Print History: Graham Shaw- Print historian of South Asia

When a young Graham Shaw, recently graduated (with specialization in Sanskrit and Hindi) from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London, joined the staff of the British Library in 1974, he could hardly have imagined that he would eventually become one of the leading historians of the culture and practice of printing technology in South Asia.

29 Jul 2020 | By Murali Ranganathan

Beginning at the bottom of the ladder in the department of North Indian Languages as a Research Assistant, Shaw worked his way up the curatorial and management rungs before retiring as the Head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (APAC) of the British Library in 2010. Shaw oversaw the creation of the Oriental and India Office Collections (later known as APAC and now ‘Asian & African Studies’), the largest single-site resource available to researchers of South Asia with the widest range of printed and manuscript items. This involved the amalgamation of two centuries-old collections, the erstwhile India Office Library and the Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books Collection.

But this was not all. Shaw, perhaps without realising it himself, had embarked on a parallel career as a print historian. As a librarian, curator and keeper of Oriental collections, Shaw was expected to have an intimate knowledge of the material under his care so that he could guide researchers as well as identify gaps in the collection and try to acquire new material. As he recalls, “Some days I would spend a whole morning or afternoon down there going through the books shelf by shelf, noting down items of interest (early or unusual imprints, fine bindings, etc.) until I had scanned the whole collection – at least in a cursory way.” Shaw, however, well exceeded his brief. Trawling printed catalogues of far-flung libraries, he began to make notes on individual imprints and map the spread of printing in South Asia.

Shaw was first induced to write when he discovered that the existing texts were rather removed from the facts that he had been uncovering as he plowed through the collections under his care. His very first contribution to print history, published in 1977 in the British Library Journal, concerns itself with the Cuttack Mission Press and the important role it played in the establishment of an Odia print culture.

A decade for bibliographies
Bibliographies are the building blocks of print history. Graham Shaw believes that they “are the essential factual underpinning of research without which reliable evidence-based interpretative histories of print become much more difficult if not impossible to compile.” The middle decades of the twentieth century, when adequate funding and diligent research assistants were both easily available, can be seen as the heyday of printed bibliographies.

Most bibliographies these days, like their lesser cousins – catalogues, are likely to be online repositories, and are collaborative projects with a life of their own. The lay person might view a bibliography as merely a list of books, but for the connoisseur and expert, it could be a window to enter new print worlds and refashion old ones. The painstaking efforts behind each entry can only be appreciated by a practitioner.  

During the 1980s, much of Graham Shaw’s imprints consisted of bibliographies, some of them landmarks in their own right. His first book-length publication which appeared in 1981, Printing in Calcutta to 1800, was a bibliography of all imprints published in Calcutta up to the year 1800. It was a pioneering effort that attracted a lot of positive attention; as one reviewer noted, “With facts and figures he has convincingly established that during this period Calcutta emerged as a major centre for commercial printing in South Asia. Thus, a new period has been added to the history of Indian printing where for lack of information there was none.” This was followed by two more collaborative bibliographies: The bibliography of South Asian periodicals: a union-list of periodicals in South Asian languages (published 1982, with Salim Quraishi) and Publications proscribed by the Government of India (published 1985, with Mary Lloyd).

Shaw’s most important project of the decade was the compilation of the The South Asia and Burma Retrospective Bibliography (SABREB): Stage 1: 1556-1800. It marked him as a print historian of South Asia. An ambitious project in terms of both the time frame of nearly two hundred and fifty years and in terms of the number of languages (twenty-seven) in which books were printed, it gave Shaw the opportunity to make numerous discoveries, big and small. As Shaw remarks, “The entries on Goa, Cochin, etc. led me to search for the earliest Indian imprints and to prove, for instance, that the first book printed in India in a regional language in its own script was not the Christian catechism in Tamil printed at Quilon in 1578 but a similar work printed at Goa a year earlier, a copy of which had once been preserved in Leiden University Library.” Scouring over one hundred and fifty different repositories across the world, Shaw was able to identify 1,771 imprints (ranging from books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets and other ephemera) which were printed in South Asia until 1800. When it was first conceptualized, the bibliography project was to extend until the year 1900, but as the scale of printing exploded exponentially in the nineteenth century, it had to be a large-scale collaborative project.

By this time, Shaw also found himself promoted to the management cadre of the British Library which was then planning to unify and transfer all its collections to one central purpose-built location at St. Pancras, London. He led the project to amalgamate the collections of the India Office Library and the Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books collection and move them into the new building of the British Library.

Through most of the eighties and nineties, Shaw continued to publish in a number of journals related to book and print history: The Library, Factotum, Bodleian Library Record, British Library Journal, The Library Chronicle, The Monotype Recorder, and Typo.

The importance of Christian missions in the development of printing in India can hardly be exaggerated. From the early Jesuit mission at Goa in the sixteenth century and the Danish Mission at Tranquebar in the eighteenth century to the Baptist Mission Press at Serampore and the American Mission Press at Mumbai in the nineteenth century, the mission presses played a pioneering role by printing in a range of Indian languages. Graham Shaw has been particularly interested in the work of these mission presses and their type foundries. Over the years, Shaw has published widely on this subject and now hopes to integrate all his research into the history of Christian publishing in a book tentatively titled Book battles and tract wars: the preparation, distribution and reception of Christian literature in nineteenth-century South Asia.

Unveiling censorship
In the mid-1980s, Shaw had compiled a bibliography of publications that had been proscribed by the British Raj. This piqued his interest in the mechanism of censorship during the Raj and led him to undertake further research on the original government records and correspondence during the heydays of censorship. Using a narrative approach, Shaw is writing a series of full-length articles (two parts in this series have appeared and two are forthcoming) under the rubric ‘On the wrong end of the Raj’ in which he explores some aspects of censorship in British India and its circumvention during the 1920s–1940s. Tracking the response of the British Government in the Britain, princely India as well as British India, Shaw maps how the bureaucracy monitored, identified and responded to cases where print was a source of offence to the Raj. Besides mainstream presses like the Hogarth Press of the Woolfs and student newsletters from Oxford, he also tracks the career of editors like B G Horniman and booksellers like Sasadhar Sinha.

As with every print historian, serendipity has played an important role in Shaw’s print discoveries. On a chance visit to the Hendrik Kramer Instituut at Oegstgeest in the Netherlands, Shaw happened upon not one, but three copies of Singaleesch Gebeede-Boek, the very first book (a Sinhalese prayer-book) to be printed by the Dutch in Sri Lanka in 1737. Just before his retirement in 2010, Shaw came across a box of palm leaf manuscripts in the British Library, which on closer inspection, revealed themselves as printed palm-leaf books. The text had been printed using Bengali and Odia type.

As an internationally recognized expert whose print interests span across centuries and languages, Graham Shaw has emerged as the go-to man to write about the subject of print in South Asia. He has written the ‘South Asia’ sections of A companion to the history of the book (2020) and The Oxford illustrated history of the book (2020).

Shaw’s first love was poetry but his library career and historical research seldom left him with enough time to work on that subject. Things have however come a full circle with his compilation of poetry written during the Raj in English titled Subaltern squibs and sentimental rhymes: the Raj reflected in light verse (to be published later in 2020). He remarks that “It was somewhat ‘outside my comfort zone’ and turned out to be the hardest thing I’d done, especially researching the historical background of many obscure verses. But it seemed to me worth doing as a body of original material, under-appreciated and under-exploited.”

Another hallmark of Shaw’s scholarship has been collaboration and partnership marked by generosity. As the type designer and historian, Fiona Ross, who first met Shaw in the early 1980s, recalls, “From our first meeting, Graham has always been immensely helpful and profoundly informative. Over the subsequent years, I have valued his reliable and important contributions to the history of print cultures and myself have benefitted from his readiness to share his findings. ... I continue to enjoy and learn much from Graham’s rigorously researched and inspiring presentations at a number of symposia; and I continue to appreciate his collegial friendship.”

In the decades leading to the eighties, print history was a largely a preserve of the bibliographer with a few book historians thrown in. Over the last four decades, the history of print has developed into a complex inter-disciplinary subject and has caught the eye of the traditional historian, the language scholar, the sociologist, the anthropologist and many others. Graham Shaw has successfully managed to make the transition from librarian/bibliographer to writer-historian.  Besides working on a collection of fresh essays and contributions to edited volumes, Shaw has a multitude of other book projects in varying stages of completion.

A collection of his published essays, revised and updated, is being published by Contextual/Alternate under the title Impressions of the past: print culture and typography in the Indian subcontinent and should be out in July 2020. One hopes that a comprehensive volume on print history of South Asia, bringing together all aspects of his research, will also be forthcoming in the next few years.

Rapid Fire with Graham Shaw

A flashback
“After taking our A-level exams, three friends and I decided to travel to celebrate. From Maidstone the train to London took you to Victoria Station. We all bought single tickets to the farthest destination from Victoria – Istanbul. It took three days by train then, changing at Munich. My first encounter with Asia. I returned to school to sit for an open scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University, where I had intended to read Archaeology & Anthropology, Sir Mortimer Wheeler having been one of my schoolboy heroes. But I failed, settling instead for the archaeology of the book!”

A book that I have authored
Printing in Calcutta to 1800: a description and checklist of printing in late 18th-century Calcutta (London: Bibliographical Society, 1981).

“I have a specially soft spot for my first book. Until that book appeared, the general assumption was that, Charles Wilkins’s efforts apart, very little printing of much significance had taken place in Bengal before 1800, the year when both the College of Fort William and the Serampore Mission Press were established.”

Most happening Indian university for print
Jadavpur University, Kolkata

“I would give pride of place to Jadavpur University, Kolkata where a whole group of eminent scholars including Sukanta Chaudhuri, Swapan Chakravorty, Abhijit Gupta and Rimi Chatterjee have not only written extensively but have introduced the first book history course at any Indian university.”

An admired print historian
Robert Darnton, retired Director, Harvard University Library, author of The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French Cultural History, The Kiss of Lamourette, and George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century

“It was a privilege to meet him some years ago at the British Library and to point him in the direction of the ‘Quarterly Lists’ for the Indian section of his book Censors at work: how states shaped literature (New York, 2014).  I was intrigued to see that he wrote his meticulous notes down on a series of 5” x 3” index cards in the old-fashioned way.”

An important discovery
Atiyar varalarul (Flos Sanctorum) by Henrique Henriques. ‘Lives of the Saints’ in Tamil; printed at Cochin in 1586, it is one of the earliest books to be printed in an Indian script

“I visited the Royal Library in Copenhagen to check through its quasi-legal deposit collection of Tranquebar imprints.  Flicking through a handwritten card catalogue, I was intrigued by one entry which simply read in Danish ‘Old Tamil book’ – with no further information at all.  I just had to order it up.  I was expecting yet another Tranquebar imprint but when it landed on the desk I immediately recognized the typeface as that cast by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. [It was] only the second ever discovered after that unearthed in the Vatican Library by the Jesuit Father Xavier Thaninayagam in the 1950s.”

A diligent researcher
Gérald Duverdier, Bibliothécaire, Collège de France, Paris

“I greatly admired his three meticulously researched articles in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch volumes for 1976, 1977 and 1978 on the beginnings of printing at Pondicherry and Vepery, Madras with its close connection to Halle in Germany.  For several summers I used to meet him in Paris and he helped me greatly in ‘navigating’ the collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale.  I still remember him showing me a draft of his monumental Tranquebar bibliography – it’s such a shame that, as far as I know, that has never been published.  I was very touched when he dedicated to me his article on James Augustus Hicky’s trials for libel at Calcutta.”

Graham Shaw Chronology

1946: Born in Maidstone, Kent to Winifred Ruth & William E Shaw
1969: BA, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
1969: Librarian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
1974: Research Assistant, North Indian Languages, Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library
1977: First writing on print history in British Library Journal: ‘The Cuttack Mission Press and early Oriya printing.’
1980: Assistant Keeper, Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library
1981: First book on print history: Printing in Calcutta to 1800
1984: Head of European Printed Books, India Office Library
1987: The South Asia and Burma Retrospective Bibliography (SABREB): Stage 1: 1556-1800
1987: Deputy Director, India Office Library & Records
1998: Head, Oriental & India Office Collections, British Library
2003: Led the British Library’s largest digitization project ‘Collect Britain’
2010: Retirement from British Library as Head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (APAC)
From 2010 Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London; teaches a short course on ‘The History of the Book in India’ as part of the Institute’s MA