Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Writes Pradeep Sebastian in The Hindu/
The history of the book in India is a history largely untold.” So begins An Empire of Books, Ulrike Stark’s fascinating book on early print culture in India. Her focus is the Naval Kishore Press of Lucknow (1858), one of the most successful publishers in 19th century North India, and the largest Indian owned printing press in the subcontinent at that time. I had begun to wonder why — ever since the publication of Print Areas: Book History in India (by Swapan Chakravorty and Abhijit Gupta) in 2004 — no one had been sufficiently interested to explore book history in India, and was excited and grateful for Ulrike Stark’s interest in Indian book production, and for her fine, intrepid scholarship. It could not have been easy to research and write this book — we all know how difficult it is to find early primary and archival sources. An Empire of Books (Permanent Black) is invaluable to anyone interested in India’s early intellectual and literary history, and is curious, even in the slightest bit, about the history of the book in India.
We know of several books on the history of books in the West, but in South Asia book history is just beginning. Though we easily recognise that print culture contributed to India’s modernity, scholars and journalists have focused more on Indian newspaper and periodical press history than the story of the how the book came to India.
What we need next is something like a national book history — if such a thing is possible at all, since in India there won’t be one history of the book, but many histories — the history of the book in each regional language. In particular, Stark (who teaches at the department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations, University of Chicago) looks at how commercial book publishing happened. Her aim is to “shed light on the social, cultural, and material aspects of book production… and to investigate the impact of the commercial book trade on the diffusion of knowledge, and on the processes of intellectual formation, modernization, and cultural renaissance in North India.”