Agrowing number of studies in recent Indian historiography have paid close attention to the role played by print in shaping the contours of modern India. Earlier, the imprecise and unsatisfactory term ‘print culture’ was often invoked to stand in for a perspective in which print was employed as some kind of a wide-angle lens, whose panoptic sweep and scope often obscured—or even misrepresented—the smaller picture. However, the more focussed and calibrated perspective offered by the discipline of book history in recent years has acted as a kind of corrective to the grand narratives of print which still continue to enjoy some degree of scholarly sanction. By paying close attention to a wide, and often neglected, range of primary sources, it has been possible for scholars to retrieve histories that were thought to have passed beyond the reach of any archaeological tool. In the monograph under review, Anindita Ghosh attempts to plot the uneven history of print in Bengal along the twin axes of language and literature. While acknowledging the importance of the colonizer-colonized framework, she also draws our attention to ‘how in a competitive colonial environment, print-languages and literature afford opportunities to indigenous groups for consolidating power, along multiple axes of class, gender and community’.
In her first chapter, ‘The Social Profile of a Language’ Ghosh pays close attention to the rise of Bengali—‘the officially blessed language of early British India’. Drawing substantially on William Adams’s reports on education in Bengal, Ghosh shows how the pathshalas or ‘elementary indigenous Bengali vernacular schools’ were drawing increasing numbers of lower-caste students who were being schooled in the arts of basic reading and writing, sometimes even breaking into poetry as was the case with the Vasihnavas. While the Brahmins predictably occupied the commanding heights of literary culture, Ghosh argues that access to the written word was by no means restricted to the higher castes and cites such examples of the oral tradition as kathakata and performances based on mangal kavya and the panchalis. While there is no doubt that oral narrative sessions and performances create their own interpretative communities, it is also true that the protocols of oral and written circuits of communication are vastly different. The ‘imperious’ nature of literacy—to quote Walter Ong—tends to overrule orality to the point where the written text becomes hegemonic with respect to the spoken word.
Ghosh is on firmer ground when she discusses the indigenous interface between the British and the Indian languages, particularly the intervention of Brahmin pundits. William Carey’s Serampore Mission Press would not have been the institution it was had it not been for the vital contributions made by the munshi Ramram Basu and the blacksmith-turned-typographer Panchanan Karmamkar. One also recalls the testimony of the Protestant missionary Bartholomew Ziegenbalg about his sessions with a Brahmin pundit in Tranquebar in 1706. The British were however less generous about acknowledging the contributions of their Indian assistants. For example, it was not before 1839 that the Calcutta Baptist Missionaries would feel it necessary to record on the title-page of their Bengali Bible that the ‘translation was made by the Calcutta Baptist Missionaries with native assistants’.
In chapter two, Ghosh continues her investigation of the ‘standardization and Sansktritization’ of the vernacular leading to a kind of false consciousness about respectability. William Carey is a key player in this, and in many ways anticipates James Long’s purist zeal for purging Bengali literature of ‘immorality’ during the mid-century. The other key player in this is the Calcutta School Book Society, whose activities are described in detail. The coming about of what Ghosh calls ‘polite Bengali’ is a complex and often messy process but Ghosh handles this narrative with great skill. Citing a wide range of texts Ghosh is able to chart the twin trajectories of obscenity and gentility from the 1850s onwards. What is particularly interesting in her account is the way in which she draws our attention to the adversarial relationship between the culture of the educated bhadralok and that of the women’s antahpur. The shared and communitarian character of the antahpur culture is dealt with in greater detail in chapter six—‘Women Refusing Conformity’—in which Ghosh restores a measure of agency to women who produce as well as consume literature. This chapter is perhaps the most significant in the book and one wonders whether it should not have come higher in the batting order. Here, Ghosh looks at a variety of meyeli or womanly genres, both oral and written, such as basar or wedding songs or early excursions into print by the likes of Soroshibala Debi, Rasasundari Debi or Saralabala Sarkar. While many studies have complained—and rightly so—about the erasure and marginalization of the woman’s voice in 19th century Bengal, it is also important to recognize the resilience of those authors and works which managed to evade what Ghosh calls ‘the tutelage of male sponsors or benefactors’. One hopes that the whole story of the ways in which women’s writing and reading created a new communications circuit within the bhadralok parameters will be related by Ghosh in the future.
Chapters five and seven follow a similar agenda as chapter six, and report on two genres traditionally consigned to the margins—social farces, and romances and fables based on Persian-Arabic models. Both chapters are solidly researched and retrieve a literary history which goes against the grain of high-caste bhadralok discourse. Ghosh begins her account of farces from the 1860s but one wonders whether she should not also consider the street poetry and sensational accounts of current events—by the likes of Maheshchandra Das De and Chandrakanta Sikdar, in the previous decade—as precursors of this genre. As Ghosh points out, a key feature of this genre seems to be its intimate relationship with topical events and scandals. It seems to me that such appropriation of the quotidian events of life in a big city gestured towards an urban aesthetic whose full potential was however not realized until the 20th century. Ghosh also argues that Sumit Sarkar’s identification of the ‘upper-class literati’ as the chief consumers of Battala literature is too narrow and that the performative aspect of many Battala productions made them accessible to even a non-literate audience. This may well be true but hard data about the composition of such audiences is thin on the ground. Readers or audiences rarely leave records of their book-reading or theatre-going practices and thus the historian of reading or viewing is often forced to work in a kind of material vacuum.
The chapter titled ‘Bengali and its “Muslim Other”’ is another one which contains the seeds of a longer work. This is an area which has not received sufficient attention from print historians but some of the most dramatic encounters between pre-print and print practices can be seen in what James Long called the ‘Musalmani-Bangla’ literary genre. Ghosh argues that the ‘remarkable tenacity with which these works held on to pre-print modes of representation, orthography, and even script is astounding.’ I would however disagree with Ghosh when she claims that the title-page also reinforces the same allegiance to the manuscript tradition. It seems to me that the paratextual excess of the title-pages of this genre indicates how notions of authority, proprietorship and entailment were being articulated at a time when the protocols of the book trade were still in a fluid state. For example, colophons and copyright notices become a regular feature of these title-pages after the passage of Act XX in 1847. Ghosh also cites instances of how many of these works were able to make the transition to the realm of oral transmission. At the same time, Ghosh alerts us to the fact that like its Hindu counterpart, the Muslim bourgeoisie also chose to marginalize this genre for ‘its want of “Islamic values” and “respectability”’. Ghosh’s highly nuanced readings of literary works belonging to this genre are one of the more rewarding portions of the book.
Finally, chapters three and four attempt an overview of the cheap book market and its readers. Here, I feel Ghosh could have restricted her scope somewhat since this is an area too vast to be compressed within the space of two chapters. The account of commercial publishing from 1857 onwards is too dependent on James Long and government reports. While it is true that nothing like printers’ or publishers’ archives exist from this period, some data about print runs are available from the prelims and catalogues of contemporary publications. Also, the copyright act which created awareness about intellectual property was not Act XXV of 1867, but Act XX of 1847, which was passed following representations by the Bengal British India Society. These quibbles apart, Ghosh’s study is a significant addition to the growing corpus of scholarship on the coming of print in India and will be a vital reference point for future research in the field.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is co-editor of Print Areas: Book History in India series.