Test your knowledge of Indian print history during the lockdown! - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Did you know, the number of printed books is rising in India? That eBooks sales is only 2% of total sales? That there was a 20% CAGR for printed books from 2015 and 2019? But that’s now. What about the printed books and popular publications in India in the 1800s...

This Sunday Column tests your print faculty. Keep a paper and pencil and see how much your score.

12 Apr 2020 | By Noel D'Cunha

Printed books created new tastes and attracted new audiences by bridging the Hindi-Urdu script divide. This was thanks to lithography and bilingual copyists.

Q. When did the history of print in India start?
It started in Goa.

Q. Why is Fort William in Calcutta important?
Some historians say the history of lithographic print publications as well as the first publication started in 1800. However, even in Calcutta, there was a thriving print industry prior to 1800 (with nearly 400 imprints and 25 newspapers).

Q. What was unique about the texts in India?
There were separate texts in Hindi and Urdu in different scripts as well as different vocabularies.

Q. Who created these texts?
The Bhakha and Hindustani munshis (scribes) who were working under the guidance of a Scottish professor JB Gilchrist.

(Editor’s note: You can read more about this fascinating period in Francesca Orsini’s Print and Pleasure).

Q. Most Indians have heard of the Parsee-Hindustani playwright Betab. It is said Betab learned spelling from a fellow worker while training as a compositor. Where did he learn this?
The Qaiser Hindi Press in Delhi.

Q. Betab did not receive any pay while learning “on the job”. After a month what was his salary?
Rupees five.

Q. Betab learned spelling from his fellow compositor. Who was this?
Pandit Shambhunath who became a compositor after failing to secure a teaching job.

(Editor’s note: You can read about Betab’s life as a printer in Betab Charit, published by NSD).

Q. Unlike Europe, low literacy was a challenge for commercial publishers in the 19th century North India. In this context, a missionary warned of a rapid increase in the number of native presses, book shops, and book hawkers. Which year was this?
In 1864.

Q. Typography is the bedrock of print. To which firm are the first Devnagari types attributed to?
The East India Company. However, here is a long history of printing in Devanagari before this in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

Q. Who are the print superstars at the East India Company who were manning this project?
A. An East India Company employee Charles Wilkins and the ironsmith Panchanan Karmakar pus his nephew Manohar. All of them were employed by the Baptist missionary William Carey in order to develop a set of Nagari fonts.

Q. So William Carey is important?
Yes. But later reports suggest that Carey only employed Manohar. The other two had done their stuff before Carey reached India.

Q. What is the Baptist Mission Press famous for?
It’s supposed to be the first Indian foundry for Devnagari, Bengali and other Indian types.

Q. Why is Serampore so important?
Technical innovation and the first large-scale printing of books in Indian characters during the first forty years of book publishing in Hindi and Urdu can be encompassed by the books produced by the order of Fort William College in Calcutta and by the translation and tracts published in Serampore.

Q. What else is Serampore renowned for?
So until the 1830s, presses in India had to purchase fonts from Serampore. If not, then they had to purchase it from the foundries in Britain.

Q. Most presses would prefer Britain, right?
Yes, except the purchasing or making of Urdu and Hindi typefaces was costly. At the turn of the 19th century, Devnagari fonts in Britain cost 700 pounds while at Serampore it cost a hundred pounds (approximately Rs 1,500).

Q. The first books published in Hindi and Urdu in India were typeset and printed in Calcutta. And the first large scale printing of books in Indian characters is attributed to Baptist Mission Press at Serampore and Fort William College. Which is the third press which is highly spoken about?
The Hindustani Press (1802). This press owned both Naskh and Nastaliq types from day one of its ops.

Q. What’s so special about this?
Compared to the 26 Roman characters, there are just under 200 letters in the Naskh script, and over 600 character combinations in Nastaliq. And so, the fonts at Serampore amounted to an astonishing thousand characters which was later reduced to 700.

(Editor’s note: You can read about this phase in M Siddiq Khan’s William Carey and the Serampore; also read Graham Shaw’s Printing in Calcutta to 1800).

Q. Even in those days purchasing and running a printing press requires significant capital investment. True or false?
True. It has always been tough to run and manage a press.

Q. Why true?
First of all, purchasing or making Urdu and Hindi typefaces was costly.

Q. Aha. What were the numbers?
At the beginning of the 19th century, a set of Nagari types forged in Britain cost as much as 700 pounds. While at Serampore it cost around a hundred pounds (Rs 1,500).

Q. Yes, yes. You have mentioned this above, already.
Now do the maths. The missionary presses almost exclusively use Naskh fonts while presses like the Hindustani Press offered both Naskh and Nastaliq. The Indian owned presses stuck to the more expensive Nastaliq, since Indian readers were familiar with the look and feel of the font.

Q. So? I am still not convinced.
Well, the high cost of paper (even in the 1800s) made printed books prohibitive.

Q. Let’s talk numbers. What was the price of books in 1811?
The complete Tulsidas Ramcharitmanas or Lalluljilal’s Prem Sagar was Rs 20.

Q. Quite stiff!
Yes, the high prices along with the high cost of typefaces for Indian alphabets and possibly of oil-based ink for printing with movable type has often been counted as one of the main reasons for the late spread of print in India.

(Editor’s note: You can read Nazir Ahmad’s Development of Printing in Urdu and Krishnacharya’s Hindi Ke Adimudrit Granth).

Q. What was the unique feature among the 19th-century Indian printer like Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow?
They invariably brought out books in more than one language. They owned Arabic, Persian/Urdu, Devnagari and Roman fonts.

Q. Besides his pioneering efforts in printing and publishing, what else did Naval Kishore do?
Naval Kishore established a paper mill in Lucknow in 1880. And it was integral to the success of his publishing business.

Q. A paper mill?
A. Incidentally, this paper mill became the largest Indian industrial concern in the northern Western provinces at the time.

Q. What did JN Rind say about the Government Lithographic Press in Calcutta in the 1820s?
He gives us a sense of the economics of the structures for writers. For example, a writer of English texts was paid a maximum of Rs 150 and a minimum of Rs 60 per month while writers in Urdu and Nagari scripts received a salary of Rs 35 each.

Q. And printers?
A little over Rs 30 per month. Rind himself received Rs 500.

Q. What was the average cost of impressions in those days?
The average cost of impressions was Rs two per hundred or less than the lowest charge made by private lithograph first for the most trivial form the print.

Q. What type of paper was deployed?
The paper used was a common China paper which in the shops cost Rs 8-10 per ream.

Q. And personnel?
Five men were employed to work at each press, one to work on the roller on the ink slab, the second to apply the ink to the drawing, the third to wet the stone, the fourth to work the handle of the press and the fifth, to stand behind the press and give assistance and gyaan.

(Editor’s note: You can read — in fact, a must-read — Ulrike Stark’s An Empire of Books, to fully understand this phase).


Q. What is the name of the first litho press which was established in Patna by an East India Company employee?

(Editor’s note: Winners of the quiz question will get an autographed copy of Autocar. Mail your answer to charmiane.alexander@haymarketsac.com )

(Image credit: An Empire of Books by Ulrike Stark)