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How the Girisa Vidyiiratna press acquired its fonts: A supplement to the work of Fiona G. E. Ross. (Brief Communications).

This essay offers a brief supplement to Fiona G. E. Ross's survey of the development of the modern printed Bengali character, by providing information concerning the nature, scope, and provenance of the typeset used by Pandit Girifacandra Vidyaratna at his printing press (established in 1856).

In a carefully researched volume, Fiona G. E. Ross has provided a comprehensive study of the development of the modern printed Bengali character. (1) Ross surveys developments in Bengali printing from the earliest days of moveable type pioneered under Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) to present-day digital typesetting. Her book is a feast for the eyes of any bibliophile, but especially for lovers of Bengali books. As one such reader, I wish to express my gratitude to Fiona Ross for her efforts and, in addition, to offer a brief supplement to one aspect of her history.

In chapter seven of The Printed Bengali Character, Ross turns to the establishment of native type-foundries in Calcutta around the middle of the nineteenth century. Special attention is given to the Girisa Vidyaratna Press, established by Pandit Girisacandra Vidyaratna (1822- 1903), which Ross considers "the first native foundry" (p. 125). (2) As the first indigenous press to attempt the design of Bengali type, the Girisa Vidyaratna Press illustrates some of the factors impinging upon the creation of type designs during this period.

In the early part of the century, the development of type-sets had been influenced greatly by the efforts of local Bengali craftsmen to "unite the two disciplines of writing and engraving." However, the work of these craftsmen suffered both from their "relative inexperience in typefounding" and from the predominant "influence of European traditions of type design" (p. 122). As a result, fonts created in the first part of the nineteenth century tended to replicate patterns established decades earlier by Wilkins. Such continued to be the case at the Girisa Vidyaratna Press, yet Ross also notes that this press was eventually to become competent at producing its own version of stylish and readable fonts.

Just how this development took place Ross is unable to say, noting that "[i]nformation regarding the origins of the many founts (sic) employed in the Vidyaratna Press's imprints is not available" (p. 122). She does, however, venture two hypotheses: first, that some of the fonts may have initially been acquired from other sources, such as the Baptist Mission Press; second, that some of the fonts were in fact created at the Vidyaratna Press.

As it turns out, Ross is not entirely correct when she says we have no information on the origin of this press's fonts. There is some information to be had, which in fact tends to support not one, but both, of Ross's hypotheses. The source for the information is the biography of Giri-sacandra written by his son, Hariscandra Kabiratna. (3) In the course of narrating Giri-sacandra's career as a pandit, editor, and publisher, Hariscandra provides a fairly detailed account of the origins of the Girisa Vidyaratna Press. While the information he provides does not entirely resolve the question of the origin of these fonts, it adds significant detail to the history provided by Ross. Below I paraphrase the story told by Hariscandra. (4)

Sometime after 1852, Girisacandra began living with his wife and children off Circular Road, in a neighborhood known as Gadapara Palli. In this neighborhood Girisacandra met a barber (napit) by the name of Lalacamd Visvasa. Lalacamd apparently knew a good deal about printing presses from working at a variety of English presses. Girisacandra had learned printing through his partnership with Isvaracandra Vidyasagar at the latter's Sanskrit Press, which had been established in 1847. (5) However, Grisacandra had recently sold off his interest in the Sanskrit Press and was looking to set up a press of his own. (6) Toward this end, he convinced Lalacamd to put up the money for a new press; Girisacandra agreed to see to the proofreading and editing. Lalacamd agreed, and they called the press Sucaruyantra.

Not long after this, Lalacamd died. His childless widow soon felt the need for money and decided to sell the press. Girisacandra could not afford to buy the press, and so it was sold. He earned a mere Rs. 800 from the sale.

Girisacandra soon heard of another press that was being sold by a Muslim who lived in the neighborhood known as Itali Padmapukur. Girisacandra purchased the press for Rs. 800, and thus was born the Girisa Vidyaratna Press, which opened in 1856. (7)

This new press came with all the materials needed for printing, including a series of fonts (aksara). All of this Girisacandra brought to his house in Gadapara. When he inspected what he had acquired, he found that among the fonts were two sets each of Bengali, English, and Persian fonts, and one set of Devanagari. Even more importantly, this cache of fonts also included the punches (aksarer cheni) and matrices (tamra) for carving new fonts. (8)

And here Hariscandra gives us some even more specific details. Of Bengali Pika fonts there were nearly four hundred punches and matrices; of Devanagari Pika, nearly five hundred; and of Persian Pika and Small Pika nearly one hundred. This was a valuable resource. In fact, his father wondered whether he wouldn't be better off selling them. If he did, he estimated he might earn as much as Rs. 1000. On the other hand, Girisacandra toyed with the idea of establishing his own type-foundry (aksara-dhalar karkhana). In the end, he settled on a plan that involved selling off the Persian fonts, punches, and matrices to a Muslim printer (musalamana mudrakara) and keeping the Bengali, Devanagari, and English sets to use in the work of his own press.

Of course this meant that Girisacandra had to find a craftsman who could cut type for him. This he soon did, locating one called Navakumara Karmakara. (9) Together the two of them began cutting type to order and splitting the proceeds fifty-fifty. Hariscandra tells us Girisacandra and Navakumara pursued this business for many years. Only after new fonts began to be created at Serampore, and Navakumar had died, did Girisacandra sell the punches and matrices and close down the foundry. Hariscandra doesn't tell us to whom these materials were sold nor does he inform us of how much Girisacandra earned from the sale. His story of the Girisa Vidyaratna Press ends here. Looking back at this period, Hariscandra remarks that his father's press was like his very own Laksmi---the profits he earned from his work there provided for all his worldly needs. (10)

As valuable as Hariscandra's narrative is, we remain curious to know who had created the original fonts and matrices that Girisacandra acquired from the unidentified Muslim press in Itali Padmapukur; likewise, we are felt wondering to whom Girisacandra supplied his fonts. Nevertheless, what we learn from Hariscandra's account does allow us to confirm not just one but both of Ross' hypotheses: initially Girisacandra did acquire a set of fonts and matrices; subsequently, with the help of Navakumar, he went on to produce new fonts. This latter piece of information appears to support Ross's claim that imprints from the Girisa Vidyaratna Press reveal an on-going attempt to create new type sets. That the fonts appear "disappointing" to Ross (p. 125) is perhaps an index of how slowly the evolution of the modern printed character proceeded during this period.

Despite the questions that remain, this short recounting of the Girisa Vidyaratna Press offers us a glimpse into a world in which classically-trained Sanskrit pandits begin to enter the fields of editing, printing, and publishing. The story of this world, with all its disjunctions and discoveries, represents an important chapter in the intellectual and social history of modern India. We are indebted to Ross for tracing the development of a central (if somewhat neglected) dimension of this history. It can be hoped that others will explore further aspects of printing in modern India, perhaps by exploring the dynamics of publishing among Muslim communities in Calcutta.

(1.) The Printed Bengali Character and its Evolution (London: Curzon Press, 1999).

(2.) Girisacandra was a close friend and colleague of Pandit Isvaracandra Vidyasagara (1820-91), who is remembered (among other things) for having created a simplified Bengali character set known as the "Vidyasagar sort" (Ross, 130).

(3.) Hariscandra Bhattacarya Kabiratna, Girisacandra-Vidyaratner jivana-carita (Calcutta: Manika Press, 1909).

(4.) Kabiratna, 39-41.

(5.) For details on the Sanskrit Press, see Benoy Ghosh, Vidyasagara o Bangali samaja (rpt. Calcutta: Orient Longman, 1984), 163ff.

(6.) The bulk of the earnings generated by the Sanskrit Press were from Vidyasagara's popular school books. Girisacandra found himself earning little from the partnership.

(7.) Initially, Girisacandra took the advice of a friend and called the press Vidyaratna Press. However, upon learning that another press by that name had just opened, he changed the name to Girisa Vidyaratna Press.

(8.) Hariscandra defines a punch as yahara agrabhage aksara ksudita thake, while he defines a matrix as yahate sima dhaliya aksara prastuta hay (Kabiratna, 39).

(9.) Ross does not appear to be familiar with Navakumar, though she does discuss the work of Pancanana and Manohara Karmakara, two other craftsmen active in the early nineteenth century.

(10.) This is a pattern also found in the life of Vidyasagara, who at one time may have earned as much as Rs. 3000-4500 per month from his Sanskrit Press; see Hatcher, Idioms of Improvement: Vidyasagar and Cultural Encounter in Bengal (Calcutta: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), 89-90.
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Author:Hatcher, Brian A.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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