A venerable name in publishing
A CLOSELY DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT OF THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE OUP IN INDIA
EMPIRES OF THE MIND A History of the Oxford University Press in India Under the Raj: Rimi B. Chatterjee. Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.
Humphrey Milford, the man behind setting up the Oxford University Press (OUP) in India, is quoted as saying that it would require `a good half-hour disquisition' to explain the difference between the Clarendon and Oxford imprints! Rimi B. Chatterjee has taken a whole book to describe the Oxford University Press in India before Independence.
The OUP is a venerable name in publishing all over the world. OUP is many centuries old but only since the mid-19th century did it begin to expand its operations in India. Its earliest branch dates from the turn of the 20th century. It is arguably the premier imprint for academic books especially in the social sciences and humanities. However, this was not always the case and this well-researched book provides a closely documented account of the establishment of the OUP in India.
Book history or print culture is a new specialisation in cultural history, which focusses on the materiality of texts. This discipline is still in its fledgling stage in India. Even though a new interest is being evinced in it, the paucity of source material is a major handicap. Fortunately in the case of the OUP in India a huge archive has survived mostly at Oxford.
The author of the book has extensively used this to provide a picture of how the OUP was set up in India, how it survived the vicissitudes of two World Wars, how it coped with ascendant Indian nationalism and ultimately fared better, in the post- Independence period, than either Macmillan or Longmans, its two major rivals under the British Raj.
The first section of the book traces the evolution of the OUP with special reference to India. Here the author focusses mostly on the internal squabbles and factional struggles within the OUP. Even though this had implications for the course of development of the OUP in India, the minutiae of chapters are likely to lose readers.
Part two discusses the various books, series and authors that OUP published. In these chapters the author, in keeping with the mandate of book history, not only discusses what the books contained but also how the volumes were produced, distributed, sold and consumed. She pays special attention to the monumental Sacred Books of the East Series edited by Max Muller, which gave the press a special status in India in the context of nationalism with a strong revivalist undercurrent. As Rimi Chatterjee points out the sheer inaccessibility of the volumes for the average Indian only enhanced its aura.
Publishing in India
The chapters on the Rulers of India series and the various history books that OUP produced demonstrate how it was deeply complicit in the imperialist project of marrying knowledge to power. The author also details how the mainstay of the OUP, the dictionaries, anthologies and grammars were produced.
She also gives fascinating accounts of the OUP's encounters with Indian scholars and scholars on India. Edward Thompson's passionate attempts to get OUP interested in things Indian, especially Bengali and the OUP's exasperating dealings with the Tamil scholar G.U. Pope make for interesting reading.
Even though, for all practical purposes this book is an authorised history of the OUP in India, the author has maintained her intellectual freedom by not suppressing criticism or interesting information. She makes the astonishing revelation that R.E. Hawkins, who more or less discovered Jim Corbett and Verrier Elwin, the geese that laid the golden eggs for OUP in India, may have actually been spying for the British Raj. She also lays bare the mechanics of textbook publishing and the corruption it entailed, and the large subventions the press got from the government to do its publishing.
To readers who think of the OUP as the fount of all scholarly publishing it will come as a surprise that it published books `on commission', a euphemism for vanity publishing where the author shelled out the entire cost of production: this included nobody less than Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The author also makes more than one reference to the Supreme Court of India's ruling that the OUP is a commercial organisation in India and as such is not exempt from paying income tax.
Coming of age
The book raises interesting questions such as how far did the OUP encourage scholarship in India; if this history is anything to go by, very little until the time of Independence. Further, even though distinguished figures like E.V. Rieu (translator and later the editor of Penguin Classics) were involved with the OUP in India and there was a call for "Are you getting any decent Indian?" it was only after Independence that editors of Indian publishing such as Samuel Israel, Ravi Dayal and Rukun Advani were groomed by the OUP.
It's not easy to piece together a credible story from the letter books, rough daybooks and other miscellaneous documents. The author demonstrates her command over the lanes and by-lanes of the archives and is able to fit them within a larger map of metropolitan and colonial publishing.
Even though the book is somewhat prolix, it is well written, with interesting turns of phrases, and each chapter is appropriately titled with evocative phrases from the sources used. It could well be the harbinger for a richer history of the book in India.
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