Overview of printing in India 1556-2015

By 16 Mar 2018

Books are loaded vehicles of knowledge, an unavoidable tool of education and documentation of culture and civilization. Thus, books have a great social role to play in any society. In short, printing has been a great liberator of the human mind – extension of this age-old system of interaction and communication is newspapers, magazines, radio, television, internet, social media, and computers.

Som Nath Sapru

In India, book printing/ publishing has come a long way since 1556 when Portuguese Jesuits set up a printing press in Goa to print religious books for free distribution. Later, printing/ publishing efforts were accelerated by the East India Company and the British government to print government texts, circulars and government notifications in the form of Gazette publications and booklets side-stitched or glued together.

However, the early contribution of entrepreneurs like Nawal Kishore Bhargava, Sorabhoji, Mustafa Khan, Chintamani Ghosh and a number of government-initiated and financed establishments involved in printing/ publishing is quite remarkable. The initial work in printing booklets in short runs by Mustafai Press, established in 1855 at Lucknow; Nawal Kishore Press, established in 1858 at Lucknow; Indian Press at Allahabad; Gazette Press at Calcutta and Gazette Press at Delhi established in 1841; Mumbai Mudranalaya, established in 1824 at Bombay; Orphan School Press, established in 1843 at Mirzapore; Cawnpore Lithograph Press at Cawnpore established in 1830; Rourkee Madrasa Ka Chhapakhana at Rourkee established in 1845 and Lodehana Press at Ludhiana established in 1836, were concentrated efforts in printing/publishing and distribution.

In the second decade of 1800, noteworthy work was done in the field of publishing by Calcutta Book Society by reprinting science textbooks printed in Europe. In Calcutta alone, Baptists claimed to have printed 710,000 school books in various regional languages by 1820.

Soon after the first armed struggle for independence in 1857, there was a sudden realisation of the importance of the printed word for the urban common man. Only print could help exchange of ideas between different communities in the various parts of the country. The British had their own interest in promoting education in the country, to train a large segment of the urban population as white-collared ‘babus’.

Both these goals boosted printing/ publishing in various parts of the country. Organisations such as Higinbothams in Madras in 1844; Nawal Kishore Press in Lucknow in 1858; DB Taraporevala Sons in Bombay in 1864; AH Wheeler & Co in Allahabad in 1877; Indian Press in Allahabad in 1884; IMH Press in Delhi in 1885; Gowarsons Publishers in 1888 played an important role in giving the impetus to professional printing/ publishing activities in the pre-independence era.

Before and after 1947

Since Independence, printing/ publishing in India is pulsating with charged energies of professionalism and technology, which has resulted in well-designed and well-produced newspapers, magazines, books. This considerable change in printing/ publishing was possible because of the availability of expertise provided by the professionals produced by Regional Schools of Printing Technology sponsored under the First Five Year Plan.

Over the years, more such institutions were opened, besides one IIT (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, which runs an advance course on design), two universities at Jadavpur and Chennai offering graduate and post-graduate courses. Of late Guru Jhambeshwar University in Hissar, Haryana, is offering graduate and post-graduate courses. Although the progress has been substantial, when we take the overall picture of the publishing industry into consideration, it has not been uniform all over the country; in fact rather uneven in certain states.

In the first three decades of 1900, when independence movement was gathering momentum and so was publishing and distribution system of the printed word in the form of books, journals and newspapers and the clandestinely printed newsletters, in came the influx of various publishing houses involved with printing and publishing of textbooks for schools and colleges, religious books, books on literature, both oriental texts and newly penned books in various regional languages infused with national feelings.

Publishers like Moti Lal Banarasi Das (MLBD) established in 1903; Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind) established in 1903; Nagari Pracharini Sabha established in 1910; Oxford University Press (Indian Branch) established in 1912; and Gita Press in Gorakhpur established in 1927; gave a great push to the Hindi publishing trade in the heartland covering Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Bengal.

Deep in the south, several printing /publishing houses like Vidyarambham Press and Book Depot established in 1931 in Alleppey; KR Brothers established in 1925 in Calicut; Prasad Printing & Process established in 1935 in Madras; and Commercial Printing Co established in Madras in 1936 played a key role.

Sri Saraswaty Press in Calcutta, established in 1932, played a crucial role in the printing of underground publicity materials for the freedom movement. While the freedom struggle was on the printing/ publishing trade in India was dragging its feet due to constant harassment by the British Raj and the lack of essential ingredients needed for the progress and survival of the trade – paucity of funds, as the government assistance was almost negligible and private investors had diverted funds to the cause of the freedom struggle on the sly. The printing/ publishing industry did not keep pace with the technological developments in the west – so very few printers/ publishers could match their products with the products printed/ published in Europe and other western countries.

As the freedom struggle gained momentum between 1914 and 1947, the Indian press kept pace with it and most of the English-language newspapers kept on updating and upgrading their plants in the areas of pre-press and printing. Most of these plants were equipped with linotypes, monotypes, big stereo-rotary presses, cameras and block-making units. Bennett Coleman & Co, who owned The Times of India and The Illustrated Weekly, was the first establishment to install India’s first rotogravure press to print multi-colour magazines. But the vernacular press could not keep pace with the English-language press due to unavailable financial resources and the British Raj imposed restrictions, and this imbalance is visible even today.

Undoubtedly, the freedom movement in the country contributed greatly to the growth of the printing industry, the reason being the distribution of quick and multiple reproductions of the messages from senior leaders to grassroots participants in the urban and rural areas — and on the other hand, even quicker distribution of British Raj’s repressive administrative and instructional circulars in English and other regional languages through resident commissioners, magistrates and other functionaries. So, the need of the time was quick and effective growth of the printing outfits all over the country, especially in major cities like Allahabad, Lucknow, Meerut, Jallandhar, Ludhiana, Lahore, Indore, Bareilly, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Delhi.

The printing industry

The printing industry in India is more than 200 years old. Over the years, and more so during the last 50 years or so, it has grown steadily, keeping pace with the growth of information, education, communication and computers. Today, it serves as one of the major media of communication, perhaps even more so than radio, television, and other forms of communication. The industry comprises well over 58,000 establishments and it is involved in a number of activities, such as publication of newspapers, magazines, books, outdoor publicity materials. etc.

The quality of printing on these machines was better than platen and stop-cylinder presses and this initiated textbook printing in India, at least for senior school level, in a very small way. As the freedom struggle kept pace with the repressive administration of the British Raj, the printing industry marched along in both sectors — private and government. In spite of repressive measures of the British Raj, newspaper printing/ publishing became an important tool for freedom struggle at that time and several English and regional language newspapers appeared on the scene – broadcasting was almost negligible and totally government controlled.

Printing industry in India in 1897 was at its infancy, making hand-impression of the composed and engraved areas. The art of makeready of any printed area was not much known as the platen machines were being used in the first decade of 1900. Stop-cylinder machines were introduced by some printing houses in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Delhi, and later in the early 1940s Miehle Presses, which were known as two-revolution presses, were introduced in India initially by government-run presses and then by commercial printing houses in major cities.

During the period 1925-1946, many small-time printers contributed in the printing of news bulletins, both in Hindi and Urdu and other regional languages. Textbook printing was also undertaken by these printers which came as spill over from big publishing/ printing houses. Most of these books were either side-stitched and cover drawn upon or centre stitched along with soft cover. Some hard cover copies were also produced and our master binders perfected this art just by manual binding.

In pre-Independence days, there were only three big names in the publishing field – New Longman, MacMillan and Oxford University Press. But in the last 67 years, there has been an unbelievable growth in the field of publishing/ printing. One cannot ignore contribution of NCERT in textbook publishing besides Orient Longman, S Chand, Frank Brothers, names like Vakils & Sons; Bolton Fine Arts; Conway Printers; Bombay Offset; Sri Saraswaty Press; Eagle Litho; NK Gossain Press; Prasad Process; Commercial Printing Co; Thomson Press; Mehta Offset — who printed millions of different titles in various languages in association with local, American, and British publishers.

However, a major segment of the printing industry remains small-scale even after 70 years of independence, characterised by low investments and somewhat outdated technology. By the early 1980s, 90% of the printing presses installed in the small-scale sector were letterpress units with semi-automatic composing or hand-composing facility. Only 5 to 6% presses in 1975-80 had full mechanical composing, either mono, lino, or photo-composing with offset process printing facilities as compared to the technological innovations taking place during those years in other parts of the globe.

There has been rapid modernisation in the printing industry in the last two and half decades. And it is for certain that in the next 10 year’s time, installation of latest and upgraded computerised equipment in pre-press and post-press areas will create a concentrated environment in retaining most of the state-of-the art printing jobs from going to overseas countries like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Indian print industry experts and print associations are of the view that time is not far off when India will become a printing hub of entire Asia. Presently, Indian Print Industry is twice the size of Indian Film Industry and is marching towards a turnover of USD 30 billion with a double digit growth.

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