Print may have reached the shores of India accidentally in 1556 (the original destination of the printing press was Ethiopia); it may have had a tenuous existence for the first two centuries and more (not more than a hundred imprints were printed all across India); it may not have spread inland from the coastline until the 19th century (the early print centres included Goa, Cochin, and Tranquebar); it may not have got a toehold in the emerging colonial cities (Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras) until the 1770s; and, it did not begin playing a mainstream role before the First War of Indian Independence (1857).

But these were no reasons not to celebrate the advent of a technology which arguably has had a very significant impact on life in this country. The year 1956 was the 400th anniversary of the advent of print in India. How was the quatercentenary to be commemorated? And who was to do it?

Anant Kakba Priolkar, the director of the Marathi Samshodhan Mandal, a research organisation sponsored by the Bombay Government under the auspices of the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, first drew attention to this upcoming anniversary in 1953 in an article in the history journal Indica. But nobody seemed to be interested in picking up the gauntlet.

The print trade and its industry associations were in a flourishing state and too busy to bother about history. The government had its own priorities. The universities and their academics were still not able to appreciate the importance of print history. Priolkar decided that he would personally commemorate the quatercentenary. But how?

Advent of print in India

Priolkar’s forte was researching and writing. He brought these skills into play as he investigated the history of printing in India. His celebration of print emerged in the form of a book titled The Printing Press in India: Its Beginnings and Early Development, which he published under the imprint of his own organisation in 1958. Writing for the first time in English, Priolkar broke ground by exploring the development of print in India until the middle of the 19th century. If this had been the only book which Priolkar had written in his lifetime, it would have sufficed to make his reputation as a scholar and historian.

It was only in the 1930s and 1940s that the early origins of print in India were being rediscovered. The writings of Jesuit scholars like Georg Schurhammer and Josephus Wicki and historians like CR Boxer and CG Rhodes were gradually unraveling the extent to which printing had developed under the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. Priolkar brought together these different strands and constructed a narrative of the first two centuries of print in India. He then extensively researched the development of print from the final decades of the 18th century and its spread in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras using contemporary records and the imprints themselves.

A highlight of the book are the 50 full-page illustrations of early specimens of print which Priolkar procured from libraries around the world. As the first attempt at writing a comprehensive print history of India, the book is a landmark and continues to be relevant as a primary source over six decades after it was first published. Though it had been translated into Urdu in 1979, it was translated into Marathi for the first time only in 2019.

Becoming a print historian

Priolkar’s primary research interests were the Marathi language and its literature. One of his major contributions to this area is the discovery of Marathi works composed by Jesuit Christian missionaries. Though composed in Marathi, these works were printed in the Roman script in the 16th and 17th centuries. Priolkar edited these books, transcribed the text into Devanagari and published them with critical introductions. Some examples include Sancto Antonichi Acharya, 1963, and Doutrina Christa, 1965, by Thomas Stephens. The study of these early printed books must have sparked an interest in him on how print developed in India.

Besides print and book history, there were many other facets to Priolkar’s intellectual achievements. As a literary historian of the Marathi language, he published critical editions of many Marathi books. His edition of the Damayanti Swayamwar (1936) thrust him into the limelight of literary Maharashtra.

The edition and careful annotation of Dadoba Pandoorung’s autobiography published in 1947, with a supplementary biography, proved to be another literary landmark. Much of Priolkar’s work is concentrated on Marathi poets: spiritual poets like Tukaram, Namdeo and Dnyaneshwar as well as secular poets like Moropant and Mukteshwar.

Before publishing The Printing Press in India, Priolkar had embarked on a long-term project to compile a bibliography of early printed works in Marathi. After much deliberation, he fixed the year 1867 as the terminal year for this initiative. The first edition of this bibliography titled Marathi Dolamudrite was compiled by Priolkar. It was published in 1949 as the golden jubilee volume of the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, founded in 1898.

It contained 293 entries and proved to be a stepping stone for the study of early printing. It was also a valuable resource to understand the development of Marathi literature and literary culture in the nineteenth century. Two more editions of the bibliography have since been published; the third edition, in 1995, though riddled with errors, contains as many as 1,900 entries of Marathi books published before 1867.

Celebrating print anniversaries

From 1950, Priolkar took to celebrating and commemorating print anniversaries with an ardour bordering on fetish. It could be the centenary of the publication of a landmark book, the death or birth centenary of an important writer, or hundred years after the enactment of a law impacting books, Priolkar would organise an event to commemorate the anniversary but he was more likely to publish a book to mark the landmark.

The tricentennial death anniversary of the revered Marathi spiritual poet Tukaram was commemorated in 1950. As his offering to the effort, Priolkar compiled an extensive bibliography of all the printed literature relating to Tukaram which was later published as a separate booklet.

Navaneet, literally the cream of Marathi poetry, was a collection edited by Parashuram Godbole, and first published in 1854. It soon came to be recognized as a classic. Though designed to be used as a textbook, it became a popular book. It continued to be in print and by the time of its centenary, seventeen editions had been printed. Recognising the book as a print landmark, Priolkar edited a centenary edition which was published in 1957. The centenary edition of the second part of Navaneet duly appeared in 1964.

The year 1965 was the centenary death anniversary of Govind Narayan, the Marathi author whose Mumbaiche Varnan is a landmark in the urban biography of Mumbai. Not only did Priolkar organise a centenary memorial event, he wrote a short biography of Govind Narayan and initiated the publication of his complete works in three volumes (1968-70).

Gopal Hari Deshmukh, who wrote under the name Lokahitavadi, was the first Marathi essayist to sharply attack traditional mores and practices and urged radical reform among the Hindus. His Shatpatre, or Hundred Letters (actually 108) published in the Marathi newspaper Prabhakar, made him very popular. These letters were gathered into a book which was published in 1866 from Ahmednagar. To honour the centenary of this important publication, Priolkar published a new edition of the book, and prefaced it with a biography of Lokahitavadi. The birth centenary of the modern Marathi poet Keshavsut in 1967 was celebrated by publishing a facsimile of an autograph manuscript of the poet.

A landmark Indian copyright law was enacted in 1867 which replaced the previous 1847 law. Publishers were now expected to submit three copies of all publications to the government. A copy would be sent to the National Library in Calcutta and one to the India Office in London. A copy would be retained to build up local collections which were later known as the “Copyright Collections”. Priolkar celebrated the centenary of this event, which was not generally recognised as significant, by publishing a pamphlet.

Printing was always an expensive proposition for Priolkar but he managed to find funds for each of his projects. They could be grants from the Bombay Government or its cultural bodies, assistance from the University of Bombay and its in-house press, and cooperation from a group of printers who were interested in such projects.

The public intellectual

Besides writing on historical subjects for a popular audience in magazines and newspapers, Priolkar was a poet, playwright, short story writer and a novelist in the early part of his literary career. His plays were parodies of contemporary social debates. The satirical novel, Gondwanatil Gaongund, or The Village Bully of Gondwana, published under the pseudonym ‘Deshsevak, Nagpur’ in 1931 serially in the magazine Vividhavrutta, was a lampoon on the famous Marathi encyclopedist, Dr SV Ketkar (1884–1937). It was so well researched that even Ketkar, no mean researcher himself, was impressed; Ketkar, perhaps, never discovered the identity of the writer.

Priolkar could be a tenacious adversary in the various controversies that raged in modern Maharashtra. Though he belonged to Konkan himself, Priolkar, after long and detailed study, was convinced that Konkani was but a dialect of Marathi and could not be considered a distinct language.

In the 1930s, he took on the irrepressible “Shannai Goembab” Varde Valaulicar who espoused the cause of Konkani with a vituperative ferociousness. While Priolkar dispassionately argued on the basis of linguistic and philological principles, his opponents appealed to the pride and patriotic feelings of their audience. It is no wonder that Konkani has now been officially recognised as a distinct language.

The question of formation of states in a newly independent India was widely debated in western India as there were large Marathi-speaking areas in the Central Provinces, Hyderabad, the Bombay Presidency and Portuguese Goa. Much before the issue took centre stage, Priolkar had written a polemical article about Bruhanmaharashtra or Greater Maharashtra in the 1920s where he proposed the unification of all Marathi-speaking areas, including Goa.

After Goa was liberated from the Portuguese in 1961, a debate about its future status raged regarding whether it should be merged with Maharashtra or maintain a separate identity as it had a unique culture. Priolkar took an active part in this debate by writing in newspapers. This also led him to publish three books in English related to Goa. The first was Goa: Facts versus Fiction (1962) immediately after the liberation and Goa Re-discovered (1967) a few years later. He also published a historical account of The Goa Inquisition (1961) which was yet another anniversary publication based on original accounts of “the terrible tribunal for the East”. His love for his homeland, Goa and his adopted city, Mumbai resulted in the book Hindustanche don darvaze – The Two Gateways of India.

Priolkar the man

Priolkar was born in 1895 in the village of Priol in Central Goa, not far from the urban centres of Madgaon and Panaji. All education in Goa was in Portuguese and Priolkar completed his Segundo Gravo (equivalent to matriculation) in 1910. There were few opportunities for further studies in Goa and Priolkar started teaching in local schools.

After a few years, he completed his matriculation in 1918 from the University of Bombay. He first joined Karnatak College in Dharwar and later Willingdon College in Sangli and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1923, when he was 28.

Given this background, Priolkar gained mastery over three languages – Marathi, Portuguese, and English – besides a working familiarity with Gujarati, Kannada, and French.

In 1925, he moved to Mumbai where he contributed articles to Vividha Dnyana Vistaar, the leading Marathi magazine of its day. He eventually joined its editorial team. Priolkar was employed in the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s accounts department; this secured for him the safety net of a regular income, meagre though it was. Through all this, he continued to research and publish extensively.

By the 1940s, Priolkar had come to be recognised as a researcher par excellence and his elevation as the Director of the Marathi Samshodhan Mandal cemented his status. But he was always on the fringes of mainstream historical and literary research. Priolkar never worked on political history, especially on the history of the Maratha empire, which was then considered as the one legitimate area of historical research in Maharashtra. He was also, by nature, a lone wolf who preferred to work in isolation. Though he did not have a doctorate himself, he was designated as a guide for doctoral research. He expected the highest standards of work and a long-term commitment to research from his students, expectations which many of them failed to meet. These interactions reinforced his reputation as an inflexible and exacting person.

Priolkar had another trait which could irritate other Marathi writers. In his efforts to make Marathi a language which could be used for critical and technical writing, Priolkar coined numerous neologisms. Hardly any of them caught on except for a term used in print history:”dolamudrite” for books printed in Marathi prior to 1867. It was the etymological equivalent of the word “incunabula”, a Latin term used for books printed in the first century of print in Europe.

The Priolkar heritage

Priolkar’s most important contribution to print history is arguably his collection of early printed books of western India. He was an indefatigable collector who would go to great lengths to acquire a book and his delight in a “prize catch” was immense. From the 1920s, Priolkar spent a large portion of his limited income in acquiring a collection of a few thousand books, many of them last surviving copies, in Marathi, Gujarati, Konkani, Portuguese and English.

A large number of these imprints are ephemeral publications such as pamphlets, catalogues, chapbooks, directories and calendars. They would not have survived had Priolkar not collected them. Arranged along the walls of his tiny house in Girgaon in Mumbai, the collection might have been dispersed if Priolkar had not the foresight to find a permanent repository for them.

This valuable collection is now housed separately as the Priolkar Collection in the library of the University of Mumbai. A smaller collection of books is at the University of Nagpur. Priolkar negotiated special arrangements for the classification and storage of these books and both these collections are in an excellent condition. The Priolkar collection of early printed books has opened up new windows into 19th century India.

Priolkar’s literary output was immense; he authored 10 books in English and Marathi and also edited over 40 books. He wrote over 400 articles in a writing career which began in 1913. In 1973, on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the Marathi Samshodhan Mandal, a decision to publish a Priolkar bibliography was taken to honour his contribution to the institute. However, his health deteriorated suddenly and he died on April 13, 1973. In keeping with Priolkar’s own practice of observing anniversaries, the bibliography, extending to over 50 pages, was published on May 13, the first monthly anniversary of his death.

Priolkar’s contribution to other areas of scholarship can be evaluated elsewhere but his recognition as the pioneering print historian of India is unanimous. In spite of the numerous discoveries which have been made since the publication of The Printing Press in India, it still retains its relevance as a primary reference book on Indian print history.

First published in the print edition of PrintWeek (July 2020) with the title “Anant Kakba Priolkar: A Fetish for Print Anniversaries”.

Murali Ranganathan is a historian and translator.