It is widely understood that the East India Company used the printing press as an instrument to strengthen its illegal occupation of the subcontinent. During the British Raj, Hindustani, also known as Hindvi, Hindi, Urdu, Gajari, or Deccani, was split into two different languages – Hindi and Urdu – to divide society and pit Indians against one another by way of religion and identity. One of the most regrettable aspects of colonialism and the post-1857 revivalism was that all communities began to be swayed by the British notions of language, culture, identity, and segregation.
While exploring the origins of Urdu-language publishing in the subcontinent, I came across two stories that offer insights into how and why Urdu printing started in the late nineteenth century, and the reasons behind its transformation post 1857. To me, both stories are simply that – stories. I do not know if they are authentic; but for me, their value lies in that these stories have continued to exist in the minds of those writing about the history of publishing in the subcontinent.
The first story
The first story claims that the printing press was brought to the subcontinent by Christian missionaries in the middle of the sixteenth century. A notable Catholic missionary visited the court of the great Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar and presented him with a printed version of the Holy Bible. But the emperor didn’t particularly like what was shown to him.
The royal library already had several thousand manuscripts that had been artistically designed in various colours and engraved with beautiful traditional calligraphy. The emperor called for a manuscript from his library to show to his visitor. “This is what we call a book,” he proudly told his guest. The missionary was speechless at the quality of the manuscript.
It is this self-indulgence mixed with visual appeal, and the emperor’s affinity for miniature paintings and calligraphy, that is believed to be the reason Akbar didn’t establish a printing press in the Persian or Arabic letters. The radical transformation that the printing press could have brought to the Persian language, which would have later benefitted Hindavi, Hindi, or Urdu, was not realised because of his insistence on what a book should look like.
According to the story, although the printing press gained momentum in Europe with the printing of the Bible, in Hindustan, it first made its appearance in South India through Christian missionaries and individuals affiliated with the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. At the time, as the Mughal network of calligraphers was sufficient to fulfil the requirements of the state, the cheaper alternative of the printing press was not deemed attractive. Akbar might have also believed that a press would snatch jobs from his skilled calligraphers.
On the other hand, while the subcontinent practised “block painting”, it was not used to print books. The opposition to the printing press ended in 1820 with the introduction of lithography, which provided a facsimile image of the written text, and quickly spread across the subcontinent.
The second story
This story concerns the Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rahman (1844-1901) and a Hindu Munshi, who is widely regarded as the finest publisher of Urdu books to date.
In 1885, when Amir Rahman visited Hindustan, the Governor-General, Lord Dufferin, hosted a party in his honour. When the Amir was told a Hindu “Munshi” was present at the party, he enquired why a Munshi had been invited amongst the royals. The Governor-General responded that the Munshi was none other than Naval Kishore. Upon hearing that, the Amir rose from his seat, startled, and asked for Munshi Saheb to be seated next to him.
Munshi Naval Kishore had established an eponymous press in Lucknow in 1858 – a time when the wounds of the first freedom rebellion against the British were fresh. He helped preserve the cultural treasure of Hindustan, especially that of Urdu letters, which could have otherwise gone into oblivion. It was said that a book published by Naval Kishore Press was guaranteed to reach the length of Hindustan.
The press published over 2,000 books in its lifetime, and, at its peak, employed 200 people. It published in Hindi, Sanskrit, and other languages, but its focus was Urdu-language literature. Many well-known writers, who later became the best-paid writers in the market, wrote for it.
Naval Kishore also published books in Persian and Arabic that made his press known in Afghanistan and Iran, which was how the Amir knew of him. Perhaps the greatest book he published was the epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza in forty-six volumes. Besides this, he also published the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana in Urdu.
The history of Urdu publishing is closely tied to the history of Urdu journalism. Following his earliest passion of owning a newspaper, in 1859, Naval Kishore started a weekly called Avadh Akhbar. At its peak, Avadh Akhbar’s circulation was 12,000 copies. Eminent Urdu authors such as Ratan Nath Sarshar (1846-1903), Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926), Qadr Bilgrami (1883-1894), and Munshi Amirullah Taslim (1819-1911) worked with Kishore.
Sarshar’s classical novel, Fasana-e-Azad, was serialised in the newspaper from December 1878 to December 1879. Avadh Akhbar also published articles by Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898). Ghalib, who was a close friend of Naval Kishore’s, wrote that whosoever was published by Naval Kishore’s press became famous. (“Is chapakhane se jis ka bhi diwan chapa, us ko zamin se aasman par pahuncha diya.”) The newspaper later turned into a daily, with the novelist Ratan Nath Sarshar as its editor.
Two centuries of the Urdu press
According to researcher Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the Urdu type was first used in the Kolkata Gazette on 4 March 1784. In 1829, the Quran was published in the Arabic and Urdu type, with Urdu translations by Karim Abdul Qadir Dehelvi, a religious scholar. The same type was also used to print government circulars and orders in Kolkata. In addition, books published in Kolkata by Fort William College, founded on 10 July 1800, also used the same type, as did those by the contemporary religious revivalists Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831) and Maulavi Karamat Ali (d 1873).
Almost 300 years after the advent of printing type, lithography ie, “stone printing” was invented in 1796. It reached India after four decades, and immediately became popular for printing Urdu material.
Sources suggest that Maulavi Muhammad Baqir Dehlavi (1780-1857), at the age of 57, started the first Urdu newspaper, Dehli Urdu Akhbar, in 1836, and it continued until 1857. Baqir also became the first journalist to die in the freedom struggle, after his arrest on 16 September 1857 and subsequent execution by gunshot two days later. The newspaper was printed via litho. Eminent poets such as Shaikh Ibrahim Zauque (1790-1854), poet laureate at the Mughal Court at the age of 19 and the teacher of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, were published in it.
But there are other claimants to the title of the first Urdu newspaper. Some historians suggest that Jam-e-Jahan Numa was the first, published on 27 March 1822 in Kolkata. Other claimants are Maratual Akbhar, published in 1821 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and the Karachi-based paper Akhbar-e-Urdu, which was founded in 1810.
It is also believed that Tipu Sultan issued an order in 1794 to start an Urdu newspaper – Fauji Akbhar – that was exclusively printed for the royal family and military officials. Urdu had replaced Persian as the court language by now, and the weekly newspaper covered the military movements for the next five years. After Tipu’s death, copies of the newspaper were reportedly confiscated and burned by the British forces. Other reports claim that during 1841 to 1856, more than half a dozen (mostly weekly) Urdu papers were published in Madras.
The first Urdu magazine for women, Ismat, was launched in Delhi in 1908. It was first edited by Shaikh Muhammad Ikram, who was succeeded by novelist and author Rashid-ul Khairi (1868-1936). The magazine is still in print today. Another Urdu periodical, Nizamul Mashaikh, was started in 1909 to reform the religion, while the Urdu daily Munadi was published until 1975.
In 1912, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad started Hilal in Kolkata, but was forced to close after the British authorities confiscated the guarantee sum of Rs 10,000. Hilal, at the time, was considered the zenith of Urdu-language journalism. Other literary magazines like Shabkhoon and Shuoor, which propagated modernism in Urdu, also published a few books under their eponymous publishing houses.
Urdu publishing today
There are more than two dozen well-known Urdu publishing houses in India today. The two major publishers, Maktaba Jamia and Educational Publishing House, both well known for publishing good books, do not promote their books widely. The industry, surviving on self-publishing, is plagued by issues of copyright, royalties, distribution, etc. One of the biggest unaddressed issues is the distribution of Urdu books. Publishers don’t usually worry about market conditions as revenue is completely dependent on the sponsorship of writers who can pay to print their books.
On the question of why Urdu writers and poets do not demand rights from the publishers, the editor of weekly newspaper, Pahli Khabar, Musharraf Shamsi, replied that it is their “majboori”. In the world of Urdu literature, poets and authors have always depended on the publishers. Another reason is the lack of awareness about marketing and distribution of the books. If an author is not commercially successful, on what grounds is he to ask the publisher for a contract or royalty?
On the other hand, Tarique Iqbal, deputy manager of the advertisement section at Daily Urdu Inquilab (Patna edition), said that most publishers in Urdu earn by saving in printing costs rather than from sales revenues, and hence are no efforts from the writer or publisher to follow the standard practice. This might also be the reason it is unheard of for a manuscript to be rejected by an Urdu publisher, unlike in English-language publishing. Here, all is well because nothing is well.
While business is completely shut right now because of the pandemic, Urdu publishers are hopeful that once the printing presses restart, so will their business. What the future holds is a different story. However, most of these publishing houses also run bookshops, which have been heavily impacted. Covid-19 has ruined their business and they are under tremendous pressure to pay overdue rents, salaries, and bills.
Two young Urdu publishers – Arshia Publications and Kitabdaar Publications – who have suffered heavily because of the pandemic spoke to me about how the lockdown has destroyed the Urdu book market. They are currently surviving on their savings, but the future remains bleak, especially if the current situation is to continue. It is for their love for books that they have not given up, looking, instead, for new avenues to boost their business post-Covid-19.
While Kitabdaar runs from Mumbai, Arshia Publications is based in Delhi. Owned by Izhar Nadeem, who has been in the business for two decades, they have published several notable contemporary Urdu writers, poets, and critics such as Naiyer Masood, Nida Fazli, Irfan Siddiqui, Gopi Chand Narang, and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Arshia has earned a name for maintaining high publishing standards and quality. Their use of quality paper, printing, attention to cover design, and binding are considered excellent.
Izhar Nadeem told me that the pandemic has ruined him, and restarting the business after the lockdown ends will be like starting from scratch. While he is currently using his savings to sustain the business, he still has hope in the Urdu market, adding that an improvement in distribution could create a larger readership for fiction and good poetry.
Although Arshia has not compromised on the quality of their books, many of their authors have been unhappy with their communication. Izhar confessed that the pandemic had made them realise they were wrong to think that authors and poets needed publishers more; the times have changed and now publishers need good authors even more. He told me he would improve how they communicate with their authors. In addition, Arshia plans to pay more attention to promoting books online and improving distribution post-Covid-19, without which it will be difficult for them to continue.
Kitabdaar, on the other hand, began as a bookshop in 2004. The owner, Shadab Rashid, who also writes short stories, told me that though sales were good before the pandemic, his business has been deeply affected by piracy on social media. His shop has been shuttered since the lockdown began, and he said he would have gone completely bankrupt by now had he not had other skills.
The hope for Urdu publishing
Urdu Bazaar is a popular portal to buy Urdu and Hindi books online. It is part of the Urdu Bazaar Foundation established by Dr Zamarrud Mughal, a well-known Urdu activist who has previously worked with Rekhta. Urdu Bazaar has marked a shift in the market, reaching out to readers through online portals in a way no Urdu publisher had tried yet, and has also managed to connect to Hindi readers.
A few months ago ago, the foundation announced it would start publishing books under the Urdu Bazaar Books imprint. Zamarrud said that during his PhD, he had found it difficult to find literary books, and so he made up his mind to create something that would make it easier for the next generation. Along with Wasi Zaidi, he started an online book portal, which received a tremendous response; he hopes that their entry into publishing will also get a similar response.
Covid-19 has badly affected the publishing industry across all languages. However, the hope is that once the dust settles, a new phase can begin in Urdu publishing with an
author-friendly spirit, especially if young publishers like Izhar Nadeem, Shadab Rashid, and Zamarrud Mughal are able to rise to the occasion. Urdu publishing can enter an era of resurgence, with ethical business practices, which will be a much-needed step in this old industry.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.