Print Culture And The Modern World
The First Printed Books
The earliest kind of print technology was developed in China, Japan and Korea. This was a system of hand printing. From AD 594 onwards, books in China were printed by rubbing paper – also invented there – against the inked surface of woodblocks. As both sides of the thin, porous sheet could not be printed, the traditional Chinese ‘accordion book’ was folded and stitched at the side.
The imperial state in China was, for a very long time, the major producer of printed material. China possessed a huge bureaucratic system which recruited its personnel through civil service examinations. Textbooks for this examination were printed in vast numbers under the sponsorship of the imperial state. From the sixteenth century, the number of examination candidates went up and that increased the volume of print.
By the seventeenth century, as urban culture bloomed in China, the uses of print diversified. Print was no longer used just by scholar officials. Merchants used print in their everyday life, as they collected trade information.
Reading increasingly became a leisure activity. The new readership preferred fictional narratives, poetry, autobiographies, anthologies of literary masterpieces, and romantic plays. Rich women began to read, and many women began publishing their poetry and plays. Wives of scholar-officials published their works and courtesans wrote about their lives.
This new reading culture was accompanied by a new technology. Western printing techniques and mechanical presses were imported in the late nineteenth century as Western powers established their outposts in China. Shanghai became the hub of the new print culture, catering to the Western-style schools. From hand printing there was now a gradual shift to mechanical printing.
Buddhist missionaries from China introduced hand-printing technology into Japan around AD 768-770. The oldest Japanese book, printed in AD 868, is the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, containing six sheets of text and woodcut illustrations. Pictures were printed on textiles, playing cards and paper money. In medieval Japan, poets and prose writers were regularly published, and books were cheap and abundant.
Printing of visual material led to interesting publishing practices. In the late eighteenth century; in the flourishing urban circles at Edo (later to be known as Tokyo); illustrated collections of paintings epicted an elegant urban culture involving artists, courtesans, and teahouse gatherings. Libraries and bookstores were packed with and-printed material of various types – books on women, musical instruments, calculations, tea ceremony, flower arrangements, proper etiquette, cooking and famous places.
Print Comes to Europe:
For centuries, silk and spices from China flowed into Europe through the silk route. In the eleventh century, Chinese paper reached Europe via the same route. Paper made possible the production of manuscripts, carefully written by scribes. Then, in 1295, Marco Polo, a great explorer, returned to Italy after many years of exploration in China. Marco Polo brought the knowledge of printing technology back with him. Now Italians began producing books with woodblocks, and soon the technology spread to other parts of Europe. Luxury editions were still handwritten on very expensive vellum, meant for aristocratic circles and rich monastic libraries which scoffed at printed books as cheap vulgarities. Merchants and students in the university towns bought the cheaper printed copies.
As the demand for books increased, booksellers all over Europe began exporting books to many different countries. Book fairs were held at different places. Production of handwritten manuscripts was also organised in new ways to meet the expanded demand. Scribes or skilled handwriters were no longer solely employed by wealthy or influential patrons but increasingly by booksellers as well. More than 50 scribes often worked for one bookseller.
But the production of handwritten manuscripts could not satisfy the ever-increasing demand for books. Copying was an expensive, laborious and time-consuming business. Manuscripts were fragile, awkward to handle, and could not be carried around or read easily.
Their circulation therefore remained limited. With the growing demand for books, woodblock printing gradually became more and more popular. By the early fifteenth century, woodblocks were being widely used in Europe to print textiles, playing cards, and religious pictures with simple, brief texts.
There was clearly a great need for even quicker and cheaper reproduction of texts. This could only be with the invention of a new print technology. The breakthrough occurred at Strasbourg, Germany, where Johann Gutenberg developed the first-known printing press in the 1430s.
Gutenberg and the Printing Press:
Gutenberg was the son of a merchant and grew up on a large agricultural estate. From his childhood he had seen wine and olive presses. Subsequently, he learnt the art of polishing stones, became a master goldsmith, and also acquired the expertise to create lead moulds used for making trinkets. Drawing on this knowledge, Gutenberg adapted existing technology to design his innovation.
The olive press provided the model for the printing press, and moulds were used for casting the metal types for the letters of the alphabet. By 1448, Gutenberg perfected the system.
The first book he printed was the Bible. About 180 copies were printed and it took three years to produce them. By the standards of the time this was fast production.
The new technology did not entirely displace the existing art of producing books by hand. In fact, printed books at first closely resembled the written manuscripts in appearance and layout. The metal letters imitated the ornamental handwritten styles. Borders were illuminated by hand with foliage and other patterns, and illustrations were painted. In the books printed for the rich, space for decoration was kept blank on the printed page. Each purchaser could choose the design and decide on the painting school that would do the illustrations.
In the hundred years between 1450 and 1550, printing presses were set up in most countries of Europe. Printers from Germany traveled to other countries, seeking work and helping start new presses. As the number of printing presses grew, book production boomed. The second half of the fifteenth century saw 20 million copies of printed books flooding the markets in Europe. The number went up in the sixteenth century to about 200 million copies. This shift from hand printing to mechanical printing led to the print revolution.
The Print Revolution and Its Impact:-
A New Reading Public
With the printing press, a new reading public emerged. Printing reduced the cost of books. The time and labour required to produce each book came down, and multiple copies could be produced with greater ease. Books flooded the market, reaching out to an ever-growing readership.
Access to books created a new culture of reading. Earlier, reading was restricted to the elites. Common people lived in a world of oral culture. They heard sacred texts read out, ballads recited, and folk tales narrated. Knowledge was transferred orally. People collectively heard a story, or saw a performance. Before the age of print, books were not only expensive but they could not be produced in sufficient numbers. Now books could reach out to wider sections of people. If earlier there was a hearing public, now a reading public came into being.
But the transition was not so simple. Books could be read only by the literate, and the rates of literacy in most European countries were very low till the twentieth century. To encourage reading this, they had to keep in mind the wider reach of the printed work: even those who did not read could certainly enjoy listening to books being read out. So printers began publishing popular ballads and folk tales, and such books would be profusely illustrated with pictures. These were then sung and recited at gatherings in villages and in taverns in towns.
Oral culture thus entered print and printed material was orally transmitted. The line that separated the oral and reading cultures became blurred. And the hearing public and reading public became intermingled.
Religious Debates and the Fear of Print
Print created the possibility of wide circulation of ideas, and introduced a new world of debate and discussion. Even those who disagreed with established authorities could now print and circulate their ideas. Through the printed message, they could persuade people to think differently, and move them to action. This had significance in different spheres of life.
Not everyone welcomed the printed book, and those who did also had fears about it. Many were apprehensive of the effects that the easier access to the printed word and the wider circulation of books, could have on people’s minds. It was feared that if there was no control over what was printed and read then rebellious and irreligious thoughts might spread. If that happened the authority of ‘valuable’ literature would be destroyed. Expressed by religious authorities and monarchs, as well as many writers and artists, this anxiety was the basis of widespread criticism of the new printed literature that had began to circulate.
Effect on Religion:-
In 1517, the religious reformer Martin Luther wrote Ninety Five Theses criticising many of the practices and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. A printed copy of this was posted on a church door in Wittenberg. It challenged the Church to debate his ideas. Luther’s writings were immediately reproduced in vast numbers and read widely. This led to a division within the Church and to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s translation of the New Testament sold 5,000 copies within a few weeks and a second edition appeared within three months. Deeply grateful to print, Luther said, ‘Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.’ Several scholars, in fact, think that print brought about a new intellectual atmosphere and helped spread the new ideas that led to the Reformation.
Print and Dissent
Print and popular religious literature stimulated many distinctive individual interpretations of faith even among little-educated working people. In the sixteenth century, Manocchio, a miller in Italy, began to read books that were available in his locality. He reinterpreted the message of the Bible and formulated a view of God and Creation that enraged the Roman Catholic Church. When the Roman Church began its inquisition to repress heretical ideas, Manocchio was hauled up twice and ultimately executed. The Roman Church, troubled by such effects of popular readings and questionings of faith, imposed severe controls over publishers and booksellers and began to maintain an Index of Prohibited Books from 1558.
The Reading Mania
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries literacy rates went up in most parts of Europe. Churches of different denominations set up schools in villages, carrying literacy to peasants and artisans. By the end of the eighteenth century, in some parts of Europe literacy rates were as high as 60 to 80 per cent. As literacy and schools spread in European countries, there was a virtual reading mania.
People wanted books to read and printers produced books in everincreasing numbers. New forms of popular literature appeared in print, targeting new audiences. Booksellers employed pedlars who roamed around villages, carrying little books for sale. There were almanacs or ritual calendars, along with ballads and folktales. But other forms of reading matter, largely for entertainment, began to reach ordinary readers as well. In England, penny chapbooks were carried by petty pedlars known as chapmen, and sold for a penny, so that even the poor could buy them. In France, were the ‘Biliotheque Bleue’, which were low-priced small books printed on poor quality paper, and bound in cheap blue covers. Then there were the romances, printed on four to six pages, and the more substantial ‘histories’ which were stories about the past. Books were of various sizes, serving many different purposes and interests.
The periodical press developed from the early eighteenth century, combining information about current affairs with entertainment. Newspapers and journals carried information about wars and trade, as well as news of developments in other places.
Similarly, the ideas of scientists and philosophers now became more accessible to the common people. Ancient and medieval scientific texts were compiled and published, and maps and scientific diagrams were widely printed. When scientists like Isaac Newton began to publish their discoveries, they could influence a much wider circle of scientifically minded readers. The writings of thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau were also widely printed and read. Thus their ideas about science, reason and rationality found their way into popular literature.
Print Culture and the French Revolution
Print popularised the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers. Collectively, their writings provided a critical commentary on tradition, superstition and despotism. They argued for the rule of reason rather than custom, and demanded that everything be judged through the application of reason and rationality. They attacked the sacred authority of the Church and the despotic power of the state, thus eroding the legitimacy of a social order based on tradition. The writings of Voltaire and Rousseau were read widely; and those who read these books saw the world through new eyes, eyes that were questioning, critical and rational.
Print created a new culture of dialogue and debate. All values, norms and institutions were re-evaluated and discussed by a public that had become aware of the power of reason, and recognised the need to question existing ideas and beliefs. Within this public culture, new ideas of social revolution came into being.
By the 1780s there was an outpouring of literature that mocked the royalty and criticised their morality. In the process, it raised questions about the existing social order. Cartoons and caricatures typically suggested that the monarchy remained absorbed only in sensual pleasures while the common people suffered immense hardships. This literature circulated underground and led to the growth of hostile sentiments against the monarchy.
The Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century saw vast leaps in mass literacy in Europe, bringing in large numbers of new readers among children, women and workers.
Children, Women and Workers
As primary education became compulsory from the late nineteenth century, children became an important category of readers. Production of school textbooks became critical for the publishing industry. A children’s press, devoted to literature for children alone, was set up in France in 1857. This press published new works as well as old fairy tales and folk tales. The Grimm Brothers in Germany spent years compiling traditional folk tales gathered from peasants. What they collected was edited before the stories were published in a collection in 1812. Anything that was considered unsuitable for children or would appear vulgar to the elites, was not included in the published version. Rural folk tales thus acquired a new form. In this way, print recorded old tales but also changed them.
Women became important as readers as well as writers. Penny magazines were especially meant for women, as were manuals teaching proper behaviour and housekeeping.
Lending libraries had been in existence from the seventeenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, lending libraries in England became instruments for educating white-collar workers, artisans and lower-middle-class people. Sometimes, self-educated working class people wrote for themselves. After the working day was gradually shortened from the mid-nineteenth century, workers had some time for self-improvement and self-expression. They wrote political tracts and autobiographies in large numbers.
By the late eighteenth century, the press came to be made out of metal. Through the nineteenth century, there were a series of further innovations in printing technology. By the mid-nineteenth century, Richard M. Hoe of New York had perfected the power-driven cylindrical press. This was capable of printing 8,000 sheets per hour. This press was particularly useful for printing newspapers. In the late nineteenth century, the offset press was developed which could print up to six colours at a time. From the turn of the twentieth century, electrically operated presses accelerated printing operations.
A series of other developments followed. Methods of feeding paper improved, the quality of plates became better, automatic paper reels and photoelectric controls of the colour register were introduced. The accumulation of several individual mechanical improvements transformed the appearance of printed texts.
Printers and publishers continuously developed new strategies to sell their product. Nineteenth-century periodicals serialized important novels, which gave birth to a particular way of writing novels. In the 1920s in England, popular works were sold in cheap series, called the Shilling Series. The dust cover or the book jacket is also a twentieth-century innovation. With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, publishers feared a decline in book purchases. To sustain buying, they brought out cheap paperback editions.
India and the World of Print
Manuscripts Before the Age of Print
India had a very rich and old tradition of handwritten manuscripts – in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, as well as in various vernacular languages. Manuscripts were copied on palm leaves or on handmade paper. Pages were sometimes beautifully illustrated. They would be either pressed between wooden covers or sewn together to ensure preservation. Manuscripts continued to be produced till well after the introduction of print, down to the late nineteenth century.
Print Comes to India
The printing press first came to Goa with Portuguese missionaries in the mid-sixteenth century. Jesuit priests learnt Konkani and printed several tracts. By 1674, about 50 books had been printed in the Konkani and in Kanara languages. Catholic priests printed the first Tamil book in 1579 at Cochin, and in 1713 the first Malayalam book was printed by them. By 1710, Dutch Protestant missionaries had printed 32 Tamil texts, many of them translations of older works.
The English language press did not grow in India till quite late even though the English East India Company began to import presses from the late seventeenth century.
From 1780, James Augustus Hickey began to edit the Bengal Gazette, a weekly magazine that described itself as ‘a commercial paper open to all, but influenced by none’. So it was private English enterprise; proud of its independence from colonial influence; that began English printing in India. Hickey published a lot of advertisements, including those that related to the import and sale of slaves. But he also published a lot of gossip about the Company’s senior officials in India. Enraged by this, Governor-General Warren Hastings persecuted Hickey, and encouraged the publication of officially sanctioned newspapers that could counter the flow of information that damaged the image of the colonial government.
By the close of the eighteenth century, a number of newspapers and journals appeared in print. There were Indians, too, who began to publish Indian newspapers. The first to appear was the weekly Bengal Gazette, brought out by Gangadhar Bhattacharya, who was close to Rammohun Roy.
Religious Reform and Public Debates
From the early nineteenth century, as you know, there were intense debates around religious issues. Different groups confronted the changes happening within colonial society in different ways, and offered a variety of new interpretations of the beliefs of different religions. Some criticised existing practices and campaigned for reform, while others countered the arguments of reformers. These debates were carried out in public and in print. Printed tracts and newspapers not only spread the new ideas, but they shaped the nature of the debate. A wider public could now participate in these public discussions and express their views. New ideas emerged through these clashes of opinions.
This was a time of intense controversies between social and religious reformers and the Hindu orthodoxy over matters like widow immolation, monotheism, Brahmanical priesthood and idolatry. In Bengal, as the debate developed, tracts and newspapers proliferated, circulating a variety of arguments. To reach a wider audience, the ideas were printed in the everyday, spoken language of ordinary people.
Rammohun Roy published the Sambad Kaumudi from 1821 and the Hindu orthodoxy commissioned the Samachar Chandrika to oppose his opinions. From 1822, two Persian newspapers were published, Jam-i-Jahan Nama and Shamsul Akhbar. In the same year, a Gujarati newspaper, the Bombay Samachar, made its appearance.
In north India, the ulama were deeply anxious about the collapse of Muslim dynasties. They feared that colonial rulers would encourage conversion, change the Muslim personal laws. To counter this, they used cheap lithographic presses, published Persian and Urdu translations of holy scriptures, and printed religious newspapers and tracts. The Deoband Seminary, founded in 1867, published thousands upon thousands of fatwas telling Muslim readers how to conduct themselves in their everyday lives, and explaining the meanings of Islamic doctrines. All through the nineteenth century, a number of Muslim sects and seminaries appeared, each with a different interpretation of faith, each keen on enlarging its following and countering the influence of its opponents. Urdu print helped them conduct these battles in public.
Among Hindus, too, print encouraged the reading of religious texts, especially in the vernacular languages. The first printed edition of the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, a sixteenth-century text, came out from Calcutta in 1810. By the mid-nineteenth century, cheap lithographic editions flooded north Indian markets. From the 1880s, the Naval Kishore Press at Lucknow and the Shri Venkateshwar Press in Bombay published numerous religious texts in vernaculars. In their printed and portable form, these could be read easily by the faithful at any place and time. They could also be read out to large groups of illiterate men and women.
Religious texts, therefore, reached a very wide circle of people, encouraging discussions, debates and controversies within and among different religions.
Print did not only stimulate the publication of conflicting opinions amongst communities, but it also connected communities and people in different parts of India. Newspapers conveyed news from one place to another, creating pan-Indian identities.
New Forms of Publication
Printing created an appetite for new kinds of writing. As more and more people could now read, they wanted to see their own lives, experiences, emotions and relationships reflected in what they read. The novel, a literary firm which had developed in Europe, ideally catered to this need. It soon acquired distinctively Indian forms and styles. For readers, it opened up new worlds of experience, and gave a vivid sense of the diversity of human lives. Other new literary forms also entered the world of reading – lyrics, short stories, essays about social and political matters. In different ways, they reinforced the new emphasis on human lives and intimate feelings, about the political and social rules that shaped such things.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a new visual culture was taking shape. With the setting up of an increasing number of printing presses, visual images could be easily reproduced in multiple copies. Painters like Raja Ravi Varma produced images for mass circulation. Poor wood engravers who made woodblocks set up shop near the letterpresses, and were employed by print shops. Cheap prints and calendars, easily available in the bazaar, could be bought even by the poor to decorate the walls of their homes or places of work. These prints began shaping popular ideas about modernity and tradition, religion and politics, and society and culture.
By the 1870s, caricatures and cartoons were being published in journals and newspapers, commenting on social and political issues. Some caricatures ridiculed the educated Indians’ fascination with Western tastes and clothes, while others expressed the fear of social change. There were imperial caricatures lampooning nationalists, as well as nationalist cartoons criticising imperial rule.
Women and Print
Lives and feelings of women began to be written in particularly vivid and intense ways. Women’s reading, therefore, increased enormously in middle-class homes. Liberal husbands and fathers began educating their womenfolk at home, and sent them to schools when women’s schools were set up in the cities and towns after the mid-nineteenth century. Many journals began carrying writings by women, and explained why women should be educated. They also carried a syllabus and attached suitable reading matter which could be used for home-based schooling.
But not all families were liberal. Conservative Hindus believed that a literate girl would be widowed and Muslims feared that educated women would be corrupted by reading Urdu romances. Sometimes, rebel women defied such prohibition. We know the story of a girl in a conservative Muslim family of north India who secretly learnt to read and write in Urdu. Her family wanted her to read only the Arabic Quran which she did not understand. So she insisted on learning to read a language that was her own. In East Bengal, in the early nineteenth century, Rashsundari Debi, a young married girl in a very orthodox household, learnt to read in the secrecy of her kitchen. Later, she wrote her autobiography Amar Jiban which was published in 1876. It was the first full-length autobiography published in the Bengali language.
Since social reforms and novels had already created a great interest in women’s lives and emotions, there was also an interest in what women would have to say about their own lives. From the 1860s, a few Bengali women like Kailashbashini Debi wrote books highlighting the experiences of women – about how women were imprisoned at home, kept in ignorance, forced to do hard domestic labour and treated unjustly by the very people they served. In the 1880s, in present-day Maharashtra, Tarabai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai wrote with passionate anger about the miserable lives of upper-caste Hindu women, especially widows.
In Punjab, too, a similar folk literature was widely printed from the early twentieth century. Ram Chaddha published the fast-selling Istri Dharm Vichar to teach women how to be obedient wives. The Khalsa Tract Society published cheap booklets with a similar message. Many of these were in the form of dialogues about the qualities of a good woman.
In Bengal, an entire area in central Calcutta – the Battala – was devoted to the printing of popular books. Here you could buy cheap editions of religious tracts and scriptures, as well as literature that was considered obscene and scandalous. By the late nineteenth century, a lot of these books were being profusely illustrated with woodcuts and coloured lithographs. Pedlars took the Battala publications to homes, enabling women to read them in their leisure time.
Print and the Poor People
Very cheap small books were brought to markets in nineteenth-century Madras towns and sold at crossroads, allowing poor people traveling to markets to buy them. Public libraries were set up from the early twentieth century, expanding the access to books. These libraries were located mostly in cities and towns, and at times in prosperous villages. For rich local patrons, setting up a library was a way of acquiring prestige.
From the late nineteenth century, issues of caste discrimination began to be written about in many printed tracts and essays. Jyotiba Phule, the Maratha pioneer of ‘low caste’ protest movements, wrote about the injustices of the caste system in his Gulamgiri (1871). In the twentieth century, B.R. Ambedkar in Maharashtra and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker in Madras, better known as Periyar, wrote powerfully on caste and their writings were read by people all over India. Local protest movements and sects also created a lot of popular journals and tracts criticising ancient scriptures and envisioning a new and just future.
Workers in factories were too overworked and lacked the education to write much about their experiences. But Kashibaba, a Kanpur millworker, wrote and published Chhote Aur Bade Ka Sawal in 1938 to show the links between caste and class exploitation. The poems of another Kanpur millworker, who wrote under the name of Sudarshan Chakr between 1935 and 1955, were brought together and published in a collection called Sacchi Kavitayan. By the 1930s, Bangalore cotton millworkers set up libraries to educate themselves, following the example of Bombay workers. These were sponsored by social reformers who tried to restrict excessive drinking among them, to bring literacy and, sometimes, to propagate the message of nationalism.
Print and Censorship
Before 1798, the colonial state under the East India Company was not too concerned with censorship. Strangely, its early measures to control printed matter were directed against Englishmen in India who were critical of Company misrule and hated the actions of particular Company officers. The Company was worried that such criticisms might be used by its critics in England to attack its trade monopoly in India.
By the 1820s, the Calcutta Supreme Court passed certain regulations to control press freedom and the Company began encouraging publication of newspapers that would celebrate Britsh rule. In 1835, faced with urgent petitions by editors of English and vernacular newspapers, Governor-General Bentinck agreed to revise press laws. Thomas Macaulay, a liberal colonial official, formulated new rules that restored the earlier freedoms.
After the revolt of 1857, the attitude to freedom of the press changed. Enraged Englishmen demanded a clamp down on the ‘native’ press. As vernacular newspapers became assertively nationalist, the colonial government began debating measures of stringent control. In 1878, the Vernacular Press Act was passed, modelled on the Irish Press Laws. It provided the government with extensive rights to censor reports and editorials in the vernacular press. From now on the government kept regular track of the vernacular newspapers published in different provinces. When a report was judged as seditious, the newspaper was warned, and if the warning was ignored, the press was liable to be seized and the printing machinery confiscated.
Despite repressive measures, nationalist newspapers grew in numbers in all parts of India. They reported on colonial misrule and encouraged nationalist activities. Attempts to throttle nationalist criticism provoked militant protest. This in turn led to a renewed cycle of persecution and protests. When Punjab revolutionaries were deported in 1907, Balgangadhar Tilak wrote with great sympathy about them in his Kesari. This led to his imprisonment in 1908, provoking in turn widespread protests all over India.