Over the past many months, I’ve been closely following a series of articles in a technical journal that few might notice, which is called PrintWeek India. These informative articles have been written by Murali Ranganathan. Like his earlier work which one encountered (Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863), these also deal with the print history of Bombay, now Mumbai.
At first, this might seem like a dour and boring subject. But once you read it, you quickly realise that understanding the history of printing can offer interesting and sharp insights into a region. We learn about society and communities of the past, the local history, power play among diverse segments, literacy and reading habits, even the intellectual history of a place and what shaped it into being the region we now know.
In Goa’s case, print history should have had a special role. After all, way back in 1556, Goa was the first region in the whole of Asia to get access to the global printing revolution, one of the realities of history we have to ironically thank colonialism for. Some of the first books in Tamil, Konkani etcetera were printed there, and useful knowledge of Indian plants and much more got globalised through Europe, thanks to that press. This colonial press might have hardly believed in free speech, not surprising for those times. But it did give inhabitants of the region a head start with the printed word. Something we have certainly lost over the centuries.
Anyway, Murali Ranganathan’s book was actually a translation of an 1863 description of Bombay (called ‘Mumbaiche Varnan’) and written by a former resident of Margao, Goa, identified as Govind Narayan. We’re told in the introduction to that book: “By the 1860s, (Marathi) had achieved a certain level of standardization and an evolving sense of style. There were, however, hardly any books that could match ‘Mumbaiche Varnan’ (which could be translated to ‘A Description of Bombay’) either in terms of originality or compare with it in terms of size and scope.”
By way of figures: Bombay had a population of just 16,000 in the 1670s, which grew to 200,000 by the early 1800s. With the capitulation of the Maratha Peshwas, the English became overlords of the Indian subcontinent and Bombay emerged as the de facto “capital of Western India”.
But getting back to the history of print in India… As a young student on a scholarship to Germany in 1990, I was surprised if not shocked to see Goa’s role in the spread of printing in Asia prominently highlighted in the guidebook sold at the museum of printing, at Mainz, the city that was home to Gutenberg. Incidentally, Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (c 1400-1468) was the German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher who introduced printing to Europe and spread it across the world.
Even today, in Ranganathan’s narration, the role of Goa in the spread of early Indian printing shows up clearly.
For example, Murali writes (PrintWeek, 10 July 2018) that Gujarati printing, unlike that of other Indian languages, was promoted largely by the “agency of Indians”. It was mainly the Parsis who developed printing there. One of the Parsi pioneers Furdoonjee Murzban (1787-1847), whose press was also known as the Summachar Press, was working out of Bombay. In 1832, he fled from Bombay under the pressure of mounting debts. He then chose to seek refuge in the then Portuguese enclave of Daman, where he founded another printing press and type foundry, the Daman Gujarati Chhapakhana.
In another essay (PrintWeek, 10 April 2017), Ranganathan tells us that Narayen Dajee (1830?-1875) was a recognised early expert in the art of photography in the subcontinent. Dajee was a graduate as a medical doctor from the Grant Medical College, as the brother of the Bhau Dajee aka Laad (widely identified as a prominent Goan today), and carried an inquisitive mind, an excellent knowledge of chemistry and was not constrained by finances.
Yet another column (PrintWeek, 10 October 2016) talks about how religion stoked a printing revolution in Bombay. Among various religious groups there in the 19th century, the researcher notes that “Roman Catholics were resident in large numbers in Bombay and its vicinity” and “Christian missionaries were the most prolific and printed a number of Christian tracts and the Bible in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindustani”. One would suspect that much more work awaits being done on this aspect.
In the early 1820s, the Bombay Government ventured into the print area, experimenting with lithography (PrintWeek, 10 June 2016). When the British who was at the helm suddenly died, it was his assistant “F.D. Ramos, of Indo-Portuguese descent” who took over. This was at the time of Elphinstone, after whom a prominent college is named. Lithography is a method of printing that can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or other suitable material.
In ‘A full circle: Print comes back to Goa’, Ranganathan notes that in the 16th century, Goa had been the “gateway” for modern printing technology into the Indian subcontinent. “But two centuries later, just as it was gradually spreading over the rest of the country, print was expelled from Goa…” only to return in the 19th century (PrintWeek 10 October 2017).
Perhaps the most fascinating is the piece titled ‘The Goan draughtsman: Jose Maria Gonsalves’ (PrintWeek 10 December 2017). In it, the story is told about a native of Piedade, on the island of Divar, became the chief draughtsman of Bombay and a very prominent lithographic artist. When the Brits were battling the Russians over parts of Asia, and Afghanistan was a key prize, Jose Maria Gonsalves found himself in that part of the region from 1836 to 1838. Ranganathan says: “His portraits of the soldiers and princes whom they encountered on the way are lifelike and detailed…. Having developed into an accomplished artist and illustrator of Bombay lithographs in a career which spanned nearly two decades, Jose Maria Gonsalves earned himself a place in the print history and visual culture of Bombay.”
There is so much of Goa in Bombay, actually India’s printing history, that one wishes we would take this issue more seriously ourselves.