Sree Saraswati Press: More than just a printing house

The forgotten history of how a printing press impacted the independence struggle, spread the good word plus published academic works, and led to the foundation of the first printing education school of India. By PR Ray

21 Apr 2023 | By PR Ray

Old Employees in their late-sixties

Sree Saraswati Press was not just a printing house of all-India repute. Due to its history, activities, association and deeds, it attained the stature of an institution in the academic, literary and intellectual fabric of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bengal. This was in addition to becoming a renowned commercial print house. Few commercial printers in India could match this unique reputation of Sree Saraswati Press.

Independence struggle becomes a catalyst
The socio-political surrounding that prevailed in Bengal in the early 20th century provided the raison d’être for institution like Sree Saraswati Press to be formed.

Throughout the 19th century enormous changes were transpiring in the social fabric of Bengal. This impacted the lives of the people in its entirety of social, cultural and literary including education, bringing about radical transformations.

The changes that took place, particularly in the sector of education, had significant consequences. During this period, schools, colleges and other educational institutions were being set up in the remotest corners, culminating in the establishment of the University of Calcutta in 1857. This opened up possibilities for the middle-class youth of Bengal to imbibe liberal ideas, helping, germination of nationalistic feelings and creating an urge to free the nation from foreign domination. By the early 20th century, with the fight to stop the Partition of Bengal gaining momentum, this sentiment got enhanced by several notches. The struggle against the British Raj became a mission for the youth. The voice of the young brigade found exPression through various types of publications, like newspapers, periodicals and books mostly in local languages. This, in turn led to proliferation of printing presses, big and small, all over the Bengal Presidency. At times the ultranationalists channelised their meagre capital to set up these printing houses. This in turn echoed the voices of those freedom fighters in all their printed matters. Thus, the printing houses of the period generated a fine momentum for the overall freedom struggle.

Rise of nationalistic spirit
Swami Prajnanananda Saraswati of Barisal (now in Bangladesh) Sankarmath, aka Satish Chandra Mukhopadhya, born in August 1884, was one such radical freedom fighter. He was a believer of the idea that for a political operation to be successful, it will need to be backed by a printing Press and a publication. Two of Swami’s followers in Barisal, Arun Chandra Guha and Monoranjan Gupta, like the youth of the time, were fighting to overthrow the British Raj. Both, influenced by this line of thinking, set up a publication unit in Calcutta in 1920 and named it Saraswati Library in honour of the Swami.
Following this, both of them started to plan for a printing unit to be run with nationalistic spirit. In 1923, Guha and Gupta along with another associate, Sailendranath Guha Roy, partnered to start a printing facility and once again named it after the Swami Prajnanananda Saraswati, as Sree Saraswati Press.

The struggle of running the press
By the end of 1923, the press had started receiving machines like a Phoenix TTB (a treadle printing machine), English heading and body types, galley, rack etc, all from Germany, with Bangla types, procured locally. The operations began in a rented house in Beniatolla Lane, in Calcutta.

During the early days the promoters; along with Mahendranath Dutt who had joined from Barisal and who got released after a year’s incarceration for his political activities; Kiran Chandra Mukhopadhaya and Gopinath Saha, the twin who would soon be involved in the killing of a British person (they thought he was the Police Commissioner of Calcutta, Charles Tegart),  all worked as co-workers to get the newly founded Press up and running.

However, this initial phase was short-lived. The two main promoters were put behind the bars due to political reasons, courtesy the British Raj and the other two – Kiran Chandra Mukhopadhaya and Gopinath Saha got arrested too, with the latter being sent to the gallows and the other for life imprisonment. Only Mahendranath Dutt was free to run the printing Press as its machine man, accountant, salesman and collector. Dutt performed this multifaceted role with aplomb, sometimes at great personal suffering.

This was a difficult phase in the life of the Sree Saraswati Press. Until 1928, it was an uphill task for the printing Press to make ends meet. On the one hand expenses were higher than the revenue, owing largely to high establishment cost, together with the fact that some of the customers who were political affiliates,neither could pay on time and some time not pay at all, for the print jobs the Press was doing for them. Things were onerous for the newly founded unit.

From its initial days, Sree Saraswati Press was the favoured printer for the Bengal politicians especially for those with radical beliefs. Muzaffar Ahmed, the communist leader, got his weekly journal Ganabani (Voice of the Masses) printed at the Press. Plus there was Sramik which was published by Santosh Kumari Gupta, another radical personality.

In 1924, elections to the Bengal Legislative Council were being held. Sree Saraswati Press was asked to print the posters for the Swarajya Party of Chittaranjan Das. All strike related posters of the Bengal Congress were getting printed at the Press during these initial years. In 1928, Calcutta was the venue for the All India Congress Conference. All conference related printings were produced at Sree Saraswati Press. In short Sree Saraswati Press became the trusted printing destination for all nationalistic political organisations.

Around the same time the Press had begun taking up various other print jobs, including books and similar publications, both for its own Saraswati Library and other publishers. Soon another area of print operation started emerging from the Press in those initial years, that is of wedding gift cards. This was a unique phenomenon for the city and the Press became the leader of this print product.

Despite all these various commercial jobs flowing into the Press, the revenue that the Press had started to generate for itself, was still not adequate to balance its finances. As a result, the management started looking for avenues for reducing its expenses. One such aspect was the rent the Press was paying to house its operation.

Following up on this, in 1926, after just three years of its formation, Sree Saraswati Press shifted its operation to a new address at Ramanath Mazumdar Street.

Evolving in tune with its reality
The shifting of the base didn’t provide much operational advantage and Sree Saraswati Press continued to struggle to make ends meet. Yet, the volume of work at Sree Saraswati Press started growing appreciably, with the variety of print jobs it had started offering, thereby slowly and steadily enhancing the reputation of the Press as a quality printer, true to its commitments.

This helped Sree Saraswati Press to consolidate its role as a fine commercial printer helping it to build up a commercial clientele like the Megaphone Company, Calcutta Builders’ Stores and Bombay Mutual Company to name a few. Soon a pharma company called Bengal Immunity became a major client for Sree Saraswati Press for all its print matters, including printing of pharma labels. To supply these increasing demands, Sree Saraswati Press had acquired a colour printing machine, a Phoenix 2B and a Linotype. All these, in addition to building up a dedicated clientele, helped in improving the cash flow for Sree Saraswati Press, much to the relief of those managing the operations.

Alongside the commercial jobs Sree Saraswati Press continued with its printing activities for the academic world. It got engaged in the printing of the Vedanta Darshaner Itihas (History of Vedanta Philosophy) by Swami Prajnanananda Saraswati which was a feather in its print cap. The famous Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterji, on being elevated to the position of the district Congress president of the Howrah district Congress party, soon entrusted Sree Saraswati Press with printing of all municipal documents.

In the midst of all these, Sree Saraswati Press, never lost sight of the past, its historical origins connecting it to the nationalistic cause and of its service to the nation. In honour of that spirit Sree Saraswati Press continued with the printing of political literature and circulars, including printing of radical newspapers like Swadhinata for the famous radical group of Bengal – Jugantar.

By 1930, another printing Press in Calcutta, originally set up in 1913-14 called Cherry Press got merged with Sree Saraswati Press, bringing along with it an additional printing capacity for Sree Saraswati Press.
Since its inception Sree Saraswati Press had started off as a partnership company. By 1930 it had grown to such an extent that it necessitated a change in the character of the organisation. This requirement got heightened by the fact that two, out of its three existing partners, were under threat of being arrested at any point of time. This created operational problems.

In the event of such an incident occurring, the commercial operation of Sree Saraswati Press would have been hampered. The problem was further accentuated, as other business establishments had come to depend upon it for getting its print jobs done. The management of Sree Saraswati Press, thought it prudent to convert it into a private limited company, which it did in 1930.

Immediately after this change, two of the erstwhile promoters were arrested and jailed. Adding more misery for Sree Saraswati Press, the main operational force, Mahendranath Dutt, was also arrested for printing of seditious literature and was imprisoned for six years. The only person free, was the third member of the original promoters, Sailendrnath Guha Roy, who now had to run Sree Saraswati Press, singlehandedly. At this stage the annual revenue volume for the Sree Saraswati Press, stood at Rs 60,000.

By the time, all three, who were behind the bars, were released, in 1939, the Second World War had begun and with it the workload for Sree Saraswati Press increased several fold. It now needed to run for 24 hours, together with a larger operational space to cope up with the extra workload. In one year the annual revenue for the Sree Saraswati Press increased to Rs 79,000.

The consolidation of a national status
No 32 Upper Circular Road in Calcutta was a landmark during those times. Originally, it housed another institution of the freedom struggle: the Forward newspaper, started by Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das, later edited by Subhas Chandra Bose, then under the management of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (the well-known doctor who became the second Chief Minister of West Bengal); was offered to Sree Saraswati Press for housing its operations, along with its linotype, monotype, rotary and casting equipments. In 1939 Sree Saraswati Press shifted to this landmark space, where its name would get emblazoned for the next 40 years on the face of this building, commanding awe and inspiring anyone and everyone who traversed the thoroughfare in front of it and for all those connected with the city’s literary and academic world.  The same year, Sree Saraswati Press transformed itself into a public limited company, bolstering its financial capacity. And even though, by the end of the war the surge of work order abated, the print reputation of Sree Saraswati Press had grown to such an extent that it made little impact on its order books. This trend continued till the early seventies.

Celebrating the institution
Post-independence, Sree Saraswati Press came to hold the position of an institution not just for the commercial role it essayed in the world of print, but also for the unique position it occupied in the hearts and minds of all those who had participated in the freedom struggle. The Press became an integral part of literary and academic folklore.

The growth story of Sree Saraswati Press continued uninterrupted. During the period 1954-1970, the profit margin for Sree Saraswati Press increased seven and a half times. As the reputation of Sree Saraswati Press spread across the country, commercial jobs at the Press poured in, making it expand its offset printing facility.As if to put a final stamp of its legacy on the city , Sree Saraswati Press was made the exclusive printer for the Calcutta Telephone Directory.

Locally, in the Bengali cultural, literary and the academic world, Sree Saraswati Press continued to remain true to its fundamental spirit of service to the nation. In 1954 it printed the collected works of Bankim Chandra Chatterji. In 1961, when the Government of West Bengal started looking for a printer to print the collected works of Rabindrananth Tagore in a unique size, to keep the selling price within the easy reach of the common man, the then chief minister of the state, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, could think of no other printer than, Sree Saraswati Press to take up the challenge and deliver.

Earlier, in 1957, when the University of Calcutta, was marking its centenary, it planned to publish a commemorative volume. Two of its historian editors, one being a radical freedom fighter himself in the pre independence days, could not think of any press other than Sree Saraswati Press to do justice to a publication of this historical importance and academic stature. Sree Saraswati Press rose to the occasion and did a superb job with the volume, enhancing its reputation in the academic world.

Once again, with enormous workload, flowing in from far and wide, Sree Sarswati Press with its factory premise, where it had moved into, in 1939, was proving to be inadequate. The search began to locate a larger space, suitable for the expansion that the management was planning for future growth. In 1958, Sree Saraswati Press shifted to a new location and started operation in 1960. Since this latest shift, the colour printing facility at the Sree Saraswati Press was revamped and re-booted. These expansions needed a larger workforce to run the numerous machines. The size of the total manpower at the Sree Saraswati Press increased substantially, requiring deft handling of the industrial relationship by the management.

Coinciding with this expansion one of the original promoters, Arun Chandra Guha, became a member of the constituent assembly and later the state minister of finance of the Government of India and Sailendranath Guha Roy got engaged with the standards committee of the Government of India and various print associations.

The overall industrial atmosphere worsened from the mid seventies, and to overcome this problem Sree Saraswati Press drew upon its reserves and surpluses. This weakened its financial clout, and led to its closure. In 1980, the erstwhile Sree Saraswati Press was taken over by the West Bengal government, which continues to run it.

One must add here that Arun Chandra Guha’s association with Sree Saraswati Press led to a historic pronouncement for printing education in India. Thanks to his initiative, a printing school (perhaps the first one) was set up in 1955, under the first Five-Year plan.

In 1923, Sree Saraswati Press was set up with a philosophy and the goal of serving the cause of the freedom movement and thereby promoting the cause of the nation. As it galloped on the growth path, it was imperative to survive and grow. Within this milieu the founders and the team at the Press, never forgot its past, the reason for its formation and the loftier goal for which it was meant. In doing so, Sree Saraswati Press earned the respect of its commercial  clientele and created a profound sense of reverence in the minds of the people, especially among those connected with the literary and the academic world, who came to look upon it as an institution, more than a mere printing Press, far more unique than most of its peer, contemporary and perhaps later.

(In penning this piece, PR Ray has relied on Mahendranath Dutt’s excellent memoir Jathanijukta Ashmiho which has documented the day to day operations of the Sree Saraswati Press, even before a printing machine got installed)

(PR Ray is an industry veteran who has been a part of the paper industry since 1970)



Ramanath Majumdar Street - press shifted in 1926


32 APC Road - famous Forward House where the press shifted in 1939

Beniatola Lane - press started in 1923



Swami Prajnanananda Saraswaty - inspiration for the press