Bidyasundar and the Story of Print in Bengal


BY: SUN STAFF - 27.4 2020

Kalyan Mandir Sutra

By Tapti Roy for Kriti Rakshana, National Mission for Manuscripts, India.

In the oft told account of book production in India, print technology is believed to have introduced publication of texts which once printed were regarded fixed and immutable. Printed text, therefore, came to be considered definitive and authoritative by virtue of its production and structure, different from manuscripts which preceded it.

This difference between the handwritten folios and typed font set on paper and bound, it is argued, was because manuscripts belonged to a cultural and intellectual milieu that predated the one in which printed books appeared and thrived. This is correct, in essence, because the technology of printing text began in the intellectual environment of composing, copying, correcting, reading and reciting of manuscripts. But as recent scholarships in the West have shown, the convention and practice of manuscript reading and composing continued well after printing was introduced and became popular.

It would also be a mistake not to regard manuscripts as publications. After all, they were put out to the public by being reproduced several times over and then read, recited and heard by a large number of people. Printing only hastened the process and increased its efficiency. But it continued to allow interventions, which is why different printed editions of the same text had variations and differences. And this was particularly true of texts which were printed versions of older, hand written manuscripts.

Printing in India, as is well known, started on a public scale in Bengal under the auspices of the British missionaries who were actively supported by the government of East India Company. The objective of the British was to employ the printing press in the interests of Christian religion and colonial state and therefore they consciously and carefully chose texts that would help in proselytizing Indians or instructing the British. The Scottish and Irish missionaries embarked upon printing in the 1780s in Srirampur, 36 kilometers from Kolkata, by publishing catechism and gospels for purposes of conversion. Their evangelical spirit, dedication and literary talents persuaded them to learn local languages and translate both Christian tracts as well as popular vernacular texts like the epics. In 1800, the East India Company set up Fort William College in Calcutta to educate new British recruits in the indigenous custom and culture, a step that led to the sponsoring of edifying prose writings in Bengali, crafted for strictly pedagogical use.

Within a couple of decades, Bengalis undertook printing as private enterprise and flourished. Local markets for books were created and they grew at a phenomenal rate, as Bengali publishers flooded them with printed texts. The early printers had been trained as typesetters under British missionaries and their initiative was informed as much by lessons of book production learnt in the new colonial environment as inherited textual traditions of Bengal. Unlike the British, they wanted to print books for profit and rightly identified texts that would be popular. Not surprisingly, they chose texts of 'religious' content and significance that were widely read and read out in Bengal in the 18th century. Here, we trace the story of one such text - the first to be printed and the trajectory of its journey through decades thereafter to showcase some of the less known features of printing in Bengal.

Gangakishore Bhattacharya was the first Bengali to venture into publishing business on his own. Of his misty past, little is known except that he did not own a printing press to start with but used one named Ferris Press and selected Annadamangal by Bharatchandra Ray as the first publication in 1816. The fact that Bhattacharya acquired a press and was able to open a bookstore shortly later, only proved the merit of his decision and choice of text. Annadamangal became a best seller and Bhattacharya was able to retire to his village having earned enough to live by.

The text of Annadamangal was composed in verse by Bharatchandra Ray in 1752 at the court of Krishnachandra Ray, the Brahmin king of Krishnanagar, a small estate, 112 miles north of Calcutta. It was intended to be a panegyric on the royal family tracing the lineage of the founder Bhabananda to the world of Gods, but written as a paean to goddess Annada or Durga. There were three parts to the long poem - the first was devoted completely to the praise of the goddess; the second enclosed the story of a princess named Bidya and her marriage to prince Sundar and the third described Bhabananda's exploits on earth. Largely religious in nature, it followed one kind of kavya tradition that spanned three centuries in Bengal, known as mangalkavya.

The organizing principle of a mangalkavya was the belief that the power of the god or goddess it extolled protected and blessed everyone who heard it and believed in its truth. With few exceptions, it was quite typical of a regional potentate to engage a poet to compose mangalkavya. Once done, it was sung before a gathering and following its growing popularity, was copied by professional writers for others to obtain and recite. In this manner, manuscripts and texts were put out to the larger public, or published even before the moveable types arrived. It was the belief that the deity, usually goddess (though gods like Dharma featured too), who was celebrated, extended her benevolence to all those who were connected to the mangalkavya – the rich patron, the creative poet, the talented singer, raconteur, the ordinary copier and all her devout listeners. A certain prescribed convention determined the manner in which the kavya was written, heard and absorbed. Familiarity, faith and the ability to appreciate the text in its appropriate mood and aesthetic taste were essential to be a participant of piety and recipient of divine goodwill.

A year after the first print of Annadamangal, its second part Bidyasundar, was printed separately as a stand-alone text in 1817 by Bishwanath Deb, who was also credited with kicking off cheap printing from modest presses in a contiguous neighborhood of north Calcutta . Between 1816 and 1858, there were 9 editions of Annadamangal and 10 editions of Bidyasundar from five different presses. Annadamangal and Bidyasundar proved to be best sellers that publishers could always count on. An example was the starting of Sanskrit Press by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. In 1847, together with his friend and fellow writer Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, Vidyasagar assayed into the field of publishing with a borrowed capital of 600 rupees. He wisely realized the potential of a growing market for school text books and was equally keen on improving the standard of printing having reformed Bengali letters in the alphabet. As is well known, he was a prolific writer himself. The first text that Sanskrit Press published, however, was Annadamangal.

The printed versions of this iconic text reflected something of the world of manuscripts. For one, every edition claimed to be the authentic version, indicating thereby that there were multiple renditions, some considered more genuine than the others. Clearly the raconteurs were responsible for variations, which is why the first edition from Sanskrit Press claimed in the introduction that it was the correct version as the manuscript was obtained from the palace of Krishnanagar. Authenticity was regarded a mark of quality even though there was no clear proof that the manuscript obtained in Krishnanagar was original, untouched by time and human intervention. The Sanskrit Press edition had one singular difference from the others that appeared in the market around the same time, apart from being superior in quality of print and paper.

While every other edition had a detailed contents page, with broad sections and sub sections, this had none. The composition, however, remained the same. There were minor variations in words and phrases but the broad structure of the narrative and its sections were shared by all editions of Annadamangal and Bidyasundar. Printing of the text, in other words, did not erase marks of the manuscript tradition. Well into the 19th century, given the low level of literacy which was barely above 3%, books were printed to be read out. In some editions of Annadamangal and Bidyasundar, at the end of a particular episode there would be printed a line: 'end of Wednesday's reading session.' It seemed that most of the reading of this text was done over Wednesdays and Thursdays.

In fact, the relationship between the two spaces of printing and manuscript tradition was interlinked and intertwined in a manner that disallowed any single descriptive category. They were neither together nor altogether separate. Therefore, while there were shared features, printing also introduced major difference to the text, both in its structural as well as in its cultural significance. This was particularly true for Bidyasundar. What used to be embedded into the larger religious text, now increasingly came to be printed separately. Shorn of its 'sacred' nature, Bidyasundar turned into an immensely popular tale of love. The British missionary and censor dismissed it, disparaging its literary worth for its content; Bengalis celebrated its success and popularity made possible by printing, to use the tale for various first time experiments, like the public theatre.

The resilience of Annadamangal and Bidyasundar to survive other literary endeavors, like the writing of novels and plays modeled on western example, is proven by the fact that starting from 1868 and continuing well into the next century, both these texts found themselves together in the larger compilation of works of Bharatchandra, called Granthavali. Possibly, the first was published by Sideshwar Ghosh, the owner of Hindu Press. Ray's complete work also included Rasamanjari and his scattered verse compositions. The following year, Ghosh added a long biography of Ray and a critical discussion of his compositions. Subsequently, this became the template that others like Bangabasi Steam Machine Press and Bengali Printing Press imitated till it became the accepted version. Till the end of the century, at least 9 presses published these anthologies, most of them running several repeated print runs. Bidyasundar that had appeared alone and journeyed a distance all by itself, was once more incorporated into the larger text and reclaimed its place on the shelves of classical literature. But it did not go without some change.

Inserted in these compilations was quite a distinctive piece of writing called Chaurapanchasika. Written in Sanskrit, these 500 short verses were supposed to have been chanted by Sundar in his hour of acute crisis to seek the goddess's intervention for his own safety. The interesting point here is that these slokas were not composed by Bharatchandra as none of the older versions contained them which later scholars like Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay and Sajanikanta Das pointed out while editing the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad compilation. The immensely lyrical slokas, very appropriate for recitation and group reading, easily blended into the larger text. This was made possible and popular both by the technology and the continuing tradition of reading in public that manuscripts handed down.

The 19th century world of printing in Bengal was a lot more complex than present scholars credit it with. There is an assumption that there was only one division - between lofty intellectual works and commonplace writings and cheap productions, or between religious and non religious texts. The relationships in reality crisscrossed to create a fascinating world of editors, writers, readers and listeners who navigated through different provinces of literary practices and taste. The story of Bidyasundar is told to give a brief glimpse into this rich history.



1. S.K. De, Bengali Literature in the 19th Century (1757-1857). Calcutta, 1962.

2. Chittaranjan Bandyopadhyay, (ed) Du Shataker Bangla Mudran o Prakashan. Calcutta, 1981.

3. Sukumar Sen, Battalar Chhapa o Chhabi. Calcutta, 1989.

4. Shankari Prasad Bose, Kabi Bharatchandra. Calcutta, 2007.

5. Brajendranath Bandyopadhyay and Sajanikanta Das (ed) Bharatchandra Granthavali, Calcutta.

Tapti Roy is Vice Chancellor of Indus International University