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Print Culture


Abhijit Gupta

POWER IN PRINT: POPULAR PUBLISHING AND THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGE AND CULTURE IN A COLONIAL SOCIETY
By Anindita Ghosh
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 348, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 5 May 2006

Agrowing number of studies in recent Indian historiography have paid close attention to the role played by print in shaping the contours of modern India. Earlier, the imprecise and unsatisfactory term ‘print culture’ was often invoked to stand in for a perspective in which print was employed as some kind of a wide-angle lens, whose panoptic sweep and scope often obscured—or even misrepresented—the smaller picture. However, the more focussed and calibrated perspective offered by the discipline of book history in recent years has acted as a kind of corrective to the grand narratives of print which still continue to enjoy some degree of scholarly sanction. By paying close attention to a wide, and often neglected, range of primary sources, it has been possible for scholars to retrieve histories that were thought to have passed beyond the reach of any archaeological tool.   In the monograph under review, Anindita Ghosh attempts to plot the uneven history of print in Bengal along the twin axes of language and literature. While acknowledging the importance of the colonizer-colonized framework, she also draws our attention to ‘how in a competitive colonial environment, print-languages and literature afford opportunities to indigenous groups for consolidating power, along multiple axes of class, gender and community’. In her first chapter, ‘The Social Profile of a Language’ Ghosh pays close attention to the rise of Bengali—‘the officially blessed language of early British India’. Drawing substantially on William Adams’s reports on education in Bengal, Ghosh shows how the pathshalas or ‘elementary indigenous Bengali vernacular schools’ were drawing increasing numbers of lower-caste students who were being schooled in the arts of basic reading and writing, sometimes even breaking into poetry as was the case with the Vasihnavas. While the Brahmins predictably occupied the commanding heights of literary culture, Ghosh argues that access to the written word was by no means restricted to the higher castes and cites such examples of the oral tradition as kathakata and performances based on mangal kavya and the panchalis. While there is no doubt that oral narrative sessions and performances create their own interpretative communities, it is also true that the protocols of oral and written circuits of communication are vastly different. The ‘imperious’ nature of literacy—to quote Walter Ong—tends to overrule orality to the point where the written text becomes hegemonic with respect to the spoken word.   Ghosh is on firmer ground ...


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