The story of printing

From the first books dating back to the early years of the 19th century to the first decade of the 20th century, India was at the hub of a great expansion in lithographic printing

If remarkably few in India have ever heard of the names Aloys Senefelder or Munshi Nawal Kishore, who would be to blame? The history of the printed book in India is hardly ever spoken about, not only in our schools but even in cultured circles; few would set off to find things out for themselves; and in any case in this day of giant automated printing presses and now of computers, it must all sound so distant, so remote. And yet, there can be both excitement and fascination even in putting the barest of facts together. To take some examples: Gutenberg was the inventor of printing with the use of the movable type back in the 15th century, but it was Senefelder, also of German descent, who invented, towards the end of the 18th century, lithography, roughly translated as ‘printing/designing with stone’.

More precisely, as the dictionary defines, it is "the art or the process of producing a picture, writing, or the like, on a flat, specially prepared stone, with some greasy or oily substance, and of taking ink impressions from this as in ordinary printing". This should not be difficult for anyone to understand in our part of the country, for the entire Urdu press that was once concentrated in Jullundur (sic Jalandhar) — the daily Milap and Pratap, the Hind Samachar and the Vir Bharat, and so on — was dependent upon lithography. And Munshi Nawal Kishore, that remarkable man who was once described by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas as a "Muslim pandit and Hindu maulvi", founded in 1858 at Lucknow, after his own name, one of the most celebrated presses in northern India, an institution that was not only a print house but a meeting place for intellectuals and writers.

The Breaking of the Bow by Rama
Lakshmana being examined by a physician. Lithographed illustrations of the Ramayana.
(Top) The Breaking of the Bow by Rama; and (above) Lakshmana being examined by a physician. Lithographed illustrations of the Ramayana. Possibly at Lucknow by unknown artists; ca 1875

Working with "a sense of the publisher’s cultural mission in society", Munshi Nawal Kishore is said to have published in his lifetime something like 5,000 titles, of which more than 2,000 were in Urdu.

One needs to recall some more facts about printing in India, even if in small bites. Printing came to India with the Jesuits in 1556; the first book to be printed by the missionaries here was, as expected, the Doctrina Christiana, a Tamil translation of a Portuguese catechism, in 1557; from among the ‘natives’, Bhimji Parekh, a Gujarati, applied to the East India Company for permission to set up a press and employ a pressman in 1674-75; the famous Baptist Mission Press was founded in Calcutta in 1818; the first lithographed books in India date back to the early years of the 19th century: at Benares in 1824, at Agra and Calcutta in 1826; in 1858, of course, the Nawal Kishore Press came into being at Lucknow. And so on.

But to go back to lithography and through that to early printed books using that technology. From the 19th century to the first decade of the 20th century, India was "at the hub of a great expansion in lithographic printing", the phenomenon being largely due to the fact that, as has been said, "the same procedure could be applied to all languages irrespective of the varying scripts, since its basis was the manuscript transcribed by a copyist". The technique was especially widely employed for printing in Urdu, since the commonest script used for writing that language — nastaliq — was "notoriously difficult" to typeset. It is interesting, as has been observed, that the Indian lithographed book "at first imitated its predecessor, the handwritten book". Gradually, however, things changed affecting the format, the information that the title page contained, and so on.

Personally, I am inevitably drawn to the illustrations that went into early lithographed books. Just the other day, my attention was drawn to a small group of illustrations, evidently detached from a book, which must have featured in a version of the Ramayana, the great epic. The name of the artist of these illustrations, as indeed of the manuscript itself, remains unknown, and at first, one might find them a bit roughly drawn, the medium not being conducive to the easy use of fine lines and so on. But there is about them a naivete that is utterly disarming. And when one is able to discern in them subtle links to traditional paintings, with all their refinement and their understanding of iconography, the charm of these works grows.

Take for instance, the illustration that, in the book, must have accompanied the episode of Rama breaking the bow at the swayamvara ceremony in Janaka’s Mithila. The caption, written in Urdu at the side, identifies the scene of course, in words that recall to mind Parsi theatre (thus, shabih`85tootana kamaan ka raja Ramchander ke haath sey aur gul afshaani karna gandharvon ka aasmaan sey) but the details are engrossing. The manner in which young Rama is seen twice, once seated on a bench with Vishwamitra, and then standing, in his hands the two ends of the bow that he has broken, naturally reminds one of the old convention of continuous narration; the sage Narada seen with his vina, the appurtenances of worship around the sacred fire, the crowd of courtiers with king Janaka at their head, complete the scene, so to speak, make it correspond to what is already in the viewer/reader’s mind. But then, there is also that attractive detail of the Gods peering down from the imaginatively rendered clouds at this great spectacle, and the shower of divine flowers that fall steadily from the heavens and spreads all over the left half of the page, forming a carpet as it were.

In the depiction of the scene where Lakshmana lies senseless, his head resting in Rama’s grieving lap, the artist again brings in all details that he deems relevant: the lone tree to establish that all this is happening not indoors but out in the field; the medicine chest by the side of the vaidya (who looks like a hakeem from Lucknow) feeling Lakshmana’s pulse or the horse-driven carriage in which he has come, the anxiety on the faces of the monkey and bear chieftains. And then there is, within the same frame, Hanumana moving from his position with the fly-whisk behind Rama to the left of the page, and seen again, preparing to take off for fetching the life-saving sanjeevani shrub. The essence of the story, already known to everyone, is communicated, but, along with that, visual vocabulary is played with, memories of a tradition are revived, conventions linger. An era comes to life. So it proceeded at one time, in book after lithographed book, from one classic work to another.