Endpaper: A gift for Tamil bibliophiles

A.R. Venkatachalapathy's book is necessary to discover, view, and understand print culture in India.

May 05, 2012 06:32 pm | Updated 06:51 pm IST

The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Permanent Black

The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Permanent Black

A.R. Venkatachalapathy's fascination and love for the printed book comes from spending several hours over several days squeezed in dingy, inky letterpresses staining his hands reading smudged proofs, gulping cup after cup of sweet tea. “My workplace,” he writes, “was essentially a working museum of print.” He was writing, editing, proof reading (perhaps even typesetting) and overseeing little monographs. Later, as a historian he found himself inside musty corridors of archives; given the rare opportunity to examine antiquarian material he came away seduced. All this and a stint as assistant librarian at the Maraimalai Adigal Library (which he recalls as “the single greatest education of my life”) set him off in the new direction of turning book historian, a scholar of the book. His recent work, nicely titled The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu (Permanent Black, 2012) is not only a gift for all bibliophiles, especially the Tamil bibliophile, but a necessary book to discover, view, and understand print culture in India.

An inky parade of antiquarians, bibliographers, librarians, bibliophiles, book scholars, printers, proof readers, typesetters come alive in these pages. Interestingly, and perhaps for the first time, in a scribbler's world usually populated by Brahmins, there are sumptuous encounters with print savvy Mudaliars and Pillais, the dominant players in the world of the Tamil printed book. They didn't pay authors very much, and their workers even less (a compositor's salary was Rs.15), all standard practice, apparently. Chalapathy evokes two hilarious short stories by Pudumaippithan involving poor, struggling writers; in one the author is on the streets, his payments having bounced, and when he comes asking for his money, his publisher blackmails him into reading proof sheets! In fact, one of the delights of this book is how literary sources are often cited to nuance archival material; stories and novels reflect the world documented by letters and bibliographies.

Still, these early printers and publishers were heroic, pioneering figures, often — like Adigal's T.M. Press — setting up a private press to print their own work, and staying up late into the night typesetting and proofing. Adigal began his little press in 1902 while he was still a 26-year-old Tamil pundit at Madras Christian College. He got it going for a thousand rupees. (Like him, there was also printer-publisher Thiru.Vi.Ka). Chalapathy's own research here, both in direction and depth, is itself pioneering: for the first time the whole history and drama (and its subtexts) of the Tamil printed book can be found in one dazzling single work that goes beyond antiquarian passion and bibliography to investigating the Tamil printed book as a cultural object, it's influence and impact on Tamil authors, publishers, printers and readers.

Fascinating world

Chapter by chapter, Chalapathy traces the evolution of the early printed book in Tamil, and the world he makes visible is fascinating: the pre colonial and colonial world of royal patronage towards the printed book which was so hallowed that there was an arangetram for every new work. Chalapathy looks at the literary career of Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1815-1876) to show us how patronage worked and how it eventually declined. (In the Tamil printed book, the elaborate title page comes into being now). Oddly, the next significant period in Tamil print culture isn't until the 1920s, with the rise of the novel, especially the crime and detective novel that the Tamil public heartily (even though middle class intellectuals poured scorn on it) embraced. At last the Tamil printed book had a vibrant market. But just between colonial patronage and the modern market, the Tamil book suffered along with its authors. Patronage had ended, and the market hadn't come into being. Writers such as Subramania Bharthi and chronicler M.V. Ramanujachari suffered greatly and resorted to self publishing.

An intriguing question that he raises is why when Tamil was the first Indian language to find print — as early as 1557 with Tamibran Vannakam — did printing and publishing not take off until the late 19th century? While Bengali and Malayalam, which had found printing only 200 years after Tamil, kicked off at once a flourishing, bespoke print culture? Why didn't Tamil make use of its 200 year head start that the Tamil press in Goa, Tranquebar and Vepery had given it over other Indian languages? At least a partial reason could be that all the early pioneering efforts in the printed book were by European missionaries; there was no indigenous publishing for the first two centuries. Chalapathy identifies a turning point in Tamil printing that few book historians have pointed to: in 1812 at the College of Fort St. George (or the Madras School of Orientalism) “for the first time nearly 250 years after Tamil first saw print, non-missionaries and natives were involved in printing technology”; he mentions, among others, Tandavaraya Mudaliar, Kottramangalam Ramasamy Pillai, and Muttusami Pillai, as being involved in editing and publishing.

On collectors

One of the closing chapters looks at readers and reading practices: Who read? What did they read? I wish Chalapathy had also included a chapter on Tamil book collectors: Who collected? What did they collect? Of course, all through his book, Chalapathy references the libraries of bibliophiles and the book collections of Tamil scholars (R. Muthukumaraswamy, “arguably the most knowledgeable of Tamil bibliophiles”, Maraimalai Adigal, U.V. Swaminathan Iyer, Pudumaipithan), but I still longed to read a chapter on collecting practices and how they shaped the printed book. I have to content myself with the thought that antiquarians and collectors will find a larger place in his next book. I have another little quibble too, when he says that Tamil antiquarians and bibliographers are to blame for limiting Tamil book scholarship by laying more emphasis on printing than on publishing.

I didn't think it was — is — the job of the antiquarian or the bibliographer to write, a la Robert Darnton, about the printed book as a cultural object. This is a task for the cultural historian, the book historian, and I think an equal emphasis on publishing would have developed alongside if only the Tamil book historian had emerged sooner. Where would book scholarship be (and Chalapathy himself acknowledges this by naming Graham Shaw, Proilkar, Kesavan, Mylai Seeni Venkataswamy) without the antiquarian book collector and bibliographer?

Chalapathy is blessed with a prose style that is lively, witty, and stylish. The Province of the Book is the best Indian book about books published this year (also one of the best looking, thanks to Sheela Roy's fine line drawing and Anuradha Roy's cover design) and one of the most enchanting, enjoyable works of book history and scholarship that I've read.

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