Amidst the pomp and heraldry surrounding the bicentenary of Kolkata’s Presidency/Hindu College in 2017, the bicentenary of the Calcutta School Book Society has gone virtually unnoticed.

At a time when Baptist missionaries were setting up an English schools system in Bengal’s Hooghly district, a need was felt for textbooks that could be used in the new classrooms.

The Calcutta School Book Society was set up in direct response to this need in 1817 but with one crucial difference from the missionary curricula: it would be “no part of its design…to furnish religious books”. In other words, the Calcutta School Book Society proposed a modern, secular pedagogy, perhaps the first of its kind in the world.

‘Animal Biography’

Predictably, the Calcutta School Book Society’s first publications were in the field of arithmetic, geography and astronomy. But of all its early productions, perhaps the most engaging was a series titled Pashwabali or Animal Biography that debuted in 1822. Each number would be a slim volume on an animal, fronted by an illustration of the said animal.

This sounds unremarkable, but the first-ever illustrated book in Bengali, an edition of Annadamangal, had been published only six years ago, in 1816. The block-makers who plied their trade in Calcutta at that time could perhaps produce almanac-style artwork, but could they draw a lion or a rhinoceros?

It is at this point that a certain John Lawson steps into the breach. Lawson had arrived in Calcutta in 1813, hoping to make himself useful to the Baptist William Carey in Serampore. But he had been promptly arrested, along with his associates, by officials of the East India Company, who were paranoid about missionaries operating in their bailiwick.

Carey sent one of his brethren, Joshua Marshman, to intercede on behalf of Lawson, and after a series of negotiations too Byzantine to relate here, Marshman was able to secure the release of Lawson, on the plea that he would be required to design movable metal type for the New Testament to be printed in Chinese from Serampore. (This did happen eventually, but that is another story).

Lawson spent several years in Serampore before the younger brethren rebelled against the older and set up a new Baptist mission in Calcutta. Lawson was asked to draw the animals for the series, and the first number of the series, running to 24 pages, duly featured a picture of a lion with a four-line poem beneath in rhyming couplets.

So far, so good. But mayhem, we are told, ensued once the book was introduced to classrooms. The bibliographer James Long, who has appeared in these columns before, asserted in his famous 1855 catalogue that the picture “excited such alarm, that one school, where it was placed, was at once emptied of its scholars – the Hindus believed that there is only one lion in the world”.

'Pashwabali' ('Animal Biography'). Photo credit: British Library (Public Domain)

Long’s tale stretches one’s credulity somewhat, but since the reverend usually got his facts right, there may be an element of truth in the anecdote. Certainly, one does not hear similar reports about numbers two and three in the series were devoted to the bear and the elephant, which would have been familiar enough to school-goers.

Not so perhaps the fourth number, which featured a remarkably lifelike image of the rhinoceros, engraved by Lawson. These four numbers would be reprinted as one volume in 1828, this time crediting one WH Pearch as the translator of the text.

New lease of life

The series received a new lease of life in 1838, when Ramchandra Mitra was commissioned to produce a fresh batch of animal biographies, such as those of the beaver, rat, seal, wolf, bull, donkey and the bat. These were bilingual, to begin with, and ran uniformly to 39 pages each. As before, each animal received a poem to itself, but this time the poet allowed himself greater scope, often launching into eulogies on the animal concerned.

Thus we are informed:

The patient ox, strong-limbed and meek
Prepares the fruitful fields
While the good cow – the Hindu’s all
A rich production yields:
Both friends of man, source of his wealth,
His pride, his comfort, and his health.

Concerning the bat, we are informed that some of its species are drinkers of blood, proof positive that vampirism was not unknown to the early 19th-century school-going child in Bengal.

Abhijit Gupta is Professor of English, Jadavpur University and Director, Jadavpur University Press. He is a co-investigator with the “Two Centuries of Indian Print” project.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Early Indian printed books blog.