Print History: Prachi Deshpande - Straddling Manuscript and Print

Awarded the Infosys Prize for Humanities in 2020 for “her extraordinarily nuanced and highly sophisticated treatment of South Asian historiography,” Prachi Deshpande has been straddling the overlapping and inter-dependent worlds of manuscript and print in her research. Her recently published book, Scripts of Power, explores the interplay between modes of writing and cultural history

31 May 2023 | By Murali Ranganathan

Prachi Deshpande

Can you briefly review your professional trajectory and your research interests as a historian?
I did my BA in history in Ferguson College, Pune, but my research interests in history developed when I was doing my MA at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I have always been interested in issues of social and cultural history, and in the long history of western India and the Deccan, particularly Maharashtra. I did my PhD at Tufts University in Massachusetts on the relationship between history, memory, and Marathi regional identity. I also taught in various universities in the US, including Rutgers-Newark and University of California at Berkeley, for many years. I came back to live and work in India in 2010. Since then I have been at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Over the last decade or so, I have been interested in the history of scripts and languages, and how exploring usage attitudes towards scripts can help us understand the histories of language and multilingualism in India and South Asia.

At what point of time in your career did you realise that you had evolved into a print historian?
I didn’t really think of myself as a historian of print. My PhD was focused on how people narrated and remembered specific events and figures of the past in Marathi, but I gradually realised that it was important to know how manuscripts of historical narratives called bakhars circulated among courtly officials, and how oral forms like the powada were written down and preserved by shahirs or gondhalis who wrote and performed them. Many of these manuscript sources were in the cursive Modi script, and modern nationalists transcribed them into Devanagari and printed them in the 19th century. Print was thus important for making older sources available for modern history-writing. It was crucial to the development of a Maratha ‘archive’, in terms of who had access to new books or older manuscripts, what changes were made to their form and content to make them suitable for printing, or how texts were read differently in manuscript or print. To understand these processes better I drew inspiration from the rich scholarship on the cultural history of print. In fact, my interest in the production and circulation of texts before and during the age of print grew when I began studying the Modi script, which was used to write business documents in Marathi from the medieval period until a few decades ago. After the arrival of print, Modi and Devanagari had very different trajectories of usage. So I became interested in what factors, including the availability of suitable types, affected people’s choice for one script over another; how the preference for linear typesetting affected script reforms, and how that affected language usage as a whole. So print has been a running thread through all my work as a means of exploring the transition to modernity, whether historical memory or language practices.

You have written and published widely. Could you provide a brief overview of your publications, especially your two books?
My first book Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700-1960, published in 2007, tries to make sense of the palpable presence of history all around us, especially in Maharashtra. It argues that the historical memory of important figures and events of the Maratha period, commemorated through different cultural practices, has been crucial to the making of Marathi regional identity, and the way Maharashtrians negotiate between this regional identity and national, religious, or caste identities. In the process it also tries to understand the complex relationship between history as a modern academic discipline and its popular presence in fiction, political rhetoric, and the public sphere. My second book, published earlier this year, is Scripts of Power: Writing, Language Practices, and Cultural History in Western India. It follows the career of the Modi script in everyday administrative writing from the Maratha era into the colonial period, and shows changing relationships between writing, script, and language from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. It underlines the importance of the material world of writing and script to the emergence of the modern linguistic state.

Your books are based on extensive research of manuscript material and early imprints. Do they have to be treated differently? What are the challenges a historian faces while working with each category of material?
Yes, manuscript material and early imprints have to be treated differently in some ways, even if they are variants of the same text. Different skills are needed to read old-style cursive writing vis-à-vis imprints, but many early imprints are also harder to find, sometimes, than manuscripts. We have to consider the material conditions of production by hand or printing technology, and of circulation: among which literate or semi-literate groups either form circulated; whether some texts circulated via oral performance; and the different reading practices and skills that were involved in this circulation, just to name a few factors. The transition from manuscript to print is actually one of the most exciting periods of great change, innovation and adaptation in social and cultural history. It allows us to see how print did not just change technology from handwriting to mass reproduction, but also impacted social and cultural practices associated with education, people’s ideas about individuality and community, and much more. We also tend to think that the coming of print put handwriting out of business, but that’s not true. Writing by hand continued, and was in fact influenced in different ways by print. So the challenges for a historian working with manuscript material and print are to keep all these factors in play.

You have delved deeply into material written in the Modi script. Can you take us back to its history and help us understand why it fell into disuse by the middle of the twentieth century?
It is hard to say how and when the Modi script originated. Clerical manuals ascribe its creation to Hemadri, the minister of Ramachandradeva, the Yadava king of Deogiri, who is believed to have got it from Lanka. It may have developed as a cursive form of Balbodh, the regional form of Devanagari, for writing on paper, as modĪ means bent or broken, much like shikastah joint writing for Perso-Arabic letters. Its letters can be written jointly without lifting the pen off the page and it uses abbreviations and fewer vowels, so it makes for quick writing. We see a lot of writing in Modi script from the fifteenth century onward, when, besides Persian, records began to be kept in local languages and scripts in the Deccan Sultanates. But it really expanded when Marathi record keeping grew in the seventeenth century with the independent Maratha state under Chhatrapati Shivaji. There are different regional styles of Modi writing and it also evolved over time. When print technology came, there were efforts to develop Modi types, but it generally favoured Devanagari, which has stand-alone letters and signs for more vowel sounds than Modi. Colonial offices did use Modi for handwriting, but it was gradually replaced by Devanagari typewriting from the 1950s. What is interesting is that Modi’s decline was also because it came to be seen as the symbol of opacity and clerical corruption, while Devanagari was thought of as a democratically accessible script because it was thought to be print-friendly and easier to read. Today, Modi is used mainly by researchers, and Modi readers are in demand for deciphering old property documents in archives.

What is the kind of print history work currently being undertaken or published in Indian languages, especially Marathi?
There has been diverse work on the history of print in Indian languages, from the ways print influenced the standardisation of Indian languages, script reforms, and orthography in the nineteenth century, to histories of reading, libraries, and book history. Much of the recent work in Marathi has also focused on archiving and digitising the print history of periodicals and newspapers, and the different social and political movements. There have been important efforts to archive smaller newspapers and periodicals in different districts associated with the Satyashodhak and non-Brahman movements, especially early presses in Ahmednagar, and the little magazines associated with the Sathottari (post-60) literary moment.  

The role of archives and libraries is very important in a historian’s life. What are the major archives that you have used? How has your experience been in relation to access and condition of material? Any thoughts on why many Indian archives, both public and private, are forbidding places to work in.
I have worked in many of the archives in Maharashtra, in Tamil Nadu, in New Delhi, and in the UK. The British library, with its vast and well-preserved collections, is the most convenient in terms of actually getting to see material of early printed texts in Indian languages, but is difficult to access for most researchers based in India due to visa and staying costs in the UK. Digital, open-access archives have helped mitigate this to some degree. The Maharashtra archives, particularly in Mumbai, are much better managed than in many other places. Many Indian archives are extremely rich in materials, but lack the resources, and sometimes the will, to update cataloguing and metadata in ways that will help researchers. Climate-control technologies are also expensive, which is a prohibiting factor for good preservation. But the largest obstacle in Indian archives, both private and public, is a larger institutional legacy of viewing access to materials with suspicion. The thing is, our state archives themselves developed in the nineteenth century as sites of state control (this is something I have written about in my work); they were not developed as sites to facilitate academic research and access. That colonial legacy has continued in many ways. Being aware of this history helps somewhat to understand why they are forbidding places to work in, not only for scholars but also for archivists.

Modi writing in an early nineteenth-century notebook of Anunda Row and Narrain Row, assistants to Col. Mackenzie, in the famous Mackenzie Archive, Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai

How has the vocation of print history changed over the decades? How do you see it evolving over the next few years, especially in the Indian context?
The early scholarship on print in South Asia was focused on tracing its origins and development, and the pioneers in terms of printers, editors, language scholars, etc. There was a gradual shift towards the social and cultural impact of print, in terms of who had access to printed material, and how print helped to fix languages and scripts in different regions as well as shape new tastes and hierarchies in literature. This has illuminated a more complex history of the print age as one full of contradictions. For example, it has helped us understand how technologies like lithography helped keep older scribal practices alive in new ways well into the print era. It has also shown us how much of what we think of as fundamental features or long histories of language are actually quite recent developments due to changes in script or orthography or grammar rules occasioned by print. For example, recent innovations in Unicode in Indian languages, and the ease of rendering vertical ligatures and glyphs in software is now prompting people to look again at the early period of typographic reforms, when many changes were brought about for the ease of linear typesetting.

Who are the print historians whose work has impressed and influenced you most? With respect to global print history in general and South Asia in particular? Also with respect to historians before your time, your contemporaries, and the newer writers?
Alongside the pioneering French cultural historians of print, from Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton onwards, I have found the work of historians of China in the broad field of writing and print, like Richard Kraus, Dorothy Ko and Thomas Mullaney, who have studied everything from Chinese calligraphy in the modern era to material histories of ink stones to the Chinese typewriter, insightful in understanding the deep impact of print on social and political change. In South Asia, AK Priolkar’s documentation of early printed texts in Marathi, Nitin Rindhe’s book history, and Anjali Nerlekar’s work on the material dimensions of modernist poets like Arun Kolatkar shows the range of work on print in Marathi. Abhijit Gupta and Gautam Bhadra for Bengali print, AR Venkatachalapathy, Bhavani Raman, and Sumathi Ramaswamy for Tamil writing, language, and print modernity, Pria Ravichandran for Telugu and Kannada script and typography… there are too many others to name here. Most recently, Amanda Lanzillo’s work on Urdu lithography and artisans of the print industry is something to look forward to.

Patwardhan krut Modi Vachanmala, Pune, revised edition 1950

How important is collaborative work in producing print history, especially while working on projects which call for a range of language and script skills?
It is very important, especially in regions like South Asia with so many languages and scripts. For a long time the history of print took place in monolingual compartments. The standardisation of languages in the print era was also one of the major factors for the creation of such compartments from what were heavily multilingual and multi-scriptal spaces. Of late there have been efforts to understand these multilingual spaces better, and here collaborations between people with different language and script skills is definitely important.

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?
Yes and no, I suppose. As I said above, there has been in recent times a growing interest in the social and cultural history of print, from histories of reading and taste-making to different language practices to the politics of script and typographic reform. This has been a move away from a narrow technical focus on the history of types, foundries, printing machinery, etc. However, there is also a renewed interest in the material history of print from a different angle. For example, Thomas Mullaney’s history of the Chinese typewriter doesn’t just tell us the technical history of the typewriter as an object itself. It describes the different ideologies that underlay various decisions about its material construction, such as the placement of characters, the order of characters, which should get priority based on the words that were expected to be typed more frequently, etc. How the materiality of the objects of printing shaped, and were shaped by, cultural and political contexts is a rich frontier of print history.

What is on your plate now? Any projects which never took off?
I am interested in writing a biography of Durga Bhagwat, who was a remarkable and complex literary figure in twentieth century Maharashtra. I am just starting work on her, gathering materials. There are many that are on the back burner, and I am not sure yet what shape they will take. I am interested in a dramatic forgery case in Arcot in South India, where two brothers and senior officials were accused of forging the Nawab of Arcot’s bonds, and one of them committed suicide. Through this case I have been toying with the idea of sketching a more popular history of writing and language and the multilingual world that was transformed by print in the nineteenth century. But I am still working to find the right idiom for it, and hoping it will take off!  

This article could not have been written without the cooperation of the family members of the newspaper historians. The Ajmer-based sons of Dr. P. H. Bhuraney – Motilal and Hiralal – supplied biographical details of their father’s life and presented me his personal manuscript of his doctoral dissertation in 2008. When I met the son and daughter-in-law of Dr. R. R. Marshall – Rustom and Nishmin – in Ahmedabad in March 2022, they shared their reminiscences and a photograph. Dr. Maimoona Dalvi’s husband, Dr. A. M. I. Dalvi presented me a copy of the reprint edition of Bambai mein Urdu in 2017 and her daughter, Dr. Muizza (Kazi) Dalvi, provided additional information on her life. I am very grateful to all of them.