Print History: Three in their thirties - Next-gen print historians

An exciting new generation of print historians has emerged as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. Bristling with new ideas, new frameworks and new methodologies, they revitalise and refresh the arena of print and book history in South Asia. Murali Ranganathan talks to three print historians who are now in their thirties

23 Feb 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan

Aakriti Mandhwani, Andrew Otis and Vaibhav Singh

Aakriti Mandhwani
Born 1987
Assistant Professor, Department of English
Shiv Nadar University

I found myself drawn not to English but to Hindi, and not to the questions of form, literary criticism, or literary history, but to how books were made, sold and received.

Aakriti Mandhwani was hoping to become an accountant after her bachelor’s degree in commerce. But two chance encounters with the books of the bestselling Hindi crime writer Surendra Mohan Pathak pitchforked her into the world of print history. The first encounter happened in the narrow lanes of Daryaganj and Chandni Chowk where she found the cheap editions of the Pathak whodunits published by Raja Pocket Books, a Delhi-based popular publishing house. And soon after, she found the very same titles displayed at the Delhi Book Fair in glossy collectible editions. From being regarded as a pulp novelist who churned out popular thrillers,

Pathak had been transformed into an author of repute in the Hindi literary world. Mandhwani went on to explore how a writer’s reputation could be influenced by changes in the production values of the books and the implications this had on the way Hindi crime fiction is perceived in the twenty-first century.

Mandhwani’s fascination for the lowbrow continued even as she journeyed to London for doctoral  research at the School of African and Oriental Studies. She engaged with imprints catering to a mass audience in the decades immediately after independence and her research focused on the publishing and consumption history of Hindi middlebrow magazines and paperbacks of the 1950s and 60s like Sarita. As she recalls, a serendipitous discovery enabled her to delve deeper into this world.

Much later, I found lowbrow magazines of the 1940s and 50s – a kind of archive you would expect to find either destroyed or placed with a dedicated collector – at the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Allahabad, perhaps the last place you’d expect to find such treasures. I guess the cataloguer’s neglect was my research gain. I would count my work on the 1950s and 60s Hindi middlebrow magazines and paperbacks to be my most important discoveries till now, which is strange, since the publications themselves are so well known and perfectly preserved in public memory, yet not much work has been forthcoming on them.

On completing her doctorate, Mandhwani began teaching English at Shiv Nadar University. She has co-edited Indian Genre Fiction: Past and Future Histories (2018). She has also worked in the interface of Hindi and English – Hinglish – and explored the publishing history of Hinglish novels. Her research interests include the history of South Asian and Hindi literature and the history of libraries in South Asia. She hopes that her research will lead to a better understanding the role of the reader in shaping literature.

Inspirations and Influences
How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price (2012)

Print and Pleasure by Francesca Orsini (2009): “a history of production and consumption of popular publications in both Hindi and Urdu.”

An Empire of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and the Diffusion of the Printed Word in Colonial India by Ulrike Stark (2007): “an excellent publishing history of the great multilingual publishing house from Lucknow.”

Cosmopolitan Dreams: The Making of Modern Urdu Literary Culture in Colonial South Asia by Jennifer Dubrow (2018)

The sheer breadth of pioneering work undertaken by Graham Shaw is awe-inspiring. Works by Prachi Deshpande, Priya Joshi, Isabel Hofmeyr and A R Venkatachalapathy have been very influential. Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakravorty's first two volumes on print history changed my entire perspective on how to do literary studies. Vaibhav Singh’s work on the typographic history of Devanagari provides another much-needed perspective to the story of Hindi while Priyasha Mukhopadhyay's book-in-process offers a very exciting examination of "unreading" and "partial reading" in colonial South Asia.

Forthcoming Publications
Working on a book titled Everyday Reading: Commercial Magazines and Book Publishing in Post-Independence India.

Andrew Otis
Born 1989
Doctoral candidate, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

Many historians use newspapers as a way to understand events in the past. But I use newspapers to understand newspapers themselves. I am much more interested in what history can tell us about journalism, rather than what journalism can tell us about history.

At an age when most aspiring historians would be struggling to complete their doctoral dissertations, Andrew Otis wrote his first book, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper. Published in 2018 to a rousing global reception, the book tells the story of India’s first newspaper from 1780, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, and its idiosyncratic founder-editor, James Augustus Hicky. Based on dogged archival research conducted at Kolkata and London, Otis managed to uncover fresh material on a subject which had already been extensively written about and corrected many of the misconceptions and mistakes which had been perpetuated about the newspaper and its editor.

I started researching for the Hicky book in 2011, when I was 21. Back then it was just an idea. The more I read about Hicky the more fascinated I became. I didn’t have any background in Indian history. I really didn’t know much at all. But I knew that his story was a fascinating one. And I knew it was important. But why hadn’t anyone written a good book about it before? So I thought I could do it. I know it sounds crazy for a 21 year old fresh out of college to think he can write a book about a time and place he doesn’t know much about, but that’s what I thought.

In 2013, I used my experiences in London to apply for and receive a Fulbright fellowship to go to Kolkata and really began serious research. I spent everyday on crowded Kolkata trains traveling back and forth to archives. I spent months in the High Court of Kolkata, National Library, and pretty much every archive in the Kolkata area.

I had the opportunity to track down even the most implausible of leads. Because of that I was able to find things no one has found before. Things such as an original ‘extraordinary’ issue of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette from the day Hicky was first tried for libel. That was an important find because Hicky accused Governor General Warren Hastings of bribing and packing the grand jury. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech were on the line. It was a huge deal that would shape the future of India.

I wrote my entire book first and then submitted it to agents. This was quite a risk because I had done five years of work and ran the risk that no one one would accept my manuscript. I sent my manuscript to about 35 or 40 literary agents. Finally, one agency replied to me, but their emails went into my spam folder! I almost missed them. They actually messaged me on Facebook, which is how I learned they were interested in my manuscript.
After doing some edits on my manuscript, they connected me to a publisher. After that I was surprised how smooth sailing it was. I signed the contract with my agent in 2017. A year later my book came out.


Before choosing to work on the history of journalism, Otis experimented with other vocations after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from the University of Rochester in 2011: a spell in South Korea as an English instructor, manager of an adventure travel company in Sri Lanka, editorial assistant at National Public Radio in Washington, and a six-month stint in Hyderabad among others. As his interests evolve, Otis hopes to engage with modern subjects even as he pursues his interests in print and newspaper history.

Inspirations and Influences
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2012)

White Mughals by William Dalyrmple (2004): “the preface was one of the most brilliantly written pieces of work I have ever read. I modeled my own after that.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006): “a post-apocalyptic novel whose short, punchy prose is a model for academics to write by.”

Digital Resources
Personal website with research blog and other resources
In 2014, Andrew Otis (re)discovered the ‘Judicial Notebooks of John Hyde and Sir Robert Chambers, 1774-1798’ during his archival work at Kolkata. Hyde’s Notebooks are the only extant source for the activities of India’s first Supreme Court. The notes written by Justice Hyde are in code and among other things, note the bribes received by his judicial colleagues. Otis contacted Professor Carol Siri Johnson of the New Jersey Institute of Technology who deciphered the code. Otis is the primary transcriber of the notebooks which are now available as a web resource. These judicial records are critical to understanding the foundation to India’s legal system.

Forthcoming Publications
Doctoral dissertation on ‘Online News and Credibility’. “I am working on why people trust or don’t trust news sources online for my dissertation, and designing online experiments.”
A book about the 1781 rebellion against
the East India Company. “Everyone knows about the 1857 mutiny/rebellion, but do people know that there was another rebellion in 1781 that nearly shook the British Empire in India to its core?”

Vaibhav Singh
Born 1983
Type historian
On himself

I am an independent researcher and type designer, and also the editor and publisher of the journal Contextual Alternate. My educational background spans Architecture, Visual Communication, Typeface Design, Literature, and Book History. I completed my doctoral studies at the University of Reading in 2017, and for the last three years I have been a Research Fellow there.

On how he became a type historian
I developed an interest in print and type during my MA studies in visual communication at IIT Bombay, and further through my involvement in printing and publishing in a professional capacity immediately after that. However, it was when I started researching for my typeface design dissertation at the University of Reading that I decided to take my interest into a more formal direction as a historian of print and type. My design education has played an important part in shaping my interest in aspects like materiality, technology, production techniques, and work practices. These have been the key areas of interest and points of departure for my work in printing history so far.

I am interested in combining insights from direct engagement and hands-on, practice-based approaches with more traditional or established historical methods and narratives. For example, my doctoral research looked at how design and technology were major factors in shaping the 20th-century history of print in India. I argued that engaging with the design processes and communities of practice can provide new insights – not only about how technological change was negotiated in a time and place but also why such changes occurred when they did. Of course, several other areas of my interest like language, labour, political and social history overlap and influence the direction of my research.

On his discoveries as a type historian
The most important findings of my own research to date have been related to the introduction of mechanical typesetting for Indian scripts. I was fortunate to locate relevant material in the archives of manufacturing companies, as well as in private hands, that had not been explored – or at least not recognised as particularly significant. For example, correspondence between the various people involved in Indian-script technological developments, original drawings and keyboard layouts, and a host of visual material, which included photographs of the launch of the Devanagari Linotype in 1930s Bombay and Calcutta (from the archives of the Smithsonian Institution), and the original newspaper report of the inauguration of the Monotype to compose Devanagari in Pune (from an antiquarian bookshop).

I was also particularly fortunate to find, buried within a set of unrelated Intertype specimens, a rare brochure detailing the company’s Devanagari Fotosetter machine that has all but vanished from historical record. Finding such material mostly involves an element of serendipity – sometimes making educated guesses within an archive and other times by pure accident going through a heap of material. The thrill of discovery can be quite intoxicating but it is tempered with gratitude for all the (often anonymous) keepers and caretakers of the fragile artefacts that enrich the history of print.

On his inspirations and influences
Fiona Ross is the scholar-practitioner whose work – and encouragement as a teacher – I have benefitted from most directly. Besides being a generous guide and mentor, she has been a constant source of inspiration in demanding excellence and rigour in typographic research.

I don’t think anyone seriously interested in South Asian print can fail to acknowledge the enormous contribution of Graham Shaw, whose work continues to be consistently enlightening. The depth of his engagement with print is only outmatched by the breadth of his knowledge of all things South Asian!

Browsing the shelves of the Central Library in Panjim I came across AK Priolkar’s The Printing Press in India, and that opened up lines of interest for me that I have been pursuing since. Abhijit Gupta and Swapan Chakravorty’s book history volumes Print Areas and Movable Type were part of my formative experience as a researcher, and their continuing engagement has been equally impressive with New Word Order and Founts of Knowledge, among numerous other projects. Several of the authors who contributed to those volumes, including AR Venkatachalapathy, Anindita Ghosh, Francesca Orsini, Ulrike Stark, and others like Isabel Hofmeyr, Robin Jeffrey, and Michael Twyman, have been influential in my own education and growth as a historian.

On the future contours of type history
There is still a lot we don’t know about type-founding, type-setting, and typographic practices in various Indian scripts across the subcontinent. I think type history is a particularly rich field that can inform print- and book-history in new ways as enquiry in this field develops. While there has been significant work on Indian presses and publishers in the last two decades, most of it has approached type and typography from a descriptive point of view – not as the focus or method of enquiry itself. It would be transformative for South Asian print history to engage more deeply with how type founders, compositors, journeymen printers (but also lithographers, engravers, calligraphers and others) practiced their trade, what their professional trajectories were, how they acquired skills and how they transferred them – what implications this had for literacy, for technological innovation, for class and caste-based interactions. Or how skilled and unskilled labourers, labour organisations, trade unions, and advocacy groups featured in the life of Indian print.

I think it is important to recognise that printed matter like books, posters, and pamphlets represent only the end-point of a much larger process. Printed outcomes, and the actors represented therein, are not the be-all, end-all of printing history. The history of the material book, and of other forms of printed matter, needs to include the less visible histories of entrepreneurship and design, craft and labour, technology and innovation, collective work and collaborations, as well as exclusion and exploitation. This history cannot be told merely through printed outcomes in the form of books that represent very specific and privileged categories of involvement, that is, authors, publishers, printers. There are numerous interesting questions to be explored in the overlooked, day-to-day realities and experiences of print production – and historical research informed by practice can make a significant contribution in this direction.

On his current projects
I am currently working on the history of mechanical typesetting for Indian scripts, which involves researching the design and technology behind Linotype, Monotype, Intertype machines as well as typewriters, varitypers, and other small-scale technologies of production.

Another project that I am working on is the creation of a collaborative visual/material database to document printers and printing in South Asia up to the year 2000, through images of practitioners, practices, and print artefacts, including printers, lithographers, type-founders and type-casters, type-setters, binders, machine operators and maintainers, Indian-script machines, print shops, type-departments, shop-floors etc – in short, anything and everything to do with the visual-material traces of print practice in the languages of South Asia. PrintWeek India readers are invited to participate in this project via