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The Story of 'Battala'

Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, 1778-1905 by Anindita Ghosh;

The Story of ‘Battala’

Sumanta Banerjee

n the history of transition from orality to literacy, whether it is the individual experience of the child learning to read and write the alphabets, or the collective practice of a community of adults making use, for the first time, of the print media – each constitutes a decisive moment. Such a moment occurred in early colonial Calcutta when an economically and educationally backward populace encountered a new technology – the printing press. The encounter is embalmed in a distinct segment of Bengali literature, known as ‘Battala’ – the nomenclature derived from the area in north Calcutta known by that name, where the first Bengali printing presses were set up in the early 19th century, and which brought out cheap popular books. They constitute a literary genre which records the efforts of the underprivileged people to use this newly introduced print media to register their voices. Their cultural tastes dovetailed with the commercial motivation of the printers and writers who also came from the same urban petite bourgeoisie and lower classes.

Anindita Ghosh, who teaches modern history at the University of Manchester, narrates this fascinating story of the birth and development of the Battala printing industry. Based on rigorous research over several years, her book unearths the vast world of popular print-culture and the social milieu of its composers and readers in 19th century Calcutta and neighbouring areas (like Dhaka in east Bengal). Supported by a lucid theoretical analysis, it introduces arguments that challenge certain conventional assumptions regarding the elite-popular divide, the homogeneity of the Bengali readership, and the marginalisation of popular culture among other issues. Ghosh thus opens up a debate on the power of the underprivileged to resist the cultural hegemony of the elite with the help of a modern technology.

book review

Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, 1778-1905 by Anindita Ghosh; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xi+348, Rs 650.

The era of Bengali books in print began with the establishment of a vernacular printing press in a small Danish settlement near Calcutta called Serampore (Srirampur) in 1800 by Christian missionaries. The same year, the British rulers set up a college – out of all places – in the military citadel of Fort William in Calcutta, for teaching the newly arrived British civilians the local languages. In her first two chapters (‘Social Profile of a Language’ and ‘Literature, Language and Reform’), Ghosh explains how the Sanskrit-educated Bengali teachers (employed by the Fort William authorities), in the course of writing textbooks for them, standardised the Bengali language and literary forms (strictly based on the norms of Sanskrit grammar and classics). The Serampore missionaries, besides bringing out their own Christian tracts and pamphlets, took on the job of printing these books from their press. “The conjunction of the need for textbooks for the (Fort William) College”, Ghosh points out, “and the availability of a printing press at Serampore, thus provided the perfect opportunity for setting literary standards in Bengali print for the first time”.

But these “literary standards” (heavily Sanskritised and oriented to elite tastes) were soon to face defiance from an unsuspected quarter. Typecasting of Bengali letters for printing, initiated by Serampore, had opened up the possibility of publishing and circulating multiple copies of a single book (which till then had to be painstakingly copied from one manuscript to another) among a wider readership. Ghosh describes in her next two chapters (‘The Battala Book Market’ and ‘Contesting Print Audiences’) how this encouraged a new generation of semi-educated lower middle class Bengali entrepreneurs (whom she describes as “petty bhadraloks”), with the help of plebeian smiths and artisans, to set up small printing presses in Battala. They

brought out popular versions of puranic myths, traditional moral tales, romantic stories, educational texts, almanacs – and later, colourful reports of local scandals. Printed on cheap paper, and bound in thin paper jackets, the Battala books were lowpriced and were thus affordable to the common people. As they were written in simple Bengali, with the words spelt according to colloquial pronunciation, these books could be read and comprehended easily by the minority of semiliterate people, and understood by the majority of the unlettered masses to whom they were read out in gatherings in villages or marketplaces. Battala literature thus became a bridge between orality and literacy in 19th century Bengali popular culture. Quoting extensively from contemporary observers, Ghosh points out that this wide reach of Battala reflected the pluralities that prevailed in the culture of the vast majority of the Bengali-speaking people. By giving printed form to this plurality of voices, ranging from the patois of the Calcutta streets to the slang of the village marketplace, from the domestic speech of women to the dialect of Muslim boatmen, Battala publications offered a counterculture vis-a-vis the “high” literature of the educated bhadraloks, who mainly followed the hegemonistic model of a uniform “standardised” Bengali written style.

Yet, Battala, by today’s standards, cannot be valorised as a progressive voice of radical reforms or anti-colonial struggles. It did not pose a political challenge to the ruling powers. As Ghosh explains later, it usually subscribed to the prevalent conservative socio-religious values by berating female education and widowremarriage. But, because of its preponderance of erotic tales, scatological proverbs, raunchy female folk speech, satirical barbs against the educated gentry, it was perceived as a cultural threat by the upper class proponents of a genteel Bengali, who even went to the extent

april 12, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


of taking the help of the colonial administration to ban some of its publications under the Obscene Publications Act in 1856.

Battala Publications

At the end, Ghosh devotes three chapters to some typical examples of Battala – social satires, women’s writings, and a special group of publications composed in a style that catered to the Bengali Muslim readership in those days. Analysing the satires (written and published mainly by the “petty bhadraloks”), Ghosh notes the “compounding of lower middle class and caste aspirations” in their attacks on the anglicised members of the educated and prosperous middle classes, who came almost invariably from high castes. The attacks extended to women, who were stereotyped in these satires in a manner that reflected the “converging male concern of high and low, rural and urban on the issue of gender and domestic order”. By making the woman the scapegoat, who was “variously depicted as nagging, dominating and enticing”, Battala reflected the concerns of the male writers and readers of Calcutta of those days (mainly migrants from neighbouring villages), who felt harassed by constant demands for money from their wives left behind in the villages, were perpetually gnawed by suspicion of their infidelity in their absence, and allured by both fear of and fascination for the urban seductive female archetype – the prostitute. Ghosh elaborates on these male-female tensions when taking up Battala books of assertive female voices (in the chapter ‘Women Refusing Conformity’), where she discovers a counter-culture of dissidence by women “in proposing ambiguous and alternative models of the social world, in holding on to particular speech genres despite much reformist opposition…”

Ghosh unveils yet another facet of the variegated contemporary Bengali sociocultural life in her chapter dealing with the ‘Muslim Other’ – Battala books by Muslim authors, which were written in a hybrid Bengali (known as ‘dobhashi’, mixing Urdu, Arabic and Persian words), and which often reversed the conventional printed script of left-to-right reading and followed instead the Persian and Arabic style of reading from the right page to the

Economic & Political Weekly

april 12, 2008

left. According to some later day historians, these Bengali Muslim writers of Battala, reacting to the attempts to Sanskritise the Bengali language by the Hindu pundits of Fort William, in an atavistic return to their religious identity, sought to Urduise the language. Along with the usual stuff of moral messages, social commentaries and romantic stories which it shared with other Battala publications, dobhashi literature had a high component of epic tales of a heroic nature. “In a world threatened with modernisation, dislocation, and corruption”, Ghosh explains, “the happy tales of the marvellous and the supernatural offered meaning and stability, community, and fraternity” to the Muslim readership. She could have added some of the visual illustrations of these “marvellous and supernatural” figures of the dobhashi books, which were copied from the Persian manuscript paintings – as distinct from the style of the Battala woodcut prints that she reproduces in her book.

An otherwise excellently welldocumented and engrossing narrative, Power in Print is marred by a few minor errors that could have been avoided with proper editing. Dwarkanath Tagore (17941846) did not belong to the Pathuriaghata family (p 53); nor was Prasannakumar Tagore (1803-68) known to be a Brahmo Samaj member (p 54). The two were distant cousins, their common ancestor being Jayram Thakur (Tagore). But they branched off into two different families. Dwarkanath (Rabindranath’s grandfather) built a house in Jorasanko in north Calcutta, and his descendants became members of the Brahmo Samaj, while Prasannakumar lived in Pathuriaghata, further west to Jorasanko, and established himself as a leader of the city’s Hindu gentry.

The Survival and Continuity

But these little lapses do not detract from Ghosh’s major arguments which should stimulate a debate among scholars working on 19th century Bengali culture. She argues that, contrary to the usual belief, the print technology could not be monopolised by the “elite” (as evident from the counter-history of Battala). Further, contesting the theory that the print-dependent elite culture marginalised pre-technological folk cultural forms, she maintains that the arrival of print culture, instead of silencing pre-print tastes and traditions, paved the way for their survival within the printed domain. More importantly, Ghosh rightly states that the entire Bengali bhadralok community could not be identified with the elite – since a large segment consisted of the “petty bhadralok” (“…huge population of educated from the surrounding suburbs of Calcutta which crowded the lower levels of the city’s government and commercial offices ...(whose) coarseness and vulgarity” set them apart from the “refinement of the educated babu…”).

These arguments open up an interesting area of investigation, and call for some comments. I agree that a strict binary division cannot be drawn between elite and popular cultural worlds in 19th century Calcutta. It is well known that the scion of a Bengali elite family, Kaliprasanna Sinha, used the Calcutta street patois to write his popular farce Hutom Penchar Naksha, that the lower class members of Bengali society made use of the elite-introduced print medium to narrate their stories, and some of the “respectable bhadraloks” surreptitiously read their spiciest tales. But such particular instances of interaction between the privileged elite and the disadvantaged lower sections (which also included the semi-educated “petty bhadraloks” like clerks, shopkeepers, traders, Battala writers and printers) in the cultural scene should not blind us to the wider socioeconomic sphere, which was far from a level-playing field where the members of the two groups could compete in comfortable coexistence. The educated upper classes as the dominating power were in a better position to initiate a process of change in Calcutta’s society and economy, which adversely affected the culture of the lower orders by dislocating the traditional folk artistes. Withdrawal of patronage from these artistes, propagation of a refined Bengali, imposition of a new set of moral values imbibed from their mid-Victorian mentors, and an offensive – often with the help of the colonial administration

– against what the elite considered “vulgar” in popular culture, led to the gradual marginalisation of most of Calcutta’s folk entertainments like ‘kobigans’, ‘jatras’, ‘panchalis’, female ‘jhumur’ songs, and


street performances like swangs. Even urban folk paintings like the Kalighat ‘pats’ were ousted by the entry of oleographs and printed pictures in the market.

Ghosh points out that Battala, by making use of the print technology, helped some of these pre-print folk traditions to survive. It indeed circulated reprints of Gopal Urey’s Vidya-Sundar Jatra, Dashu Ray’s Panchalis, and popularised the wood-print versions of the dying Kalighat ‘pat’ paintings that embellished its books. It is however necessary to delve further into the causes why Battala thrived, while the other urban popular cultural forms lost out in the face of the upper class offensive. Its success was rooted to the basic form of the medium that it chose. The print technology was by its very nature democratic – in the sense that its tools could be manufactured by the common artisans and its products circulated among the masses. From the historical perspective, Calcutta’s Battala was not unique. It had its predecessors in the cheap books that came out from every part of the world wherever printing presses first came up – from the 16th till the 19th century. Each country had its own variety – chapbooks in England, flugschriften in Germany, skillingtryck in Sweden, bibliotheque bleu in France, or lubok in Russia. Like Battala, they all shared the same features – printed on cheap paper and priced at rates that were affordable to the semi-literate poor; written in a style that was in close proximity to colloquial conversation; and preference for romantic tales, religious myths, stories of sex and violence, and almanacs among other things.

Significantly enough, most of these types of cheap popular print culture disappeared in England and other European countries by the turn of the 20th century, while Battala continued to flourish in Bengal. The expansion of formal education (through schools) in Europe during the late 19th-early 20th century period, absorbed the children of the previous generation of semi-literates into the mainstream of educated population, who preferred (and could also afford) the new standardised literature and newspapers to the old fashioned chapbooks and broadsheets. At the same time in Bengal, on the other hand, the semi-literate people were still undergoing an evolution from the traditional oral to the new written and printed means of communication. The Battala chapbooks, by offering them entertainment, information and instruction, became their staple at that stage of their development.

In fact, even today in the vast Bengali countryside and the urban slums, where the transition to the standardised form of literacy is yet to be completed, a new generation of semi-literate people are hungry for such books. Anindita Ghosh should be happy to know that Battala is still alive and kicking in modern Kolkata, catering to their various needs. From the same old dingy streets, traditional letterpress print shops are churning out cheap handbooks like Patent Oushad Shiksha (lessons in making patent medicines) for paramedics, compounders and ayurvedics who practise in the villages, or entertainment material like Biyer Gaan (wedding songs) for women. While slim paperbacks carrying deceptive spiritual-sounding titles like Hatha-yoga, serve hard core porn stuff to regular addicts, there are ingenuously written romantic tracts like Prempatra (Love-letters), which profess to teach newly-married couples how to exchange love missives!


april 12, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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