From palm leaves to the printed word

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Instrument of change: A press commonly used in India in the 19th century.
Instrument of change: A press commonly used in India in the 19th century.


The history of the printing press in India is the history of the re-awakening of a nation.

THE pioneering history of printing in India is inspiring as we celebrate its 450th anniversary this year. In October, India had the unique privilege of being the "Guest of Honour" at the Frankfurt World Book Fair. And we were the only country to be conferred this honour twice, in a span of 20 years, in 1986 and 2006. There are an estimated 16,000 publishers in India, producing about 70,000 titles every year. The annual turnover of the industry is estimated at Rs.700 crores. A good 40 per cent of the titles are in English, making India the largest producer of books in the English language after the United Kingdom and the United States.

The pioneers

But, how did we reach this position? One reason is that traditionally and culturally, India was open to new ideas, whether from Babylon or from the Bible. It was Christian missionaries, who wanted to produce the Bible in the several languages of the country, who introduced printing and publishing in India. In fact, we got the first printing press as a happy accident: As early as 1542, Francis Xavier, a Spaniard, was teaching the Bible in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), Tamil Nadu. Also, when the Viceroy of Goa, on behalf of King Joan III of Portugal, opened schools for Indians, books had to be provided. Thus, pressure was put on Portugal by Francis Xavier to dispatch printing presses to India, Ethiopia and Japan. Meanwhile, the Emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) requested the king of Portugal to send a press along with the missionaries. Thus the first batch of Jesuit missionaries left for Ethiopia on March 29, 1556. En route, they arrived in Goa on September 6, 1556. But, while they were preparing to proceed to Ethiopia, news reached them that the Ethiopian Emperor was not keen to receive the missionaries. Thus, as luck would have it, the press stayed in Goa and was set up at the College of St. Paul in Goa. Today, the huge arch of the St. Paul's College gate, restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, stands as a witness to this pioneering effort.

First printed work

The first literature ever printed in India was released on November 6, 1556. The rest is history. The missionaries established a number of printing presses in many parts of India, triggering a language and literature revolution. The history of printing in India is the story of the re-awakening of a nation. No wonder, when B.S. Kesavan wrote the three-volume comprehensive History of Printing and Publishing in India, published by National Book Trust (1985), he sub-titled it as "A Story of Cultural Re-awakening". In his words: "The history of printing starts with the rehearsal of Evangelist efforts Catholic and Protestant. Fifty-nine years after the landing of Vasco da Gama in India, the printing press opened its account at Goa, a few decades after the beginning of the 16th century. Within a hundred years of the printing of Gutenberg's Bible in Germany, India initiated its groping towards fashioning of types for the many Indian languages." The story of printing is not merely a matter of what was printed when, but how the Gutenberg invention proved a handmaid to the cultural uplift of the nation. In literature, spanning all its genres, in art, in music, in folklore, in language and rhetoric, how did printing expand the intellectual horizons in the country? How did printing achieve this in the sciences, in philosophy, in the social sciences, and various other disciplines? Points out Kesavan: "The promethean effort of bringing knowledge from exclusive palm-leaves and other manuscripts into the houses of ordinary people, and familiarise them with their cultural heritage, is an aspect of this history in every Indian language. How printing has served tradition, and also challenged tradition, is a very exciting story. Printing has no political, social or religious barriers, and is a mode of broadcasting ideas adopted by all shades of opinion". If the location of the earliest printing presses in India were plotted on the map, it will be found that they were all located along the coastline of peninsular India. Goa, Cochin, Punnaikkyal (near Kanyakumari), Vypicottai (near Kodungalloor), and Amblakkadu (near Thrissur), were the places along the west coast. Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), Madras, Fort William, Calcutta and Serampore along the east coast represent the shaping of Indian printing. Bombay contributed its share towards the second phase of the vigorous growth of early Indian printing. Roman priests of the Catholic Missions and the Protestant Missions from Europe fathered and furthered this impulse in their anxiety to translate the Bible and thus spread the Word of God.

Boost to literature

The start of printing in Goa, spread along the southern coast and its attainment of maturity at Tharangambadi and Madras has been described as the dawn of printing in India, but the sunrise in all its brilliance was when William Carey set foot in India on November 11, 1793. The Bengali alphabet in movable type followed a long time after the Tamil alphabet had been devised in movable type. The Serampore Mission of Carey was a pioneer in this respect, helped by William Ward and Joshua Marshmann, establishing a press in Serampore in 1800. Two able Indians, Panchanan Karmakar and Manohar helped in casting the types, publishing in 40 Indian languages, for the first time. Carey also set up the first paper making factory and the first foundry in India. Nathan Brown, Oliver Cutter and Miles Bronson, all missionaries, established a press in Sadiya, Assam in 1838, bringing a literary revolution in several Northeastern languages. The Surat Mission Press was set up in 1820 by William Fyvie, the first in Gujarat, publishing in Gujarati. The Wesleyan Mission Press, established in 1820, and the Basel Mission press set up in 1840, boosted Kannada publishing. The CMS Press established by Benjamin Bailey in Kottayam in 1821 and the Basel Press by Hermann Gundert in Thalassery in 1838 revolutionised Malayalam publishing. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) established a press in Tharangambai (Tranquebar) in 1713. Many missionaries, including Ziegenbalg, Schultze, Beschi, Nobili, Fabricius, Rhenius, Rottler, Winslow, G.U. Pope and Calwell were involved in promoting Tamil language and literature. And C.P. Browne laboured for Telugu language. In Bombay, the American Mission Press was established in 1812.

Prodigious output

Thus, in most of the Indian languages, the pioneer publishers were Bible translators. Also the Christian missionaries, as pioneers, produced 86 dictionaries, 115 grammar books and 45 journals in 73 languages of India during these years. For example, in Goa, the cradle of Indian printing, it was Fr. Thomas Stephens (1549-1619) who produced the first "Konkani Grammar". Also it was Fr. Diogo Ribero (1560-1633) who published the first dictionary in Konkani in two volumes in 1626. The introduction of printing and the consequent development of the languages of India had a tremendous socio-political impact, leading to enlightenment and empowerment. The second half of the 19th century began to witness a change from the old to the new, from the medieval to the modern. A scientific new educational system was being launched and practices like Sati (widow burning) and infanticide were being abolished.

Mass impact

In the realm of literature, the foundations of prose had already been laid. In the words of B.S. Kesavan, it was indeed "the dawn of the Indian Renaissance... The missionaries, through the introduction of printing and publishing helped the Indians think of the need for political freedom and social progress, and at the same time question certain traditional superstitious beliefs and practices. In a word, literature of the modern age became democratic. Whereas in the past, ownership of a handwritten book used to be a matter of pride, now, thanks to the advent of the printing press, even a man of average means could read and possess books". After the establishment of the printing presses, newspapers began to appear in various cities. The first news journal in any Indian language was Digdarshan, published in 1818 by the Serampore Mission in Bengali, followed by Samachar Darpan. These newspapers proved a powerful medium for people to voice their thoughts and assert their rights. Today, India has over 55,000 registered newspapers and periodicals. The missionaries also established the Serampore University in 1820, the first in Asia, besides a number of schools nationwide. Indeed, Indians are grateful to these visionaries who pioneered printing and publishing 450 years ago, the fruit of which the nation is reaping now.




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