Updated: March 3, 2012 20:45 IST

A history of the printed word in Tamil

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The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamil Nadu, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Permanent Black, 2012, p.292, Rs. 795.
The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamil Nadu, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Permanent Black, 2012, p.292, Rs. 795.

A scholarly and well-researched account of the book in Tamil as it evolved through changing technologies and modes of consumption.

Johannes Gutenberg's printing machine (1439) took the world by storm: it is decidedly among the most valuable inventions ever known to the modern world, since the ‘global village,' as Marshll McLuhan would have it, fell within man's grasp. All the wealth of information lying buried in human consciousness came alive to him. Naturally, the Western world reaped the rewards of this rich harvest, even as countries such as India were close on the heels. While William Caxton brought out his first book, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 1473, we are told that the first Indian language book ever to be printed, cast in Tamil types, Tambiran Vanakkam, (only surviving copy now available at the Harvard University Library) was published in 1577 in Goa. What's more, Tamil was the first language to appear among non-Roman characters.

Fascinating history

A.R. Venkatachalapathy's monograph The Province of the Book is fascinating, insightful and richly detailed — yet condensed — account of the 700 year printing/publishing industry of Tamil books. It discusses some of the most pertinent questions such as: “When and how did the institutions of author, publisher, and printer emerge? How far did the colonial state figure in the emergence of a modern print culture? What were the reading practices and modes of reading associated with print? (p.13)” U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who has been publishing with the help of patrons, wrote to the government in 1905 seeking financial assistance for his work. That marked a break with the age of patronage. Subramania Bharati represents the transitional period when the industry moves from patronage to public. How sad that this poet, who was responsible for the renaissance in Tamil poetry, died broken hearted when his grand plan of selling 40 of his books at half a rupee per copy failed miserably!

With the rise of the Tamil novel, referred to as the ‘bourgeois art form', a middle class reading public grew, ushering in a total break with patronage. “It was only after this rupture that the emergency of the distinct categories/institutions of author, publisher, and printer, which are eminently the products of the market and the book as a commodity, became possible in the world of Tamil book publishing” (p.98).

Part-time profession

However, even after the advent of the different categories such as the author, the publisher and the printer in the 1920s, Tamil publishing could not acquire a respectable status as an industry. Unlike his European counterpart a Tamil writer could not think of making it a profession and sustain himself making an honest pie. The chapter “Songsters of the Crossroads” offers an interesting treatment of subaltern writers, usually referred to in somewhat sneering terms as Gujili writers; the section “Policing the Book” discusses the colonial state's control in the matter of proscribing publications on moral or political grounds and the Copyright Act passed in 1914 by the Government of India. The irony of it all was that these banned copies sold like hot cakes surreptitiously in unexpurgated editions. The chapter “Reading Practices” discusses the composition of the readers and the different forms of reading they were habituated to such as vocalised reading and silent reading. The epilogue rightly takes up the hotly debated issue: can the printed book survive the onslaught of digital technology? The contemporary situation shows a phenomenal growth in publishing with corporate bodies undertaking this task presenting the book in the most coveted design in layout, typeface, etc. The book scene in the Tamil country “presents not a picture of gloom but of great promise” for Venkatachalapathy who holds the optimistic view that its “Tamil avatar is far from dead.”

The Appendices on book production and printing costs supply us with a complete inventory on the book trade over the centuries. The comprehensive bibliography serves as a reliable guide to the whole area of book production in Tamil Nadu. The Province of the Book shows ample evidence of exemplary scholarship and thorough-paced research.

The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamil Nadu, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Permanent Black, 2012, p.292, Rs. 795.


At WorkSeptember 24, 2010

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