Print History: Lalit Kumar - Exploring Print in Maithili

Winner of the Kalinga Literary Festival Book Award in 2022 for his English translation of the classic Maithili novel, Kanyadan, Lalit Kumar has explored the development of printing in Mithila, a cultural region spanning parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and Nepal. He teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi. In this interview, he talks about the history of Maithili and the challenges it has faced to develop a print culture

31 Aug 2023 | By Murali Ranganathan

What are your connections with Mithila and Maithili?
I was born and brought up in a small village of the Mithila region of Bihar. As a child, I talked to my mother in Maithili but spoke in Hindi with my sister and father. My father had given us specific instructions not to speak in our mother tongue. He would have preferred English as our medium of communication but in those days it was hard to find anyone in the village who could use English. He, therefore, chose Hindi, the next best option in terms of career opportunities and social mobility. It was my father’s fascination with the language which prompted me to do a BA in English and later I developed a deep and abiding interest in the subject.

Like most parents in our part of the world, perhaps, he was obsessed with something that he could not achieve on account of lack of opportunities and the dominance of Sanskrit education when he grew up in the 1960s.  Years later, when I was pursuing research on the coming of colonial modernity and print in north Bihar at the University of Delhi, I realised the importance of mother tongues and began reading more and more in Maithili and exploring the cultural ethos of Mithila and the neighbouring states. As per census data (2011), Maithili is spoken by almost 1.35 crore people in India. There are a large number of Maithili speakers in Nepal and the Maithil diaspora is scattered all over the world. 

What were the contours of your research when you began exploring print in Mithila?
My doctoral research titled Literary Cultures in North Bihar: The Coming of Print in Mithila focussed on the emergence of a Maithili public sphere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the dominant models proposed by literary historians and political scientists to explore the literary cultures and language politics of North India is the Hindi/Urdu contestation model, which has subsumed other minor languages. This approach has two major limitations: the exclusion of the languages of Bihar, like Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili, from the major linguistic and cultural debates; and the neglect of the region of Bihar itself in the area-based studies of the languages of North India. This becomes even more glaring when one takes into account the fact that Hindi was not the mother-tongue of the inhabitants of Bihar but a colonial imposition done for administrative convenience. Another problem that I noticed was that till the 1880s, Maithili was used by people cutting across caste, class, gender, and religion but gradually it began to be associated with the upper caste of the region. In order to underline the distinctiveness of the Maithili language, literature and public sphere from those of Hindi, I sought to answer two interrelated questions: how and since when Maithili started getting associated with Brahmins and Kayasthas in the popular cultural and political imagination; and how Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili, instead of being acknowledged as independent languages, began to be perceived as dialects of Hindi?

When was print introduced to Mithila and how did it develop?
Printing was introduced in Mithila rather late in comparison to other parts of India. In 1901, Kanhaiya Lal Krishna Das established the Rameshvar Press at Darbhanga, naming the press after the reigning king. Ras Bihari Lal Bose in his history of Mithila, written in Hindi and titled Mithila Darpan (1915), notes that six printing presses were functional in the Darbhanga district when he was writing the book: Union Press at Katahalwari, Darbhanga Raj Press (Kaidarabad), Mithila Mihir Press (Nai Bazar), Rameshwar Press (Badabazar), Citragupta Press (Mirzapur) and Maithil Press at Madhubani.

However, he lamented that despite the existence of six printing presses, only one weekly newspaper, Mithila Mihir, was being published. These presses mostly published books in Hindi, and Mithila Mihir, the bilingual weekly, was published in both Hindi and Maithili in Devanagari script. 

The Bride: The Maithili Classic Kanyadan (2022) translated from Maithili

What were some of the challenges precipitated by the advent of print in Mithila?
Colonial modernity and its concomitant, print, had a disabling impact on the distinctive identity of the Maithili language, literature and its script Mithilakshar. Before the advent of modernity, the languages of Bihar, in general, and Maithili, in particular, were the expressive modes of communication used by the masses. There were multiple factors, including the policies of the British Raj and the Darbhanga Raj, introduction of modern education, the highly Sanskritised and elitist nature of early Maithili print, and, above all, the use of Devanagari instead of Mithilakshar in Maithili print, which not only led to the marginalisation of Maithili but also led to its association with the upper castes. Although Maithili was written in Kaithi, Devanagari, and Mithilakshar prior to the coming of printing press in Mithila, it was Mithilakshar in which most of the pre-colonial Maithili and Sanskrit manuscripts were written.

This fluidity between language and script ceased to exist once Devanagari became the preferred script of both the intelligentsia of Mithila and migrant Maithili intellectuals staying in Banaras, Calcutta, Jaipur, Alwar, and other parts of India, for transcribing and printing the ancient Maithili manuscripts. This happened because most of them privileged the national over the local, Hindi over Maithili, and Devanagari over Mithilakshar. The loss of Mithilakshar and its gradual disappearance from the new modes of circulation of knowledge and new spaces made available by colonial modernity dealt a terrible blow to the distinctive identity of Maithili. 

What was the role of the diaspora in developing a Maithili print culture?
The first monthly magazine in Maithili, titled Maithil Hitsadhana, was published from Jaipur in 1905. The magazine was published by a literary and cultural association named Mithila Hitsadhan Samiti formed in 1904 for the welfare of Maithili diaspora. Ramabhadra Jha, the Director of Education and the Chief Justice of Alwar State, and Madhusudan Jha, the court pandit of the Jaipur state were its editors. Similarly, another educational and cultural institution, Maithila Vidvajjan Samiti, was set up at Banaras in 1896. The Samiti started a monthly magazine, Mithila Moda, in 1906 from Banaras under the editorship of Muralidhar Jha who had come to Banaras at the age of sixteen for higher studies and later received a degree in astrology from Queen’s College. 

Although finding subscribers for the periodicals in the Maithili speaking tracts of Bihar was a difficult task on account of low literacy rates and widespread poverty, Maithil Hitsadhana, in its manifesto, proclaimed that due to its serious content it needed only serious readers: “Maithil Hitsadhana will not incur any losses, if the masses who are unable to comprehend serious discourses and derive pleasure merely from non-serious subjects such as flattery, songs and poetry, do not subscribe to it.” It made an attempt to define modern education by publishing essays extensively on science, mathematics, history, geography and other modern subjects, and called the existing subjects taught by Pandits inadequate for the rapidly changing needs of the time.

Denouncing its serious content, Kali Prasad Chowdhury of Gaya expressed his opinion in Mithila Moda, published from Banaras that the contents of this periodical suited the needs of learned elites so it should be renamed Maithil Pandit Hitsadhana. Its publication lasted only for three years and many like Kali Prasad thought that the disconnect between its elitist concerns and the concern of the masses led to its failure. The conflict between Maithil Hitsadhana and Mithila Moda was well known in the Maithili public sphere in the first decade of twentieth century and the debate over serious and Sankritised contents of the periodicals became a hallmark of early Maithili print. 

How has your professional trajectory and broader interest areas influenced and intersected with your interests in print?
While pursuing my research on Maithili print, I read the classic Maithili novel, Kanyadan, written by Harimohan Jha and arguably the most popular work of Maithili literature. It was first serialised in a Maithili magazine titled Mithila in 1930. The novel became so popular that it would be read aloud for an audience which was largely illiterate. In Mithila, it had become a ritual to gift a copy of the book to a bride when she left for her husband’s home for the first time. University students kept it on their study table even during exams.

The first Maithili film, Kanyadan (1965), directed by Phani Majumdar, was based on this novel. The dialogues for the film were written by the renowned Hindi author, Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’. It helped create a reading public in Bihar for the first time. But I was surprised to find out that the novels written originally in Hindi, Bengali, Odia, and other Indian languages abounded in English translation but perhaps not a single novel from Bihar, including Kanyadan, had been translated into English. This is how my interest in print drove me towards translation and I took a resolve to bring this seminal text into English. 

Mithila, monthly magazine published from Vidyapati Press, Laheriasarai, Bihar

What have you published? 
I have translated the works of the Maithili novelist Harimohan Jha, the Hindi satirists Harishnakar Parsai and Shrilal Shukla, and Rabindranath Tagore into English. I have also done an edited volume on the legendary vice-chancellor of Allahabad University and scholar from Mithila, Amaranatha Jha, in collaboration with Harish Trivedi, written research essays on literary histories in Maithili and as a columnist I write popular articles on world classics, translation, education and politics for newspapers and magazines. From time to time, I write satires in Hindi.

How important is translation in your work? What translations have you undertaken/published?
Since most of the primary sources I work with are either in Maithili or Hindi, and they are largely untranslated, I constantly translate them into English in my research papers. Apart from the papers, my published translations include The Bride: The Maithili Classic Kanyadan (2022), Twelfth Fail (co-translated, 2021), and Amaranatha Jha: Selected Essays on Literature, Languages, and University Education (co-edited, forthcoming), which comprises several essays from Maithili and Hindi that I have translated into English.

Have you experienced serendipity while working on book/print history? Did you make any discoveries you consider important? 
It was during my research on print history that I stumbled upon the information that prior to the coming of print in the nineteenth century, Maithili was written in three scripts: Mithilakshar, Kaithi and Devanagari. Also, it came as a revelation to me that in Mithila, even Sanskrit was written not in Devanagari but in Mithilakshar, the ancient script of Maithili. Thus, the fluid relation between script and language was new to me because I was, like most of the people of my generation, accustomed to see Maithili in Devanagari script in print.  

Cover page of the Maithili novel Bhalmanus (1989, originally published 1944) in two scripts, Devanagari and Mithilakshar

How do you see book/print history evolving over the next few years, especially in the North Indian context? 
Earlier print historians of north India mainly worked with a Hindi-Urdu centric model and barely paid attention to other languages which were either devoured by Hindi or reduced to its dialects or minor languages despite having a rich literary heritage, script, and regional consciousness. This trend has changed in recent times and some scholars are working on the book history of these so-called minor languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, and Braj. 

What is the kind of print history work that is being undertaken or published in Indian languages, especially in your language of choice? 
The work being undertaken in Maithili print leaves a lot to be desired. It is very difficult to get hold of old Maithili periodicals many of which have either perished or are languishing in private libraries whose owners do not easily part with them. It is equally challenging to obtain information about the nineteenth century literary and cultural societies. Some scholars such as Mithilesh Jha, Sadan Jha, and late Hetukar Jha, Jayakanta Mishra, and Chandranath Mishra ‘Amar’ have done remarkable work in this field, yet there are lacunae that need to be addressed.   

Who are the print historians whose work has impressed and influenced you most? 
I have benefited immensely from reading the works of Isabel Hofmeyr, Abhijit Gupta, Farncesca Orsini, Vasudha Dalmia, B S Kesavan, Priya Joshi and Rochelle Pinto. Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, Orisini’s Print and Pleasure, Dalmia’s The Nationalisation of Hindu Traditions and Print Areas: Book History in India, edited by Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakravorty, are some of the pioneering works that enriched my understanding of print history in India. I would like to add to this list Sisir Kumar Das’s three-volume History of Indian Literature which provides nuggets of information on book history.

The director of Kanyadan (1965), Phani Majumdar, seated with the author, Harimohan Jha and his wife, with the cast of the film

Have you compiled (either individually or as part of a team) bibliographies and book-lists? Do you consider this activity, very much a part of the mid-twentieth century print history, still relevant and practical in the twenty-first century?
I have and I continue doing so but, as I mentioned earlier, many of the old Maithili periodicals as well as texts are out of print and no serious attempt is being made either to preserve the old copies of magazines or to reprint the books. Kalyani Foundation Darbhanga has done excellent work in this regard but still numerous copies of periodicals need to be digitised without delay as they are on the verge of being destroyed by termites. 

What is on your plate now?
I am planning to work on two translation projects: an English translation of Nagarjun’s Hindi novel Ratinath ki Chachi and collected satires of Harishankar Parsai. I have taken a break from my work on print history and am currently writing an intellectual biography of Deendayal Upadhyaya for which I have been granted a Fellowship by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.