Updated: November 5, 2011 17:24 IST

Endpaper: A true companion

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The Oxford Companion to the Book.
Photo: Special Arrangement
The Oxford Companion to the Book.

The Oxford Companion to the Book is indeed an indispensable reference book about books.

Any Oxford companion to something is a fine, trustworthy, last-word reference thing, but this one, a companion to the book itself, will find a special place as the indispensable reference book about books. The Oxford Companion to the Book, edited by Michael Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, is 1408 pages in a two-volume box set (and costs, even at a used Amazon price, $277. 95). The OCB seeks to represent in a single work “the world of the book as it is known at the close of the first decade of the 21st century…In all 398 scholars from 27 countries spanning the globe have contributed, consisting of 51 essays and 5,160 A-Z entries.” Vital to this enterprise, the editors acknowledge, has been an editorial team of 28 expert and generous associate editors, and among them are our own book historians: A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Swapan Chakrovorty, Rimi B Chatterjee, and Abhijit Gupta.

Fine sweep

The essay on the history of the book in India, written by Gupta, has a fine sweep to it: from the talipat-palmyra manuscripts in 5th century BC to the first printed book in 1557 to the Jaico paperbacks of 1946, Gupta's entry is absorbing, concise, and definitive. Printing itself came accidentally to India, Gupta reminds us. In 1556, King Joao III of Portugal dispatched a group of Jesuits with a printer and a printing press to Abyssinia at the request of its emperor. When the ship put in at Goa, the emperor changed his mind and now this Portuguese colony was suddenly left with a press and a printer. The printer was Juan de Bustamante, a Jesuit from Valencia, who was accompanied by an Indian assistant trained in printing in Lisbon. Bustamante, Gupta goes on write, set up the press at the College of St.Paul in Goa, and it was under the imprint of the college that most of the early publications were issued.

The first Indian language rendered into print, we discover, was Tamil: Doctrina Chrstam, Tampiran Vanakkam in 1557, a translation of a Portuguese catechism of 1539. This book was not only the first to be printed in Indian type, remarks Gupta, but the first anywhere in the world printed in non roman metallic type. The Tamil type was prepared by the Spaniard Juan Gonsalves, a former blacksmith and clockmaker, with assistance from Father Pero Luis, a Tamil Brahmin who had entered the Jesuit order in 1562. Fascinatingly, the second important printed Indian book is again in Tamil. From Tranquebar, the press the Danish Lutheran missionary Bartholomew Ziegenbalgh set up in 1711. The crowning work, Gupta tells us, was Z's translation of the New Testament in Tamil: the first such translation in an Indian language.

There were more remarkable printing instances in Tamil Nadu: a type foundry set up in Poryar, again the first such in India and in 1715, the first modern paper mill in the country. In 1773, a translation of Pilgrim's Progress, a bilingual edition, with English on the left, Tamil on the right; probably the first of its kind. From the Vepery (SPCK) press, the famous work of a Tamil-English dictionary in 1779. And by the 19th century, Madras had become the undisputed centre of print culture. With William Carey and the Serampore press, Calcutta takes over to become the most important printing centre in Asia. When I asked Abhijit what had gone into researching and writing a monumental piece like this, he shrugged off the question with typical modesty, choosing instead to talk about what had challenged him.

“Writing a history of the book in India posed methodological challenges which I am yet to resolve. Due to the diversity of Indian languages, it is impossible to write a history along solely linguistic or national lines. Most western countries have a diglot history of the book at most, but the polyglot history of south Asia necessitated a different approach. So I tried to tell the history in terms of centres of print production (Goa, Tranquebar, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Serampore, Lucknow). This gave the essay a metropolitan bias and one had to leave out large chunks (such as the North-East, or Bangladesh). What was also hard to accommodate was the polyglot nature of printing within the individual centres (Calcutta, for example, printed in Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, Nepalese and English). Another perspective which could not be given sufficient space was the trans-national scope of the missionary nation, whose print network ramified over south as well as south-east Asia.”   

Multiplicity of scholarship

In both design and execution the OCB emphasises a multiplicity of book historical scholarship: national and regional histories of the book, authorship, bibliography and textual studies; book collecting and collectors, censorship, pornography and control, children's books, copyright; the electronic book, ephemera, forgers and forgery; illustration; librarianship and archives; the MS book; maps and cartography; the material book, newspapers and journals, printers and publishers “We have ventured to produce a global work,”, write the editors, “taking the reader to Mount Athos, Mainz and Shanghai, to polar libraries and to Mexico's Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the first public library in the Americas…The idea of a book serving as a companion, a humane presence in whose company one takes nourishment, a trustworthy guide on pilgrimage or expedition, a close associate whose society one prizes, dates back to the classical world.”

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