religious matters

A Bengali almanac that’s survived 150 years of history is now counting its last days

Gupta Press Panjika lived through wars and famines, but it may not survive smartphones.

On April 14, Bengalis all over the world will usher in the new year, 1424. Not just with crisp new cotton saris, Panjabis (Bengali for the men’s kurta), and some ridiculous amounts of food. They will also mark the day by buying a publication that has taken all of 1423 to prepare – the Gupta Press Panjika, a ready reckoner for everything auspicious.

The trail to the Panjika, one of India’s oldest surviving mass media publications, brings us to an indistinctive door in Kolkata’s Kalighat neighbourhood, better known for the temple devoted to the city’s guardian deity. An A-4 size printout in Bengali is all that marks the spot.

Inside the office, surrounded by weathered furniture, fading photographs and under the eyes of a handful of employees who seem older than memory, is a piece of history that has survived World Wars, the Partition of India, floods and famine, but now may not survive smartphones.

For nearly 150 years, Gupta Press Panjika has been the go-to handbook for Bengalis, who may not wear their religiosity on their sleeves, but never fail to celebrate any life event without turning to this pink and blue almanac.

In a small room, behind a table with a sleek computer, sits the current owner of this legacy, an articulate Arijit Roy Chowdury, who has helmed the family’s most famous business for three decades, somewhat unwillingly.

Chowdhury is a hobby singer and wildlife photographer, who also dabbles in real estate and has the airs of an astute salesperson that seems rather incongruous in the musty room. He was barely into college (St Xavier’s) when he was suddenly asked to get into this business. “I was preparing to study law,” he said, as a silver haired gent serves green tea and GoodDay biscuits. Over 30 years he tried to infuse life into the publication, faced the threat imposed by the “western import” of Kalnirnay, an almanac published in Mumbai, and tried to remain relevant. He has finally given up.

“I want to move on,” said Chowdhury.

A copy of the Gupta Press Panjika at an altar. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.
A copy of the Gupta Press Panjika at an altar. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

Gupta Press was established in 1869 by Durga Charan Gupta, a maverick businessman and one of the many enterprising, wealthy and progressive Bengalis of the time. Gupta, whose sisters rode horses and wrote novels, felt the need to contemporise the Hindu Bengali almanac, which until then was written by hand, printed on demand, and circulated only among the family and temple priests. He wanted to give it a handy, homely format.

The mass version of the Panjika followed the Odrik system of calculations, or Surjyasiddhanta, while the other was known as the BisudhhaSiddhanta or Drik Siddhanta. The former is based on one of the most ancient almanac systems laid down in an 1,500-year-old astronomical treatise. The latter, said to be more “scientific”, is based on an 1890 amendment of the planetary positions, after several astronomers and scholars found discrepancies in the older system. Both versions of the Panjika were enriched with woodcut and metal imprints of Hindu deities.

Chowdhury was never really interested in the history of the business that was foisted upon him. Over the years, as scholars and researchers of oriental calendars sought him out to dig out the Gupta Press archives, he began to piece together the story of what he claims is one of the “most widely read and circulated vernacular and religious publications in the world”.

Durga Charan Gupta, it seems, was keen to preserve the Hindu way of life in the face of the cultural invasion of the colonisers. In its earliest format, the almanac was not only about important dates for festivals and celebrations such as marriage and travels, but also timings and rituals for other religions.

“It was as secular in its approach as you could imagine,” said Chowdhury, “and it was the brainchild of a non-Brahmin.”

Arijit Roy Chowdury in his Kalighat office. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.
Arijit Roy Chowdury in his Kalighat office. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

In this, the Panjika is of a piece with the Bengali calendar, which owes its origins to Emperor Akbar combining the Islamic calendar, his date of coronation, the Bengali solar calendar, or Suryasiddhanta, and the Gregorian solar calendar, to facilitate easier collection of taxes in the region.

According to Professor Aloke Kumar, a collector of Kolkata trivia, the Gupta Press Panjika and its later clones such as the P M Bagchi Full Panjika, the Panjika became a must-have in every household because of the wealth of information it peddled, especially the street guides.

This was the time when the advent of printing technology had created a thriving business in recreational and religious books. Still, the vernacular almanac, particularly those published in the Bat Tala region of North Kolkata, was popular than the others. In the book, The History of the Book in South Asia, edited by Francesca Orsini, the author explains that the publishing entrepreneurs of the time seized on the opportunity to come up with handy versions of the hand-drawn manuscripts that detailed planetary positions and had to be interpreted by Sanskrit scholars.

In a bid to outdo each other, the popular Bengali almanacs of the late 19th century began to put together street directories, details of government officials and even household hacks. The Gupta Press Panjika and its younger cousins reached out to lakhs of Bengali homes, making them extremely attractive to advertisers.

Turning the page

The math is simple. The Panjika, which is kept at the family altar with other religious bric-a-brac, has a shelf life of a year. It is read by several family members. Today, everyone from wedding managers to banquet hall owners, travel agents, pilgrimage organisers, astrologers and matrimonial sites advertise their services on these pages and online on their website. Over time, as the other almanacs evolved and change avatars, the Gupta Press Panjika managed to have the final word when deciding on auspicious events. Even though, as latter day scholars contended, it was often not accurate.

Pronota Banik, who belongs to the Dawn family of Jorasanko, one of the oldest hosts of the Durga Puja in Kolkata, says her family has always used the Gupta Press version for all family functions. In a typical joint family, no year would go by without its share of celebrations and mourning. Births, deaths, weddings, sacred thread and rice ceremonies, engagements, and sundry other pujas and new beginnings. However, during Durga Puja, the family priests and elders would use both the Surya Siddhanta system used by the Gupta Press and Drik Panjika used by the Mutts and Missions to come up with the most suitable timing for the rituals.

“The Gupta Press Panjika is easy to read, understand,” said Banik. “The Drik Panjika has always been used by priests and scholars.”

The Surjya Siddhanta dates were once calculated by Sanskrit scholars trained under the aegis of the rajahs of the olden days. “Today, not even a father would like to train his son,” claimed Chowdhury.

Durga Charan Gupta too employed a team of pundits and scholars who researched for an entire year to come up with the calendar. It was then printed at the Gupta Press facility in College Street. In Gupta’s time, 2,000 copies were printed and sold at two annas each. Today, apparently 4 lakh copies of the Gupta Press Panjika are printed in its various formats – full, half, pocket friendly, while readership is twice as much. Thanks to Bengali being one of the most spoken languages in the world and the Hindu Bengali diaspora, the Panjika is still relevant.

After the death of Durga Charan Gupta, the family business suffered and the printing business was sold off to NN Bhose, Chowdhury’s great grandfather.

The Panjika since then has survived several transformations. During World War, for instance, when newsprint could no longer be imported, it was cut down to a more pocket-friendly size. Experiments to change the cover colour from pink-red to green failed. Priests and homemakers around the country rejected it. “It was perhaps to do with the fact that pink was an auspicious colour,” said Chowdhury. “Closer to the vermillion and always kept with the family idols.”

The office of Gupta Press Panjika. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.
The office of Gupta Press Panjika. Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

There have been several competitors over the years, but the biggest threat has been technology. In 2007, the Gupta Press Panjika went digital, and today most of its services are available online, even though the printed version remains popular. There is also an app on the anvil.

A slim sheet of the Gupta Press calendar is sold for Rs 20. Clicking a picture of it and share it from your smartphone is a matter of seconds. But Chowdhury is hopeful that the Panjika in its digital form will survive. “As long as people get married, die or start something new, the Panjika will be relevant,” he said.

The printed format stands at crossroads. In the Kalighat office, antique cupboards hold all 148 copies of the Panjika, beginning from year 1869. These deserve to be archived, preserved. Yet, they are wrapped in newsprint, their brittle pages held together by strings and rubber bands. Clicking photographs or turning the pages is not allowed. The lightest of touch, it seems, could turn the pages to dust. The staff of over 70 is reduced to a handful – some of them have been custodians of the legacy for over 45 years.

The original press in College Street has shut down – Chowdhury has outsourced it to an offset printing facility owned by a vernacular newspaper. It has helped him cut down on printing and binding costs. “Besides, the indigenous printing and publishing business is dead,” he said. “Thanks to the governments taking over the business of printing textbooks, mid-sized printers-publishers have had to shut shop.”

The business of printing Panjikas is no longer a lucrative one. Which may explain Chowdhury’s disenchantment with the legacy. But can the brand and the piece of history survive indifference?

Chowdhury has been leveraging the Gupta Press brand, the credibility and familiarity that it enjoys with Bengalis, to launch newer businesses. He has been offering crash courses to priests in the art of Durga Puja rituals, calculating weddings dates for NRIs two years in advance and matching horoscopes. His latest offering is a funeral service. “It is morbid, but practical,” he said, taking us through the business plan that includes everything from hearse to hotel, musical performances and catering services. In a city that is home to the largest number of senior citizens in the country living on remittance money from US, Europe and Australia, the latest Gupta Press business venture may just be the click in time.

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