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OM OF INDIAN PUBLISHING
- Calcutta would be a fit place to nurture publishing studies

Some Hindus believe that the “Word” first echoed over India as a primal Brahmanic “Om”. This has caused the philosopher and wit, Ramu Gandhi (the Mahatma’s grandson), to suggest that the home ministry under the current pseudo-Hindu regime ought to be called the ministry of Om affairs, its fundamentalist head be called the Indian Om minister, and the India of this xenophobic fascist vision — a country cleansed of Muslims, Christians and “foreigners” such as Sonia Gandhi — be thought of as the Aryavartic Om Sweet Om of all like-minded Nazi Hindus.

Be that as it may, my own interest in the Word is, as an Indian publisher, in territory less nebulous, namely the Word in its printed version, and on this manifestation of the Word I am occasionally called in to spill the beans by some worthy body or the other. The latest occasion for such bean-spilling was at the behest of Calcutta’s Seagull Foundation, an organization which, as a cultural centre for the city’s elite, seems to be giving the British Council a stiff run for its money. A three-week publishing workshop had been organized and twenty-three students had signed up to marvel at the pearls of wisdom cast in their direction by a couple of old fogeys, a couple of middle-aged semi-fogeys (such as myself), and some refreshingly young non-fogeys (such as Abhijit Gupta of Jadavpur University). Decent jobs in Indian publishing are terribly scarce and only in Calcutta, a friend pointed out, were you likely to gather twenty-three curious students to listen for three weeks about a profession that might, in the end, never be theirs.

It was the pleasantly surprising invitation from Calcutta that brought to mind the fact that while the city is no longer the centre of Indian publishing, as it once was, it is probably the only location for serious publishing studies in India. It also strikes me as paradoxical that Delhi, the most aggressively philistine among India’s metropolises, is now the centre of the printed word for this country. How the locations of Indian publishing have shifted! And how sad that the city of the legendary P.K. Ghosh and his Eastend Printers, and of the National Library, should have given way to, of all places, a city made up largely of communities that have such little time for the world of learning.

Speaking of the shifting sands of Indian publishing: according to historians such as the late B.S. Kesavan (once director of the National Library), the printed word was introduced into south Asia by the Portuguese. St Francis Xavier’s Doctrina Christam (circa 1557), a work on the creed of the Christians, began the slow trickle of missionary literature in Roman letters, and then in indigenous scripts such as Tamil. Cochin and Quilon, at this early point, were where publishing happened, and it was in Tranquebar that the Danish missionary, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, put up what was possibly the country’s first printing press, in 1712. Martin Luther’s Catechism, in Tamil translation, was among the books to appear from this primitive machine.

Publishing and printing were inseparable activities in those Caxtonic days, and both soon began to creep east to Madras and thence north along the Coromandel Coast in the wake of European trading companies. Soon enough, grammars and dictionaries and translations became the need of the day, the centre of empire became Calcutta, and publishing took root around the language requirements of colonial officials as well as governmental and educational needs, becoming simultaneously the sine qua non of clerical and missionary activity. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengali Language (1778) and Charles Wilkins’ Bhagawed Geeta (1785) appeared, as did William Carey’s Mission Press at Serampore (Srirampur) and the college at Fort William where Company officials learnt the languages and customs of India. These constituted the little hub of the publisher’s world in those early days.

Bengal remained the publishing centre for many years, its dominance easing as rival commercial centres such as Bombay gained importance, and as printing presses were set up in large numbers at official centres such as Lucknow. The famous Newal Kishore Press of Munshi Newal Kishore Bhargava, for example, which was set up in Lucknow after the 1857 Mutiny to service Awadh’s needs, at one time comprised 350 printing machines and employed nearly 9000 personnel, making it indisputably the centre of publishing activity in 19th-century North India, specially for Persian, Urdu and Hindi. This publishing house came to an end with its founder, in the last years of that century.

When I joined publishing, twenty years ago, India’s publishing centre had decisively moved from Bombay and Calcutta to Delhi, about ten or twelve years earlier. As the commercial centres of urban India, these two ports had been the cities in which publishers had their large offices until the end of the Sixties. My father has had a bookshop in Lucknow since the Fifties, and as a child sitting in that shop I remember the salesmen who visited him coming from publishing houses in Bombay or Calcutta. Bombay’s Asia Publishing House was, at this time, about the only important local academic publisher. They had published Irfan Habib and T.N. Madan and M.N. Srinivas and a whole generation of post-independence Indian scholars. But they were the exception. Most of the books my father sold to the reading intelligentsia of Lucknow were by non-Indian writers, and they were all published abroad. I can hardly remember a well-selling local trade book from the Sixties, except perhaps the Jim Corbett corpus. It was in 1965 that Verrier Elwin’s autobiography appeared, followed by the Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley Handbook of Indian Birds. These were among the beginnings of Indian academic publishing.

My publishing company’s head office had moved to Delhi in around 1971 because, like other large Indian publishers, as well as a host of distributors and agents of foreign presses, it had realized that the centre of English book-related influence as well as affluence lay in the proximity of the bureaucracies and power centres which give book grants to libraries and colleges, and which recommend and prescribe books for schools and colleges. Yet at the time I joined, things in the Indian publishing universe were still very aristocratically Bengali, by which I mean very nicely civilized and bhadra, and the first language of my office, even within Delhi, was Bengali: in those days, in fact, Bengali remained the language of English publishing offices in India, even if you were located in Bombay or Madras or Delhi.

This ethos has changed radically over the years. The dominant language of Indian publishing is the language of its most aggressive sellers of books, and these sellers are either Punjabi or people who have become, in a manner of speaking, Punjabified. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. It has led to selling more books, which is a good thing, but also to a degeneration in the refinement and intellection associated with the ethos of the publishing house.

In this context, it is nice to find that something like a home for publishing studies is making itself known in Calcutta, via the activities of enthusiasts at the Seagull Foundation and Jadavpur University. Publishers themselves are either woolly about the non-commercial, cultural aspects of their own profession, or are too weighed down by the business of making books to be able to reflect about the moral, social and technical dimensions of their craft. Interactions between the cultural studies wing of the reputed Jadavpur University on the one hand, and professional publishers and students curious about book-making on the other, seem to me an appropriate and wonderful thing for Calcuttans to have organized.

The logical extension of this kind of activity is the creation of a university press. We badly need a couple of good university presses in India. The ideal location of the first such press— named after P.K. Ghosh or William Carey, perhaps' — one need hardly add, is Jadavpur University. And this, in part, because it is located in Calcutta.

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