not want to ruin people's taste by distributing bad literature."
 
Gandhi stopped printing his journals when a Government order restricted him. His press was confiscated, his files were destroyed, his co-workers were jailed. He was never discouraged and remarked: "The press has a role to play. It has to become the people's Bible, Koran and Gita rolled in one. A newspaper predicts that riots are coming and all that sticks and knives have been sold out. It is the duty of the press to teach people to be brave, not to instill fear into them."
 
In today's times, the print industry has a lot to learn from the Father of the Nation; and perhaps the Father of the Indian Print Industry.

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