May it be known that, having concluded an agreement with Bai Kashibai, widow of Govindram Shenvoy to acquire the property belonging to her situated in Koliwada within the Fort of Mumbai consisting of a chawl of four rooms and the adjoining toilet, Parsee Jamshedjee Pallonjee has already notified the general public on the fifth of June preceding in the columns of the Bombay Gazette newspaper that any claims or rights on the said property be notified within a period of fourteen days. The said period having expired, Parsee Jamshedjee Pallonjee has paid the full consideration to Bai Kashibai and no further claims will be entertained.
Dated 1st July 1822.
This routine legal notice was the first item to be printed in the first issue of a Gujarati newspaper titled Mumbaina Samachar (The Bombay News) issued on July 1, 1822, exactly 200 years ago. Thus started the career of a newspaper that was the first to be printed in an Indian language in western India. It continues to be published to this day, the oldest Asian newspaper still in existence. The headpiece included an Urdu epigraph – a ghazal couplet by the contemporary poet Mirza Kazim Ali who wrote under the sobriquet or takhallus “Jawan” – that urged the reader to produce works of wonder. And, having survived for 200 years, the Mumbai Samachar is certainly a work of wonder itself.
What were the circumstances under which this print landmark was founded? Who took the leap to print and publish a Gujarati newspaper in a city that had no print culture? What were his antecedents? How did he succeed in laying the foundation of an edifice which has survived 200 years?
Enter Furdoonjee Marzbanjee. In the 21st century, a man like Furdoonjee would be called a serial entrepreneur, founding one start-up after another every few years. Before fashioning himself as a newspaper editor and proprietor at the age of 35, Furdoonjee had already donned many hats. His story, like those of many others born in the 18th century, starts with a migration.
The serial entrepreneur
Furdoonjee Marzbanjee was not the typical immigrant arriving in Bombay in the early 19th century, illiterate and indigent. Born in Surat into an illustrious family of Parsi priests in 1787, he was trained in Persian and Sanskrit, besides being proficient in Gujarati and Urdu. When he first reached Bombay as a teenager in 1805, Furdoonjee came under the patronage of Mulla Feroze (1758-1830), a Parsi priest and prominent community leader, whose library of manuscripts he managed. As part of his responsibilities, Furdoonjee mended and rebound a number of manuscripts in the collection.
Mulla Feroze was the leader of the Kadmi Parsis, a schismatic Zoroastrian sect that had been co-founded by Furdoonjee’s grandfather, Dastoor Kaus Munajjam (1717-1779). Mulla Feroze, as the Persian tutor to Jonathan Duncan, the governor of Bombay, also moved in the highest circles of power in the city. His influence with successive governors would later be useful to Furdoonjee. A few years after he arrived in Bombay, Furdoonjee began exploring opportunities for livelihood.
Furdoonjee first ventured into the world of books as a bookbinder. Most printed books were sold unbound in those days and readers had to have the loose pages bound themselves. This must have ensured a steady custom from Europeans who ordered books from London and elsewhere. There was also a brisk trade in the binding of manuscripts in the Indian style. He set himself up as a bookbinder in a small shop in the Fort of Bombay in 1808 when he was 20 years old. Though the early years were tough, by 1811, he was regularly binding books for the Literary Society of Bombay and a number of European clients.
The cardboard used for binding books had other applications too. It was the primary material for the hats that European soldiers wore. Furdoonjee soon diversified into making headgear for the burgeoning Bombay Army and seems to have made a tidy profit in these military contracts. Around the same time, Furdoonjee started a courier business between Mumbai and various locations in Gujarat, collecting and delivering letters and business documents, a valuable service in those unsettled times when the East India Company was gradually displacing the erstwhile Marathi regime in western India.
He soon diversified to delivering valuable articles like gold, pearls and diamonds and eventually into money transfer. He built up a network of runners to ensure express deliveries. This business was evidently a success and it was conducted by his family for many decades thereafter. But none of these were enough to slake Furdoonjee’s entrepreneurial aspirations.
Becoming a printer
In 1810, there were only two printing presses in Bombay: the Courier Press and the Gazette Press. Each issued a weekly newspaper in English – Bombay Courier and Bombay Gazette – and also printed forms, contracts and calendars. Very few books were printed in Bombay. The Courier Press also had a vernacular department where printing in Gujarati and Persian was done, largely advertisements and government notices. The Gujarati types had been designed and produced in 1796 by Behramjee Jeejeebhoy, a Parsi priest.
Furdoonjee seems to have started frequenting the Courier Press in 1810 and might well have moonlighted as a type compositor in its vernacular department. This exposure to the art of printing spurred Furdoonjee to venture into the trade on his own account and cater to the latent demand for books in local languages in Bombay.
A printing press could be procured, albeit with some difficulty, in the Bombay or Calcutta markets. If not, an expert carpenter could easily build the rudimentary wooden contraption that was still in use. But where were the Gujarati types to come from? The Courier Press must have been most reluctant to let go its monopoly in this business and sourcing types from London would have been an expensive proposition, well beyond Furdoonjee’s capabilities. The only option was to reinvent the art of the type foundry in Bombay.
Much like Behramjee before him, Furdoonjee set about designing a new set of types in Gujarati from scratch. The existing Gujarati types were certainly useful to him but he had to master the entire art of designing the font, carving the punches, making the matrices and eventually casting the types using a molten lead alloy. He enlisted the help of the women of his house during the entire process, especially in polishing the punches. Furdoonjee might have been a scholar with a higher level of education than Behramjee but his skills in metal carving were certainly inferior to that of his predecessor. The final result was neither as refined nor as compact as Behramjee’s font which was altogether more elegant.
Furdoonjee’s business operations were conducted from a building in the Old Vegetable Market near the Bazar Gate of the Fort of Bombay. About the year 1814, he set up his printing press in the same building and began to experiment with small jobs. This was the very first instance of an Indian setting up shop as an independent printer and publisher – a desi chhapakhana. The printing press was however not yet worthy of having its own name and was simply known as Furdoonjee Marzbanjee’s Chhapakhana.
The first couple of years were a period of experimentation and the ephemeral imprints produced by the fledgling printing press with no name must have been handbills and auction notices. The very first imprint which emerged from this press in October 1814 was an almanac for the year Samvat 1871 (1814-15). A slim volume of 32 pages, it was intended as a substitute for the handwritten almanacs then available in the market. Though priced at an expensive Rs 2, it flew off the shelves as buyers flocked to the press to lay their hands on this new innovation. The durability of this almanac can be judged from the fact that its 209th annual edition will appear in Diwali 2022.
The year 1815 saw the publication of the first book in Gujarati. Furdoonjee translated portions of a 17th-century Persian book on the history of religions of Iran and India titled Dabestan-ul mazahib and published it in a volume of over 700 pages. Dabestan was the first printed book with both the text and script in Gujarati and intended for a general audience. This book also has the distinction of being the first illustrated Gujarati book. It contains seven images representing the seven days of the week. They were probably printed using engraved wood blocks and then painted by hand. The exorbitant price of Rs 15 notwithstanding, the book was a commercial success.
Furdoonjee’s journey in the world of print started as a type founder. He then became a printer, evolved into a publisher, and eventually attained fame as a translator and writer. Books emerged at regular intervals from his press in the first decade. Not only did Furdoonjee print books written or translated by himself, he also printed books authored by others.
After a few years in the printing business, Furdoonjee realised that the Gujarati types which he had cast needed to be improved. He however did not have the necessary engraving skills and therefore commissioned a new set of Gujarati types to be engraved and cast in England, though he supplied the font designs himself. These types were made at a stupendous cost of Rs 11,000 and were first used in 1818 to print a Gujarati translation of the Zoroastrian holy book, Khordeh Avesta.
Bombay in the 1820s
A colonial backwater during the 18th century, the presidency town of Bombay suddenly found itself in possession of vast tracts of territory cutting across the modern states of Maharashtra and Gujarat after the expulsion of the Peshwas from Pune. The appointment of Mountstuart Elphinstone, the chief architect of this regime change, as the governor of Bombay changed the fortunes of print in the city. Fluent in Persian, which was still the official language of government in India, Elphinstone was widely read and would later write a history of India.
An ardent supporter of education for Indians, he was the patron of the Bombay Native Education Society which commissioned the printing and publication of a variety of books for use by students. He also seems to have assured his Indian contacts of support and patronage if they would take the lead in publishing newspapers and magazines in local languages.
It was perhaps in this environment that Mulla Feroze, in 1820, proposed the publication of the Bombay Monthly Magazine in Persian, Arabic and other languages, including Gujarati. However, he could not muster an adequate number of subscribers and dropped the plan. Around the same time, Furdoonjee seems to have initiated the proposal to publish a weekly Gujarati newspaper.
Furdoonjee had to raise capital for this new venture. The only asset he had was the collection of manuscripts inherited from his grandfather, Dastoor Kaus, who reputedly had the best library in Gujarat. As it happened, a buyer for these manuscripts suddenly appeared in Bombay in the person of Rasmus Rask, a Danish philologist. Furdoonjee sold 30 of his manuscripts related to Zoroastrian scriptures to Rask for Rs 1,500 in November 1820.
A newspaper takes form
By early 1822, plans had progressed enough for Furdoonjee to write to Elphinstone seeking formal permission to publish the newspaper. Though Furdoonjee never learned English, he seems to have had friends who were acquainted with that language. His original English letter with a Gujarati signature, dated February 26, 1822, is available in the archives of the Bombay government. After the usual honorifics, Furdoonjee writes:
“Your Petitioner is conducting the English, Persian and Guzerattee Printing Business since the year 1814 in such a manner as it is merited the approbation of every experienced Individuals in the Island and in course of which having observed the efforts and endeavours of the British Society to promote the different branches of knowledges and Eruditions amongst the Natives with a view to meliorize their Morals and the Governments promptly rendering the Protection and Assistance towards that Blissful Contemplation such an encouragement aspiring your Petitioner to conduct an Editorial Office continually by publishing a Weekly News Paper in Guzerattee under the Title of Bombay Summachaur (News of Bombay) and which will be to contain all kinds of Notices, Advertisements and Translations of the most material news and Circumstances from the English and Indian newspapers and also a choice collection of moral Lessons as well as the Writings on rational subjects from the best English and Persian Library.”
Elphinstone was generous in his response. Not only did he direct the Bombay Government to subscribe fifty copies of the newspaper, he also provided a cash subsidy of twelve hundred rupees, a stupendous sum for those days. Buoyed by this unalloyed support, Furdoonjee issued a prospectus for the newspaper in English and Gujarati which was circulated in the city in the form of handbills.
Prospectus of a Weekly Guzzerattee Newspaper entitled The Bombay News, Shri Mumbaina Samachar.
To be edited and printed by Furdoonjee Marzbanjee.
The first number of the Work will be issued from the Press on Monday the first of July next, and continued on every ensuing Monday.
The “Bombay News” will consist of the Advertisements, the Foreign and Domestic Intelligences and Occurences from the English and Indian Newspapers; choice collection of Moral Lessons as well as the Writings on Rational Subjects from the best English and Persian Library; the Shipping Arrivals and Departures, and all the approved Communications of Correspondents: the whole translated into Guzzerattee.
Also Curiosities, Anecdotes, Poetry and other amusing and edifying Miscellanies will occasionally appear in the English, the Persian and the Arabic; the most interesting Heads of Commercial Matters including an extensive and accurate Price Current.
The Editor purposes charging Subscribers Two Rupees per month or Six Rupees per Quarter to be paid either monthly or quarterly.
Subscriptions will be received by the Editor at his own Office in the Vegetable Market, Bazar Gate Street, where Paper accompanied by the Prospectus is open for Subscribers Names.
Bombay, 1st April, 1822.
In the three months before the launch date of first July, Furdoonjee could acquire nearly a hundred paying customers: 67 Parsis, 14 Englishmen, eight Hindus and six Muslims. Though this might not seem like a huge number now, it was a pretty good start for those early days. The novelty of the enterprise, the balanced tone of the scholarly editor Furdoonjee Marzbanjee, and the copiousness of commercial information ensured its immediate popularity.
The Mumbai Samachar was run as a business venture from the very start and, as we have seen, carried advertisements from its first issue. Furdoonjee invited contributions from the general public by way of poetry, literary compositions, and notices for sale and purchase, which he would be glad to publish in his newspaper. If the promulgation of a notice involved any pecuniary gain, a charge would be made for the printing, but not otherwise.
Thus Furdoonjee was able to create a market for advertisements in his paper. The Mumbai Samachar began to incorporate elements that are now considered standard for any newspaper – columns on the weather, local crime, price currents and letters from its readers. These were major innovations for its time and were copied by all its successors. Furdoonjee also introduced the concept of obituaries in the newspaper; as it happened, one of the first obituaries to appear in its columns in October 1822 was that of his father Marzbanjee.
A final goodbye
For nearly ten years after the launch of Mumbai Samachar, Furdoonjee seems to have enjoyed a period of unfettered prosperity. Even as he edited the newspaper, translated Persian texts into Gujarati, and managed the printing press, he found the time to diversify into other business activities including the notoriously fickle Bombay Country Trade with China: exporting cotton and opium to China while importing sugar and other commodities from ports in the Far East.
From early 1832, rumours began to circulate in the market about Furdoonjee’s impending bankruptcy because of his business losses. Instead of trying to salvage the situation, Furdoonjee, to save himself from the debtor’s gaol, preferred to go into exile.
Before relinquishing his editorial position at the Mumbai Samachar, Furdoonjee wrote a goodbye note in August 1832 to his readers in which he emphasised his pioneering role in the establishment of newspapers in India:
“O! readers of Mumbai Samachar! With deep humility, your servant seeks permission to write this, his final communication. It has been ten years since the Mumbai Samachar began publication. Before it was published, there was no newspaper in the Gujarati language, nay, in fact, we had never before seen a newspaper published in the languages of Hindustan. And for these last ten years, we have, to the best of our ability, chosen such news, current accounts, communications, and other items which might be useful to the Gujarati reading public. This has, in turn, strengthened the Gujarat language, and it is most gratifying to see this happen. And we pray to the God Almighty that it go from strength to strength. By the grace of God, after the appearance of the Mumbai Samachar, many other newspapers are being published in the languages used in Hindustan. We are grateful to our readers for having read this long note and now beg to be relieved from our responsibilities.”
Furdoonjee went on to outline the editorial policies which had ensured the success of the newspaper and hoped that his successor, who trained under him, would continue to follow them. He was particularly concerned that the Gujarati language used in the newspaper should not be weighed down by words from Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit or English and maintain a character that would appeal to Parsis and Hindus alike. He also advised his successors not to be drawn into religious controversies and strike a balance while covering matters related to religion.
After Furdoonjee’s departure, Mumbai Samachar continued to be published regularly. Though the business was estimated to be worth Rs 60,000, it was eventually auctioned in January 1833 for Rs 9,200 in a recovery suit filed against Furdoonjee. It changed hands many times during the course of the century and also saw a succession of editors. However, it managed to retain its position as the newspaper of choice among Gujarati readers of all communities in Mumbai.
Murali Ranganathan is a historian and translator. His most recent book is a translation of a Parsi Gujarati war memoir, The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria (HarperCollins, 2022).