Print History: Going strong at 225 Celebrating Indian print

Which print anniversary should Indians celebrate? There are many dates and years which could be considered but the options need to be evaluated carefully

27 Nov 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan

Notwithstanding the ever-present challenges of ballooning input costs, depressed revenues, and shrinking margins, the print industry in India has continued on a steady upward growth trajectory for decades, if not centuries. The increasing use of print and allied technologies in innumerable application areas has ensured that the industry has expanded its horizons. The rapid development of printing technology in the last fifty years has resulted in fresh investments, faster response times and products of a higher quality. At the same time, many printers who have not been able to keep pace with these developments have fallen by the wayside or have been taken over by bigger players with deeper pockets. But as a whole, the print industry has emerged stronger and more resilient and better able to respond to challenges and crisis situations.

Even as it continues on its forward march, Indian print has always been conscious of its roots. A large number of second- and third-generation printers treasure family experiences and memories related to print going back a hundred years and more. A quick survey of experienced hands in the print industry would throw up a large number of people who have themselves set type by hand, composed books using phototypesetting equipment, and manually pulled prints from lithographic stones. The pressures of time and space have resulted in many of the machines connected with older technologies being scrapped without a thought being spared for the print heritage imbued in them.

There is no question that India’s long association with print, going back to nearly five hundred years, calls for commemoration and celebration. Printing museums are a concept which have gained prominence in India in the last few years and it is hoped that many museums commemorating various aspects of print will bloom across the length and breadth of the country. They would become venues for celebrating print—its present, its future, and, most importantly, its past.

Many landmark events associated with India’s print history could be chosen as celebratory occasions. While some of them are shrouded in mystery, others are supported by a scaffolding of facts to bolster their case. There are yet others with robust historical evidence. Here are a few which could be considered.

Print in the sixteenth century
The arrival of a printing press in Goa on 6 September 1556 is well documented. It was a mere accident that the press which was intended for Ethiopia, the country of the legendary Christian king, Prester John, first reached Goa. Circumstances prevented its further transmission and thus India acquired its first printing press which was run by the Jesuit Mission at Goa. The Portuguese king  João III (or John the Pious), who sent the press, also sent two print experts to operate it: a Spanish printer named João de Bustamente who could also design and cast types and an Indian, “an able and experienced printer,”  who remains nameless in the archival records.

Though no imprints from the 1550s have survived, single copies of some of the books printed in the 1560s are available in a few European libraries. Most of the imprints of this press were related to the Christianity. perhaps the most important of these early publications was the 1563 book by Doctor Garcia da Orta, who then possessed the lease of the island of Mombaim (Bombay), on the pharmacology of Indian plants and drugs titled Coloquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas medicinaes da India.

All these books were printed in the Roman script and in either the Latin or Portuguese languages. It was only in the 1570s that printing types were first cast in an Indian script. The language of choice was Tamil and the script was designed with the help of an Indian who had converted to Christianity and adopted the name of Pero Luis. The types were first cast in Goa in 1577 by João Gonsalves and were further refined by João da Faria in

Kollam (Quilon), Kerala in 1578 where these types were first used for the printing of the Tamil translation of Doutrina Christa, a Christian tract composed by Francis Xavier, the founding father of the Jesuit order. Printing in Goa seems to have stopped in the late 1580s thus terminating a tradition which lasted for thirty years.

Though Indians were involved from the very start, either as printers or as type designers, they were not the primary agents in this venture. This does not however detract from the important role this printing press played in the development of printing in India.

Print in the seventeenth century
Printing in Goa resumed in the seventeenth century at the seminary in Rachol and at a few sites in Kerala. These presses were run by Franciscan and Jesuit missions and their printing output was influenced by their missionary objectives. They were not part of a continuous tradition and as such no legacy of these printing activities can be traced. Printing in Goa again petered out by the 1670s.

At about the same time, a significant print event occurred further north on the western coast of India. In 1670, a Gujarati named Bimgee Parrack (or Bhimji Parekh), ordered a printing press from England through the representatives of the East India Company at Surat. Bimgee was then the chief broker of the East India Company and executed all their business transactions for a commission. The printing press arrived in Bombay in 1674 during the tenure of Gerald Aungier, the governor of Bombay who first laid out the plans for a new colonial city. The press was accompanied by a trained printer named Henry Hills. Parrack’s intention was to print religious texts in the local script which the records refer to as “the Banian Characters” (presumably Devanagari or a Gujarati version of the script). Since Hills was not a type founder, he had great difficulty in casting the necessary types though no expense was spared by Bimgee. The experiment was carried on for five years or so but proved to be a costly failure and Hills departed for England in 1679.  This was the first instance of an Indian taking the initiative to establish a printing press and cast types in an Indian language.

This initiative would certainly have been a reason for celebration had it succeeded, but as things stand, no imprints from this press have been discovered. Nor do we know the fate of the printing press after the departure of the printer and the death of Bimgee Parrrack.

Print in the eighteenth century: Southern India
The revival of print in South India can be traced to the establishment of a Protestant Christian mission at the Danish colony of Tranquebar (modern Tharangambadi) in 1706. Founded by the Danish king as the Royal Danish Mission, it was supported by the London-based Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Most of the missionaries who came to work in India for this mission were Germans. The mission established a printing press in
Tranquebar in 1712; Tamil and Portuguese typefaces were sent from Halle.

The establishment of another mission at Madras in 1726 by one of the Tranquebar missionaries constitutes another major landmark in this history. The serendipitous acquisition of a printing press as war booty from the French at Pondicherry in 1761 enabled the establishment of a press at the Madras Mission which was now being financially supported by the English East India Company. It was located at Vepery, a short distance from the Madras Fort.

The key people associated with this print movement in India were Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, Benjamin Schultze, and Johann Philipp Fabricius. These men undertook translations of Christian literature including the Bible into Tamil, Telugu and Portuguese, wrote grammars of these languages, and compiled bilingual dictionaries. Peter Michelson was the type founder at the Tranquebar Mission Press.

The Tranquebar Mission press undertook printing in Indian languages, established a type foundry in India to cast fonts of Indian scripts, and must have employed Indians in various capacities, especially as compositors and printers.

Print in the eighteenth century: Eastern India
Though Calcutta had emerged as the centre of power in India by the end of the eighteenth century, it was behind Bombay and Madras in terms of its access to print. The first book to be printed in Bengal was A Grammar of the Bengali Language in 1778 for which types were designed and cast by Charles Wilkins.

Printing rapidly developed in Calcutta from the 1780s and many books were printed in Bengali and Persian. A different font of Bengali type was used in 1792 for printing a book. It is believed that the font was cast by Panchanana Karmakar who, a few years later, went on to achieve fame from 1800 as the type founder of mission press at Serampore. There is however no evidence to support this claim.

Print in the eighteenth century: Western India
The first half of the eighteenth century is a hazy period for western India: were there printing presses functioning on the island of Bombay? Most likely not. However, the accidental discovery of a handbill advertising a patent medicine inside the binding of a book changed the situation. It’s byline read: “Printed at the house of Mr. James Tod, where all manner of printing work is carefully and expeditiously executed. 1772.” Clearly by the early 1770s, a printing press was operational in Bombay. The Bombay Times (1855) announced the discovery of a Calendar for the year of Our Lord 1780 printed by “Rustom Caresajee in the Buzar.” This was most likely printed in the press owned by the Parsi businessman Pestonjee Bomanjee, who, it is likely, purchased it from James Tod. Pestonjee sold the printing press in 1790 to James Douglas Richardson who used it to print the newspaper Bombay Herald. At about the same time, another printing press was brought from Calcutta by Phineas Hall who started the Bombay Courier.

Thus, by the 1790s, two printing presses were operational in Bombay, each printing a weekly English newspaper. However, no printing in Indian languages was possible as there existed no fonts of any Indian script. Types of the Persian script could be imported at a reasonable price but types of other scripts would have to be designed from scratch at great expense. There was no business reason for anyone to make that investment.

A print landmark for India
The Bombay Courier of 12 November 1796 carried an advertisement on the bottom right corner of its first page which would have immediately caught the eye of all its readers. Not only was it in a strange script, it was an advertisement for that very same script. Just above this advertisement was an English version of its text. The announcement was accompanied by an editorial comment in the next page by William Ashburner, the editor of the Bombay Courier.

Bombay Courier (12 November 1796)

In presenting the Public with the specimen of Types in the Guzerat character, which appears in the present paper, it would be doing an injustice to merit of a very superior kind, not to say a few words in behalf of the Man to whom the credit of these Types is due.

An Art to which of all others, mankind has been the most indebted, demands if not the veneration, at least the solicitude of the World; & every progress that it makes into an additional language, should be viewed as a new ray beaming upon the human understanding, an acquisition to science, a triumph in the cause of humanity.

These types owe their invention and foundery to a Mobed or priest of the Persee Cast, who from his own impulse, undertook the task; whose genius almost unassisted, suggested the principles of the manufacture; and whose indefatigable industry, has surmounted a thousand obstacles, that for three years and a half have opposed his success. With such as have paid any attention to the Persee character, it will of itself convey no small degree of panegyric, that a man of this cast should undertake such a speculation; but, for this to abandon a profession which maintained him with competency and comfort; to relinquish all pecuniary views, but such as were barely necessary for his support; to brave all the derision and ridicule, which ignorance and prejudice, bestow upon untried pursuits, bespeaks a mind of a superior class; such we apprehend, are the claims to admiration of Behramjee Jeejeebhoy.


The grand statements of the editor of the Bombay Courier certainly befitted the occasion – it was certainly a triumph in the cause of humanity, especially in the Indian context. And the man to spearhead the triumph was Behramjee Jeejeebhoy. A native of Surat, Behramjee moved to Bombay about the year 1790 and joined the Courier Press as a type compositor. Whether he already knew the English language remains a mystery, but
he seems to have picked up its rudiments along the way.

The very first specimen of Gujarati printing exhibits a deep understanding of the script and the art of type design and composition. The design of the Gujarati characters was of such a refined order that it was not surpassed in Bombay for the next four decades. Being the first attempt in engraving a font, it was not as compact as it could have been; nor did it incorporate half-consonants. It was brought into regular use immediately.
The pages of the Bombay Courier began to carry Gujarati advertisements, mainly translations of government notices and auctions, in every issue. Behramjee Jeejeebhoy used the types in 1798 to print the Khurda Avesta, the principal Parsi religious text. He was emulating the likes of Gutenberg who chose to first print the Bible about three and half centuries earlier. Though the book is in Gujarati script, only the title page and the preface are in the Gujarati language while the rest of the book is in the language of the scriptures.

Advertisement announcing the font of Gujarati types

A cause for celebration
Exactly 225 years ago, in 1796, in this very month of November, an Indian, on his own initiative and without help from any quarter, managed to contrive a font of an Indian script. Not only did Behramjee Jeejeebhoy achieve success, he also claimed ownership of the work in its first instance of publication. Compared to all the previous instances in which Indians had contributed to print, this was markedly different. This was the first font of type to be cast in Bombay and proved to be the model for all other succeeding Gujarati scripts.

It also paved the way for types in other scripts. Behramjee himself cast types in the Malayalam and Modi scripts by 1799. The nineteenth century saw an efflorescence in printing in western India. Behramjee’s types were in use for nearly forty years after they were first designed and cast in 1796. It would not be an exaggeration to call Behramjee Jeejeeboy the ‘Father of the Type Foundry’ in India.

It is certainly a foundational event which the Indian print industry can and should celebrate in its inimitable style.