Paper tigers chastened and tamed by pundits

Power in Print
September 8, 2006

The aim of this book is to track how the advent of printing technology in Bengal empowered diverse social classes to see themselves as having distinct communal identities. The author contends that the early books and pamphlets printed in Bengali appealed to more than a select group of literates; they were also a means of mass communication. Thus, the serious religious tract and the racy political skit existed side by side in colonial Calcutta, representing free speech and reshaping social and political ideals.

Printing and publishing began in earnest with the Christian missionaries and the East India Company traders, who published company regulations in Bengali. William Carey, a preacher, founded the first Bengali printing press in 1800. His Mission Press produced college textbooks in vernacular and biblical literature for free distribution on paper imported from England.

As the knowledge of printing developed among natives working with foreigners as trading partners, teachers and employees, publishing moved from European hands in the "White Town" to the "Black Town", the native quarter of Calcutta in the north, which remains the printing centre of modern Calcutta.

The transition from an oral to a literate culture also required the reinvention of vernacular Bengali to suit the written medium, rejecting the coarse but lively Bengali common among women, poor Muslims and other disadvantaged groups. Some literati chose Persian as a model, while others went for Sanskrit. As a result, two distinct literary styles evolved, serving different readerships.

Commercial and other formal communications were written in Persian-influenced prose, popular religious and secular ballads in colloquial Bengali, and serious discourses in a diluted form of Sanskrit.

In written Bengali, two separate styles emerged: the chaste and the common. Indigenous experts, known as pundits, who guided the British Orientalists in the standardisation of the language, introduced the chaste Bengali at Fort William College as the "authentic" language. Furthermore, verse became the form of highest literary value. Meanwhile, throughout the 19th century, printed narratives and skits written in colloquial Bengali, with satirical illustrations produced on cheap paper, continued to be published for the mass market.

Sociolinguistic profiles of the Bengali language published in Bengali have been available for many years from authors such as Benoy Ghosh. Power in Print is perhaps the first major account in English, and is therefore to be welcomed. The book is more of a chronology of popular publishing in this period than an investigation into how print influenced the social dynamics of the day, contrary to the implication of its title. If it were to fulfil the latter aim, it would need to investigate the impact of English education on Bengali literature. Moreover, the book does not elaborate on how print constructed a distinct national identity and made Bengal the crucible of Indian intellectual ferment in the 19th century.

Krishna Dutta will lecture in the British Museum's Bengal season on September 26.

Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, 1778-1905

Author - Anindita Ghosh
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 348
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 19 567329 8

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