A R Venkatachalapathy: From print shop to print history

By 09 Sep 2020

One of the leading print historians of India, A R Venkatachalapathy has focussed on the print culture associated with the Tamil language and its literature besides examining various aspects of cultural history. He is currently Professor at Madras Institute of Development Sciences. He has written extensively for both popular and scholarly audiences in English and Tamil on print history. In a free-wheeling discussion with Murali Ranganathan, Chalapathy discusses his journey from the days spent in a print shop to becoming a print historian

How did you decide to become a print historian?
I didn’t set out to become a print historian at all. Like most people of my generation – I was born in 1967 – I had a fascination with print. A rubber stamp was my favourite boyhood toy. To see one’s name in print was intoxicating. This must seem bizarre to digital natives who have a device on the table that prints on the click of an icon. 

When did you first encounter print?
My encounter with print came early. Until the beginning of my teens, I was voraciously devouring books in English. I graduated to reading in Tamil only in my fourteenth year. It opened a new world altogether. Groomed by Maamani, a local Tamil activist, I became the associate editor of Mugam when it was founded in April 1983 – a Tamil monthly little magazine. 

It focused on Tamil identity and is still in print. My compilation of the letters of freedom fighter and Tamil scholar V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was published soon after in late 1984. 

Can you recall your early experiences in a printing press?
Even though offset printing technology was available, it was prohibitively expensive and therefore letterpress dominated Tamil book publishing. I would spend long hours sitting in dark printing presses. Wonder why printing presses were always dark! Another indispensable aspect was the unending supply of tea. Reading galley proofs, watching the foreman make-up the page proofs, giving ‘strike order’ even as the machine-man impatiently stood beside you, and seeing the folded forme were all exhilarating.

Printing presses were always in a hurry. At the end of the working day, a boy would deliver the proof pages to the proof reader and pick up the corrected proofs the next morning. The foreman would quickly carry out the corrections, and get the chase ready. The stock of types was always low and only if the formes were printed could the pages be dismantled and types redistributed to the cases for the compositors to work with. The presses that did bookwork for Tamil publishers would have types barely enough to compose more than half a dozen forms.

So they could not afford to keep the composed matter ‘standing’ as they say. Once I did a book with the Diocesan Press (the successor to the Vepery/SPCK Press of the late eighteenth century). The entire proofs of the book came in one go and it was a new experience for me. Saturdays were hectic, and the printers had little time for the usual small talk, as it was wage day and they were trying to find the money to pay the workers.

I acquired proofreading skills quickly: proofreading combines technical skills and linguistic knowledge. For instance, errors in hand composition of moveable type were rarely random. Most errors crept in due to wrong type distribution. Fonts and points would get mixed up. We used to have proofing signs such as ‘wp’ and ‘wf’ to correct these errors which are now completely lost. Occasionally, after the pages had been locked and the chase was placed in the machine a few types at the end of a line would fall off. And the machine-man would invert it when sticking it back in. So, at the machine proof stage, a good proofreader would quickly run his eye through the line endings.

What were the other print technologies you encountered in the eighties and nineties?
In the late 1980s, I was exposed to hot metal technology as well. My publisher/printer-friend, M. D. Rajukumar, bought a Linotype machine – in English, I must add. I haven’t encountered a Linotype machine in Tamil. Some printers did have Tamil MonoType but it was often used as an in-house foundry rather than for actual typesetting. Linotype’s range is limited – it usually has only one font with its attendant bold, italic and small caps. Typesetting required care: if you missed a few words, the whole paragraph would have to be reset. When typos were corrected, one had to proofread the whole line. But the solidity of Linotype has its own inimitable aesthetic.

The heaviness of the metal can be felt in the impress on the paper. The justification is perfect. The serifs are so sharp that you feared it would stab your finger. As rotary was the exclusive domain of newspapers I never worked with it. Another printer did ‘art pulls’ – DTP was yet to arrive while phototypesetting and bromide prints were prohibitively expensive. Occasionally I would run errands to the block- maker and wrapper designer. I even ‘designed’ a couple of cover designs, and did ‘calligraphy’ for the book titles.

So, by the time I was twenty, I was exposed to the full gamut of the art and craft of bookmaking. To reflect on of it now, the timing was fortuitous. By the early 1990s, letterpress was on its way out. If I had arrived a few years later, I would have missed it altogether. Further, as a greenhorn, sitting in the press for long hours, technicians and authors were less inhibited in opening up to an earnest young man. Consequently I imbibed much from their experience and knowledge. 

How did these early experiences in print evolve into an interest in book and print history?
I have been involved in every aspect of the book trade – as a printer’s devil, proof reader, copy editor, editor, author, agent, commissioning editor, bookseller, publisher – and my interest in print history combines this engagement with a scholarly interest in the world of letters. In 1987, after graduating in commerce, I joined the Maraimalai Adigal Library as an assistant librarian. It was a low-paid job. But, in those days, the Maraimalai Adigal Library was the greatest repository of Tamil imprints. I lived and breathed in that library for three full years. Interacting with the steady stream of researchers who used the library was a bonus. By this time, I was writing and publishing consistently.

It was during these years that I read the complete prose writings of the great Tamil scholar-editor U.V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942). The Tamil University’s chronological edition of Subramania Bharati’s poems was also published at this time. All these fuelled my already burning passion for print. In 1990 I joined the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University for its MPhil/PhD programme. My MPhil seminar paper was on Bharati’s publishing efforts, the story of how he emerged as Tamil’s greatest modern writer while failing to earn his bread. Whatever my paper’s faults, it was inspired. It was then that I decided that my doctoral research would be on the history of Tamil publishing.

How has print history evolved in India since those days?
Print history was far from being a fashionable topic when I began my research. People gave me strange looks when I mentioned my research topic. My thesis carried the title: ‘A Social History of Tamil Book-Publishing’ – it would be difficult to imagine a more drab title. However, by the time I finished in January 1994, print culture had become somewhat of an academic rage. Soon there was a flurry of scholarship that came to be called ‘print culture/history’. Suddenly, somewhat like Moliere’s Jourdain who realized that he had been speaking prose all the time, it dawned on me that I was practicing print history without quite knowing it.

Who are the print historians whose works have impressed and influenced you?
As I outlined my early career at the outset, my interest in book history came from a direct engagement with books, Tamil scholarly traditions, and hands-on experience in the book trade. It is from out of this interest that I looked for book histories. The conventional histories that I could lay my hands on initially bored me. It was Lucien Febvre and Henri Jean-Martin’s The Coming of the Book and Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment that exercised the biggest influence.

The Coming of the Book provided a broad sweep and The Business of Enlightenment showed how the making of the French Encyclopedia gives us an understanding of revolutionary France: the bird’s eye view and the worm’s eye view. The kind of source material that Darnton could lay his hand on is impossible in the South Asian context, and that will always remain the south Asian book historian’s envy. Unfortunately, in my formative years, I did not have access to scholarship on the Chinese book tradition. A. K. Priolkar was an early beacon light. In Tamil itself, Mylai Seeni Venkatasamy’s Pathonpatham Nootrandil Tamil Ilakkiyam (Tamil Literature in the Nineteenth Century) which was published in 1962 is an exemplary work. I have the greatest respect for Graham Shaw’s meticulously produced bibliographies.


The Province of the Book (2007); Who Owns That Song (2018); Monograph on chapbooks, Muchanti Ilakkiyam (2004); V. O. Chidambaram Pillai’s Letters (1984)

You have written and published widely over the last thirty-five years. Which of your books do you consider the most important?
Since I am bilingual, the corpus has been considerable, more than 40 books of original writing and edited works. My work has been two-pronged. On the one hand, I write, what I hope are, insightful scholarly monographs. These include my books such as The Province of the Book which covers the social history of Tamil publishing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright is the story of how Bharati’s writings came into the public domain. I believe it breaks new ground. I have written much on the social history of consumption, Tamil identity politics, the history of the freedom struggle and the Dravidian movement. This work is based on a range of printed artefacts: books, pamphlets, journals, correspondence, etc. Thus my engagement with printed artefacts underpins all my work. Much of the material that I have used is new, and it has resulted in the expansion of the archive.

And what about your works in Tamil?
A big chunk of my work is in Tamil. There are Tamil avatars of the work mentioned above – they are completely rewritten with the Tamil context in mind. For example, individual chapters in my The Province of the Book have been expanded into stand-alone monographs in Tamil. The essay on the making of the Tamil encyclopaedia – published in The Moveable Type edited by Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakraborty – is expanded into a monograph in Tamil. Since I employ what I believe is a writing style that is both scholarly and has literary flair my work is read by a larger reading public. Many of my Tamil books come with rich appendixes where I provide reproductions of source material – much of which is difficult to access even for scholars.

But the work that I really take pride in is the many volumes of critical editions of documents. I’ve tried to follow in the footsteps of the great Tamil scholar-editors. Even if I have failed, the models are exemplary. The first set of volumes is the uncollected writings of Subramania Bharati. It’s amazing that so much of a celebrated figure’s writing should still remain uncollected. The second project is the critical, variorum and chronological edition of the complete works of the great Tamil writer Pudumaippithan (1906-1948). The project began in 1995, and so far five volumes totalling 3,000 pages have been published. The last three volumes were to appear by the end of the year but the coronavirus seems to have other plans for it.

The other big project is the publication of the correspondence of U.V. Swaminatha Iyer. The first volume covering 1877-1900 (over 700 letters) has been published. Three more volumes were planned for the coming year but that too is now stalled. The worth of the projects is not to be measured by magnitude alone. Five years ago, I published the memoirs of S. G. Ramanujalu Naidu (1886-1935). It’s a slim book of barely 100 pages but its worth towards writing a history of Tamil journalism is immeasurable.

What is the kind of print history work that is being undertaken or published in Tamil?
There is an obsession with the history of the recovery of Sangam literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which translates into the neglect of other areas. There is little effort to look into other domains such as religious literature, philosophical texts, non- mainstream traditions, scholarly lineages, monastic institutions, etc. There is also a tendency to repeat what’s already been done. I need to mention exceptional younger scholars such as P. Saravanan whose monumental compilation of the tracts exchanged in the sectarian intellectual battle between Arumuga Navalar and St Ramalingam is a towering achievement.

The chronological edition of Bharati’s complete works by the senior scholar Seeni Viswanathan is another notable exception. Saravanan’s editions of U. V. Swaminatha Iyer’s writings, and Perumal Murugan’s (yes, the famed novelist is also a fine scholar) edition of Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan’s short stories are models worth emulating. 

You are also closely associated with a publishing house. Can you tell us about it?
I have incubated many book projects for Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, the innovative Tamil publisher. Started in 1994, primarily to publish the great Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy’s works, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam has changed the face of Tamil publishing. Apart from its varied and daring list, it has infused professionalism into Tamil publishing – entering into written contracts with writers; publishing translations only after acquiring rights; promoting a writer’s work by selling translation rights, and standing by the freedom of expression (it is Perumal Murugan’s publisher), etc. It is a matter of some pride for me to have been part of this.

How do you see print history evolving in the coming decades?
New technologies are completely changing the face of the study of print culture. The increasing availability of scanned copies of older books – despite its many limitations – is a boon. But new methods need to be forged by younger scholars to tap into this rich resource. I continue to rely on my own notes made over the last over three and a half decades, and only occasionally dip into digital resources – I am too old a dog to learn new tricks.

But I’d give a hand and a leg to be born again as a younger scholar to exploit the new technology. What took me years, hard labour and tidy sums of money to gather is now available at the click of a mouse. To think that I spent hours and hours making notes, racing against time, makes me feel like an idiot now! But I suppose one should take comfort that the journey is more important than reaching the destination.

Print history will therefore be practised by scholars within academia and by its very logic, only a small fraction of history and literature scholars will take up this niche. But there will always be book enthusiasts who will continue to practice it unmindful of funding or fame.

Is print history now less about print objects, but more about the people who create and consume them, and exploring the contextual practices which frame this creation and consumption?
Print materials constitute the staple source for historians. So even when I read a printed source, I am always also looking at the artefact itself. The paper, the ink, the typography, the binding; and how all these come together as a book; how it travels; and how it ends up in a library or a reader’s hand or in the wastepaper man – all these keep playing in my mind. I suppose that’s what makes me a print historian. 

Print culture is a holistic exercise. Bibliography and bibliometry are the bedrock. But what is history without human beings? The book, unlike other cultural artefacts, is not a relic to be museumized. The reader/consumer will be central. Emphases will change, but interest in print histories will, I believe, continue in various forms

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