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A.R. Venkatachalapathy
The Province of the Book
Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, though still a young scholar by Indian standards, has been hailed as a savant of sorts for his knowledge of the culture, politics, and history of Tamilnadu. Of his wide and varied reading there is no lack of evidence within his new monograph just published by Permanent Black. This work, which focuses on the history and culture of books, book publishing, and book reading in Tamilnadu from the time of parchment to the time of Pagemaker, is interesting from the word go: it starts with four satirical epigraphs, three of which run as follows:

In this age, when printing machines have become legion and the business in paper has expanded, novels have started to proliferate like termites.—review in Lakshmi (1924)

Brother, listen to me. Take up some other occupation: never pursue this wretched profession of writing. Show me one person [in Tamilnadu] who has grown rich writing books and essays. How does it matter to us that Shaw and Chesterton have become millionaires by writing?—Kalki (1931)

Two books sell the most in our society: one, the almanac; the other, the railway timetable.—C.N. Annadurai (1950)

Sumit Sarkar and Ramachandra Guha have this to say about Venkatachalapathy and his book:

This is a pioneering work of a kind of social history that has been all but non-existent in our country, and [A.R. Venkatachalapathy] has brought to it a combination of scholarly diligence, command over extremely diverse kind of sources, a perceptive and analytical mind, and considerable awareness of international trends in history-writing.Sumit Sarkar

In this superb work, A.R. Venkatachalapathy explores the diverse but interlinked worlds of  the printing, publishing, patronage, and reading of books. These worlds are treated with attention and care, as well as located within a wider social history of the Tamil country. Not least among the book’s many pleasures is its skilful decentring of Indian historiography away from the over-studied province of Bengal and towards other regions that are as interesting.  This model work of scholarship will confirm Venkatachalapathy’s standing as the most accomplished historian of his generation. —Ramachandra Guha

To coincide with the appearance of this book, which is utterly absorbing and seems certain to be recognized as a classic contribution to Indian cultural history, we asked Paula Richman, renowned Tamil scholar and Danforth Professor at Oberlin College, to converse briefly with Venkatachalapathy. Their conversation appears below.

PR: Tell us about your experiences as librarian-cum-steward of books at the Maraimalai Atikal Library in Chennai (1987-1990).  What made the library special to you?
ARV: In 1987, I had finished college, and was looking to do an M.A. in history. Given the state of social sciences in Tamilnadu institutions I’d no intention of studying in any of them. My idea was to take a distance education degree and then try to get into JNU.
I had first visited Maraimalai Adigal Library in 1982. Maraimalai Adigal (1876–1950) played a pivotal role in the Tamil ‘renaissance’, and was an astounding scholar, and ran his own printing press and journal. After his death – and some litigation – his fabulous collection of books passed on the publishing house Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, which has a central place in Tamil publishing history. V. Subbiah Pillai and his heir apparent R. Muthukumaraswamy had built this library over the years as the place for Tamil imprints, a status it has sadly lost now. For a library run by staunch Saivites the library itself is amazingly non-sectarian.
I first went to this library looking for primary source material on V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872–1936) – whose biography I’ve been writing for the last 30 years! – and was amazed to locate his letters and a journal he had edited, apart from many first editions of his books. In 1984 I edited and published a volume of his letters, and R. Muthukumaraswamy kindly gave me permission to reproduce the letters in the library’s holdings. I remember meeting him on a rainy day dressed in a mud-spattered school uniform of khaki trousers and white shirt! It’s still a mystery to me that he should permit a school student to make copies and publish rare historical material.
The assistant librarian was in-charge of the library as R. Muthukumaraswamy, the librarian and secretary, managed the Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. This position was usually vacant as it was poorly paid, and incumbents used this as a stepping stone to better positions. I resolved to spend the years of my distance education study to work at the library. When I sounded Muthukumaraswamy through my mentor Tha. Kovendhan, he gladly agreed. The three years at the library were the single most important education of my life.

PR: How did your work at the library influence your decision to write a monograph on Tamil print culture? 
ARV: Apart from being the storehouse of resources – early imprints, rare collections, back volumes of journals, private papers ­– the library attracted scholars from far and wide. It gave a ringside view of the world of Tamil scholarship. There was a time when no serious work on any aspect of Tamil society could be written without acknowledging the library. One afternoon the Chicago scholar Norman Cutler dropped in. The bulk of Sumathi Ramaswamy’s Passions of the Tongue was researched in this library at this time. I made friends with many scholars who researched there. I met my friend and collaborator P. Athiyaman dressed in bellbottom pants and a shirt with huge bow collars and oily hair on my first day at the library.
            The library was open from 9 to 7 with a two-hour lunch break. As my home was at some distance I would spend the whole day there devouring books. The library was the equivalent of chocolate mountains and treacle streams.
            When I went to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, for my PhD I was not inclined to continue with my earlier research on early nationalism or the history of the Dravidian movement. I wanted to start on something fresh so that I could get a proper training in the theory and practice of history. As I’d always been fascinated by print – quite incomprehensible in this age of desktop printers – I decided to work on its history.

PR: What were a couple of the Tamil books most influential to you when you worked there and why?  And which books while you were doing your research for this book and why?
ARV: For a historian, sitting in the midst of a library embodying the history of Tamil literary culture – the library was then housed in Mannady the centre of Tamil publishing from the time of World War II until the 1980s, and it was in that very building that the great poet and seer Vallalar Ramalinga Adigal, in the early 1830s had given his first public discourse at the age of 9 – it’d have been surprising if he did not think of writing on print culture. Reading a compilation of the editorial prefaces of the great nineteenth-century scholar-editor C.W. Damodaram Pillai, the copious biographical and autobiographical work of the outstanding scholar-editor U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, and the Tamil University’s chronological edition of Bharati’s poems – perhaps acted as the immediate trigger.
            At the beginning of my JNU years, Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre was the academic rage. I loved that book, and was green with envy at his access to police records on writers in revolutionary France. But somewhat unfashionably, the inspirational books for me were his ‘biography’ of the French Encylopaedia, The Business of Enlightenment, as well as his collection of exciting essays, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. (As a fellow at Harvard in 2010 I wanted to pay homage to Darnton in person, but he did not have the time to even reply to my mail seeking an appointment.)
            Now, the Indian archive has no equivalent of the archive of the Societe Typographique de Neuchatel – the Naval Kishore Press records that Ulrike Starke hit upon pales before this. I had to make do with tantalizing bits of information gleaned from book wrappers, blurbs, advertisements, review, prefaces and forewords, biographies and autobiographies, and the like. It gave me immense delight when Sumit Sarkar as the [PhD] examiner, and now Rukun Advani as the publisher, noticed this.
PR: Tamil was the first language to be printed in Indic characters and the world's first language to appear in non-roman characters.  Why do you think that these two "firsts" are not more widely known to historians of the book?
ARV: Perhaps, this is because it’s one of those ‘false dawns’ that Graham Shaw, the distinguished bibliographer of the British Library, refers to. It’s a question that early modern historians, with a grounding in the European languages of the time, should explore.

PR: Recently, Ulrike Stark published a history of the Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow.  Does any Tamil institution wield the same influence as that in the Tamil world?  Perhaps the South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society?  Or, if there is no equivalent, can you tell us why you think the situation is so different?
ARV: Fortunately not. There’ve been many divergent streams in Tamil publishing and that explains its vibrancy. Especially at this time, when there’s a boom. Even though the Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam was a major player with a unique corporate identity, its focus was on the Tamil classics and Saiva religious literature, with some nice pickings from textbook publishing. It had, for instance, no truck with modern expressive writing that was flowering at that time. Paula, you’ll remember the great modern writer Pudumaippithan’s ridiculing of Kazhagam that I unearthed from his contemporary journalistic writings.

PR: You devote half a chapter to Subramania Barathi’s writings and their print career, then part of another chapter to the intense surveillance he encountered, yet still argue that British control was fairly limited.  So tell us what made Barathi such an exception and why?
ARV: Bharati is an exception because he’s Bharati! Though it might be academically unfashionable to say so. Historical context alone cannot explain genius fully. There are few parallels to Bharati in colonial India – here I’m not quite unaware of Tagore; Bharati can hardly match Tagore’s range of artistic achievements, but in terms of poetic intensity it’s a different matter altogether … Bharati’s life was short. The prime ten odd years of his adult life were spent holed up in a small town under quite taxing surveillance. If he had lived longer and written in the Gandhian era of mass, non-dangerous politics, it could have been a different story.

PR: Many scholars of the history of the book do not take into account the way that print in India is central to British print history.  For example, Gauri Viswanathan's work has shown that the British literary canon came into being at least partly because English literature was required reading for Indians studying in institutions of higher education in colonies.  How do you think your book can broaden the thinking of European historians of the book or suggest new questions that they need to ask?
ARV: It’s striking, and distressing, that European historians show so little interest in the history of the book in India. Darnton is once again an exception. His two essays on book history themes in India are impressively competent considering how weak historians usually are outside their geographical specialty. But even then these essays do not talk to his main concerns in Enlightenment Europe. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s analysis of the characteristics of print culture would have been so much richer if only she had looked at India with its rich history of orality and literacy, surfeit of manuscripts, transmission of knowledge mediated by caste, etc. The work of Priya Joshi and Rimi B. Chatterjee is important in this respect. Priya Joshi shows how India was rather important to the circuit of English popular novels. Rimi shows how OUP’s India operations impacted on the mother firm.
            The central lesson I’d say is that there’s no one triumphant template of print’s success. The history of the book in India – in its many languages – is a great laboratory to understand the power of print.

PR: Could you give a short list of 5-6 books, outside your areas of academic interest, that have meant a lot to you or influenced your life. 
ARV: Scouting for Boys by Baden-Powell
Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Neruda: Selected Poems (Penguin edition)
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Pudumaippithan Varalaru (Biography of Pudumaippithan) by
J.J. Sila Kurippugal by Sundara Ramaswamy


The first Indian language book ever to be printed was in Tamil, in 1577. After many fits and starts and some spectacular achievements, print and the culture of book publishing became well-recognized facets of Tamil society during the late colonial period. The Province of the Book explores the wonderful world of scholarly and subaltern publishing—especially popular fiction and street literature—in its heyday.

The basis of Tamil book publishing was, to begin with, the patronage of writers by the local nobility and affluent Hindu monastic orders. Such patronage was eroded by the socio-economic transformations which came with colonialism. During the period of transition which resulted, attempts were made to create a market for Tamil books, with local writers not knowing where to turn for a living. It was only with the rise of the novel and a reading middle class—including young women and housewives—which finally broke the stranglehold of patronage, allowing Tamil publishing to grow into the market venture that it is today.

This is a brilliant and pioneering work which reconstructs a universe hitherto unknown— the world of the Tamil book. It shows famous and unknown authors at work, the religious literati with its cortège of students, radical nationalist poets such as Subramania Bharati rousing the masses and being crushed in the process, humble scribblers eking out a livelihood writing bazaar pamphlets, successful scribes compiling anthologies for students and astrological wisdom for the credulous, and the ubiquitous English official surrounding them all—censoring, adjudicating, dictating.

The book also looks closely at reading practices, modes of reading, and the nature, numbers, and composition of book readers. Its epilogue traces the broad contours of Tamil publishing from the time of Independence to the present and speculates on the future of the Tamil book.

Monographs on the history of the book in India are seldom as conversant with the international literature on the subject as this one. A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s work dazzles because he is au fait not just with the history and culture of publishing in Tamilnadu but equally in France, Britain, and the USA. The archives he has mined reveal government documents, pamphlets, tracts, periodicals, manuscripts, catalogues, bibliographies, reviews, advertisements, letters, and even account ledgers.

In short, this book will fascinate anyone interested in history, sociology, cultural studies, and the media, and prove indispensable for students of book history and publishing cultures.

A.R. VENKATACHALAPATHY is Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He has taught at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli; Madras University; and the University of Chicago; and has held research assignments in Paris, Cambridge, London, and Harvard, and served as ICSSR Professor at the National University of Singapore. An accomplished Tamil writer, he has published widely on the social history of Tamilnadu. His publications include In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History; and, as editor, Chennai, Not Madras; In the Tracks of the Mahatma: The Making of a Documentary; and Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry.

Hardback / 320pp / Rs 795 / ISBN 81-7824 - 331-8 / World rights / December 2011


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