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The story of a legendary printing press and the intellectual types of the Raj

An Empire Of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and The Diffusion of the Printed Word In Colonial India
Ulrike Stark,
Permanent Black, Rs 795

“The Naval Kishore Press is the key to the literary trade. Without using it no one can enter the world of learning.”
—Abdul Halim Sharar
“Naval Kishore is a Muslim pandit and a Hindu maulvi.”
—Khavaja Abbas Ahmad

The power of the written word has never been in doubt, as the destruction of books and manuscripts, the prerogative of tyrants and those who fear knowledge and its spread, shows. How much more powerful is it then, when both the quantity and quality of the word is increased manifold with that magnificent invention, the printing press.

The rise and spread of the printed word has been amply documented in the West, and its impact on society diligently examined. The story in India is, however, somewhat different. The study of what we can call Book History is a relatively new area of scholarly enterprise. The history of book publishing in India has been largely focused on the printing presses set up by missionaries and on the English language. Even here, as far as I am aware, only Oxford University Press has, to date, printed a house history. There has been a deepening and broadening in the field only recently.

It has been accepted as axiomatic in academic circles that in India, the printing press in languages other than English only added to the quantity of the books that were circulated, and that there was no change, positive or negative, in the quality of their contents. The corollary of such a view would, of course, mean that they really had no impact on society in their day.

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This view has now been challenged in a remarkable book by Ulrike Stark of the University of Chicago. She has undertaken a case study of the printing press set up by Munshi Naval Kishore in Lucknow in 1858, combining the little that we know about Kishore and the much that we know about the milieu in which he lived, to create a rich and complex portrait. Stark seeks to establish two things — firstly, that for people like Kishore, publishing was not just a business for profit-making, but also a vocation; secondly, to explicate that the publishers not only responded to readers’ tastes, but also helped shape them.

In the space of some four decades, until Kishore’s death in 1895, the press brought out at least 5,000 titles. If that startling statistic is not enough, just take a look at the books Kishore brought out. They were in Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi. Kishore not only published books that were popular but he also published new works in these languages. For this, he engaged scholars and translators to ensure accuracy of language and comprehensiveness of content. Many of these books were bilingual — Hindu devotional works in Sanskrit-Urdu, Persian classics in Persian-Urdu. The growing interest in western knowledge, thanks to British domination and English education, led Kishore to issue translations of western books on history and science. Among them was an Urdu rendering of Tod’s classic on the Rajputs, titled Todnama!

An educationally minded publisher, Kishore was in the forefront of bringing out dictionaries, using the skills of the scholars working for him. One of his Hindi dictionaries was in print as late as 1974. The portrait that emerges of Kishore, and as a reflection of him, the publishers of his era, is of a renaissance man driven by the conviction that the press was a means not just for distributing knowledge, but encouraging and enhancing it, and dispersing it as widely as possible.

First published on: 19-10-2007 at 01:52:31 pm
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