Impressions of the past: print culture and typography in South Asia

 Graham Shaw


The essays collected together for the first time in this volume were originally published from the 1970s to the 1990s, in half a dozen countries, in sixteen different journals and books, some well-known but others obscure and difficult to access. Making them more easily available in this form will, hopefully, not simply be found useful but more importantly act as a stimulus to new lines of investigation.



To round out this volume, I have written three new pieces for it. The first is this introduction outlining my own ‘research journey’ into the history of the book in South Asia, drawing out lessons learned en route, and including personal reminiscences of some of the librarians I have encountered over the last three decades and more. The second considers whether a project for a national history of the book in India would be meaningful and what needs to happen for the discipline of South Asian book history to be taken forward. The third is a postscript reviewing progress made since the publication of The South Asia and Burma Retrospective Bibliography in documenting the earliest phases of South Asian print culture. 

Re-reading these articles reveals the enormous extent to which research on the print cultures of South Asia has changed over the past thirty years – in short, from the ‘history of printing’ to the ‘history of the book’. The traditional approach was rather narrowly focused on the details of historical bibliography and the minutiae of printing history, a field of study very largely confined to librarians and archivists, the ‘compilers and keepers of the record’. Now, that same field has attracted the attention of a wide spectrum of academics, the ‘exploiters and interpreters of the record’ – both historians and language/literature specialists – and has blossomed into a much broader area of study. The history of the book in South Asia places much greater emphasis on the social, economic and political as well as the cultural aspects of publishing, book-distribution and reader-reception – on the importance of print for intellectual history and the circulation of ideas.

If the articles reprinted here largely reflect the earlier tradition, that is not to decry their continuing relevance. One of the major obstacles to achieving a better understanding of the evolution of print cultures in South Asia has been (and continues to be) the absence of a reliable and comprehensive factual and documentary base. At the risk of sounding like Dickens’ Headmaster Gradgrind, it is worth emphasizing that to write interpretative book history without a sound grounding in facts can at best be courageously speculative, at worst influentially misleading. The enormity of the task of writing the history of the book in India is still generally not appreciated. As a single project, it would be a truly daunting undertaking, akin in scale and scope to compiling – in one fell swoop – an entire history of the book in Europe. Given the linguistic complexity of the sub-continent, the interplay of print with manuscript and oral cultures, the different book traditions of the various religious communities, the literary and book cultures that range across modern geo-political boundaries within South Asia, and the historical and cultural links with many areas outside the subcontinent (not least the Sanskrit ‘cosmopolis’ to use Sheldon Pollock’s phrase, succeeded by the Perso-Arabic, and then the English equivalents), we are really talking about multiple and very diverse histories of the book in South Asia. The only sensible strategy is to ‘start small’, focussing on individual geographical, chronological or thematic projects, and gradually build towards a ‘bigger picture’. This process is already underway thanks to the published research of a very talented generation or two of scholars, some working in the subcontinent, some outside. It is difficult not to be very optimistic about the future of our field of interest! 

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A photograph of senior staff taken in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum building. Back row, left to right: Andrew Phillips, Anthony Farrington, David Clements, Timothy Burnett, Graham Shaw. Front row, left to right: Mirjam Foot, Sarah Tyacke, Barry Bloomfield, Michael Smethurst, Lotte Hellinga, Michael Borrie. (Photo courtesy of Graham Shaw)

In my own case, I wish I could say that I began investigating the history of the book in South Asia purely out of professional interest as a South Asian studies librarian, but I remember the reason being a far less edifying one. In 1974, having worked for three years in the Library of my old college, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, I joined the recently-created British Library which was then still housed in the British Museum building whose collections it had inherited. My appointment was in the department then known as Oriental Manuscripts & Printed Books (later to become simply Oriental Collections) as a humble Research Assistant Grade-1, hired to select, acquire and catalogue new books in modern North Indian languages – Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya and Panjabi. Perched in an office in the ‘Sanskrit Corridor’, so-called because it was lined throughout at ground and upper-gallery level by the collection of Sanskrit books of the former British Museum Library. One could not help but be awestruck by their historical importance, built up in no small part by the privilege of colonial legal deposit enacted under the 1867 Press & Registration of Books Act for British India, a piece of Raj legislation that combined motives of political with archival control. The impressive extent of these collections gave rise to the myth – most widely held, I was to discover, by researchers from South Asia itself – that copies of all the books printed in India from the 1860s to the 1940s were preserved in London. If only it had been true – what an historical bibliographer’s dream that would have been! As one marked-up set of the quarterly lists in the British Library proved, only a fairly small proportion of items – routinely perhaps only ten to fifteen per cent – was actually selected to be sent from India, and with hindsight we can see that many important items were ‘missed’.

Working in the British Museum was a boyhood dream come true, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to walk through the building outside public access hours, opening those huge doors with one’s personal key on a chain and hearing the echo as they closed behind you. When you entered the building in the morning, the first port of call was the Key Pound where to the security warders on duty you were quite literally simply a number – 685 in my case. Further in, I found to my astonishment and horror that a little piece of India had been imported into the British Museum: a caste system based on curatorial grade. This became clear to me when I first visited the men’s toilet in the White Wing. Wanting to wash my hands, I could see a row of towels on hooks with names above them, but none with my name. When I asked a stranger (whom I later discovered was a Deputy Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts) where my towel might be, he enquired my grade and, on learning that I was a mere Research Assistant, pointed me  to the filthiest communal towel on wooden rollers I had ever seen! Individual towels were assigned only to Assistant Keepers, two grades above my own position in the hierarchy. I determined then and there to use each towel in turn by way of secret protest. Made conscious of my ‘shudra-ness’, I was particularly drawn to the mavericks who had worked in the building. One such was Francis Douce, Keeper of Manuscripts until he resigned in 1811 following a dispute with one of the Museum’s Trustees. One of the thirteen reasons for his resignation was “the total absence of aid in my department”, but there were others with which I could particularly empathize from my own experience:

  • • The vastness of the business remaining to be done & continually flowing in.
  • • The total impossibility of my individual efforts, limited, restrained & controlled as they are, to do any real, or at least much, good.
  • • The want of power to do any good, & the difficulty to make the motley & often trifling committees sensible that they could do any.
  • • The general pride & affected consequence of these committees.
  • • Their assumption of power, that I think not vested in them.
  • • The fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of.

Another hero was Frank Campbell who in 1899 published his magisterial Index-catalogue of Indian official publications in the Library, British Museum – still a wonderful work of reference today. Surprisingly, this was not published by the Museum itself, but by a commercial firm, The Library Supply Company. Campbell was ahead of his time, a pioneer in the subject-indexing of official publications, but this was not recognised or even welcomed by the Museum’s authorities, with whom Campbell seems to have been constantly at loggerheads. Apart from refusing to publish his catalogue, they never saw fit to reward his efforts in organizing the official publications intake with a proper curatorial position in the grandly titled ‘State Paper Room’. Exasperated and disillusioned, Campbell eventually resigned in 1899 to become Private Secretary to the Bishop of Calcutta.

Working in the British Museum was a boyhood dream come true, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to walk through the building outside public access hours, opening those huge doors with one’s personal key on a chain and hearing the echo as they closed behind you.

In learning about the collections, I soon came across a work by Dennis Rhodes, an Assistant Keeper in the British Library’s Department of Printed Books and a great authority on early Italian books and printing. He had contributed the volume entitled India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand to Colin Clair’s ‘world-wide’ series The Spread of Printing. Rhodes had clearly – and very bravely – stepped outside his ‘comfort zone’ in taking on this bibliographical assignment, accepted no doubt as an extension of his research into printing at Bangalore (Bengaluru) following a visit there. (It was his wont to investigate the history of printing at every place he holidayed around the world.) Leafing through the sections on India, I was struck by Rhodes’ harsh judgment (to my mind unjustly so) on Pierre Deschamps, the pioneering French bibliographer. Deschamps had continued the work of his celebrated compatriot Jacques-Charles Brunet and had produced a very useful gazetteer of printing outside Europe, which was a prime source of information for Rhodes on South Asia. Throughout his book, Rhodes was distrustful if not downright dismissive of Deschamps’ remarks, at one point referring to his ‘typically slovenly and unscholarly way’. I subsequently found, on the contrary, that Deschamps was in fact more often than not correct, apart from the occasional error such as confusing ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Calicut’. Forgive my bluntness, but Rhodes seemed to me to display the ‘bibliographical arrogance’ all too easily and understandably acquired (‘breathed in’?) when one worked day after day in the midst of the imperial as well as national archive that the British Library’s collections represented. It was all too tempting to assume, if one had not seen the books from an unfamiliar sphere of publishing oneself, that they probably had not been printed in the first place. But when Rhodes wrote, for instance, that the eighteenth-century works on cochineal, silk and other economic products by the Chennai-based physician James Anderson, friend of Sir Joseph Banks, were not in the British Museum Library in which he worked – when all of them were and still are – that seemed to me inexcusable. […]




This book brings together over three decades of research by one of the foremost historians and bibliographers of early South Asian printing. In thirty essays, the book argues for, and provides, rigorous groundwork for book history and typographic research in various languages and scripts of India.

Graham Shaw’s essays on Indian print history, collected together for the first time in this volume, were originally published from the 1970s to the 1990s: in half a dozen countries, in sixteen different journals and books, some well-known, others now difficult to find. These essays represent a broad range of historical research, extending over detailed examinations of key personalities, presses, and processes related to early printing in the Indian subcontinent as well as activities in the governmental and evangelical realms. The essays have been fully revised and updated, and augmented with numerous illustrations of the material discussed within them for the first time. In addition to making foundational research in the field more widely accessible, the book offers a fresh glimpse into the visual and typographical range of early printing in various Indian scripts.

Impressions of the past: print culture and typography in South Asia



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