A long form essay on an iconic printing and publishing institution that for about a century enriched the world of Sanskrit and Bharatiya Bhasha
It was with some disgust that I recently finished reading “Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India” by Times of India journalist Akshaya Mukul. Perhaps the only saving grace about the book, beginning right with its title, is that it makes no pretence of its agenda though it must also be admitted that the research is quite impressive.
But why this publishing entity, Gita Press, ensconced almost at end of Uttar Pradesh and therefore wholly ignored by the “mainstream” Indian English media should form the subject of an entire book by a journalist of the same media is a question that’s also its own answer. Because, despite sustained efforts, Gita Press not only did not go away, but grew from strength to strength over a period of nearly a century. Consider the following statistics during this period:
By early 2014, the Gita Press had sold close to 410 million copies of the Bhagavad Gita (in various languages and editions), 70 million copies of Tulasidas’ Ramacharitmanas and nearly 20 million copies of the Puranas and Upanishads.
Its flagship Hindi journal, Kalyan has a monthly circulation of 200,000 and its English counterpart, Kalyan Kalpataru, 100,000.
Its archives comprise over 3,500 manuscripts and hundred-plus commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita.
Almost every publication comes at dirt-cheap prices.
These are numbers any publisher would give an arm and a limb to acquire. But perhaps the most unforgivable sin of the Gita Press is the fact that it even continues to exist while hundreds of similar journals, magazines and publishing houses had been shuttered decades ago, their publications now reduced to the status of museums of the intellect, wasting away in archives. The only other publishing house, arguably, of a similar stature is the iconic Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, in continuous operation since 1892.
But the other colossal and truly lofty publishing house that rendered a century-long salutary service to the cause of scholarship in traditional Vedic learning, Upanishads, rituals, various Darshanas, commentaries, Sanskrit and Bharatiya languages, Kavya, Itihasa, Puranas, Stotrams, and the Bhagavad Gita languishes in the same cultural amnesia that invaded our collective consciousness after independence. In turn, this amnesia is also a perfectly shameful mirror in that not one essay or feature has emerged in the so-called mainstream media in the last fifty years dedicated to such truly noble institutions. Indeed, the word “mainstream” loses meaning if it doesn’t inform, educate, and illuminate. On the contrary, the “mainstream” for the last forty-odd years has busied itself in pushing spurious agendas like that vile book on the Gita Press. It is cultural solecism of the worst order.
To the people of Maharashtra specifically, and North India in general, the word Nirnayasagar is today synonymous merely with the annual Panchangam (loosely, the Hindu Almanac). But I will venture to claim that few people today even associate this name with the sterling and world-renowned publishing house, Nirnayasagar Press that, for over a hundred years, was not only a harbinger in its field but led by example of all that was noble, virtuous and pure in the Sanatana tradition.
At the height of its prestige, the Nirnayasagar Press stood second to none on the global stage for its reputation not only for impeccable business practices but for its elegant and faultless reproduction of old Sanskrit texts set in beautiful types, fine printing, and excellent paper in such diverse countries as Germany, France, England, Italy, America and Japan.
Dr. Bendall, a British Indologist at the Cambridge University remarked in 1905 that
Equally, Col. Jacob averred that
When the Harvard Oriental Series commissioned Dr. S.K. Belvalkar’s critical edition of Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacharitam, the university chose the Nirnayasagar Press[i] as its printer. A measure of the values that this iconic publishing house espoused is in this quote: “Paper was shipped from America and the printed sheets were shipped back even while the First World War was raging!”
According to one firsthand account, its volumes[ii] “invite handling.” These volumes have a parallel in the famed Folio Editions of Shakespeare’s works. One is also reminded of an account in D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashale about a scholar who tenderly ministered such volumes by placing peacock feathers as bookmarks and delicately wiped pages with a soft cloth while opening and closing the volumes. Such was the sterling reliability of textual authenticity that the Nirnayasagar Press inspired that it was not uncommon for scholars of that era (roughly, late 19th — mid-20th century) to speak with casual confidence, “just to be sure, have you consulted the Nirnayasagar edition as well?”
But we get ahead of ourselves.
The story of the Nirnayasagar Press begins at Umarkhadi, Bombay. With a nine-year old orphan named Jawaji Dadaji Chaudhari, born circa 1839 to Dadaji Chaudhari. The dead father had bequeathed him the onerous task of feeding the family. Jawaji’s literacy stopped at writing his own name in Marathi but he would go on to educate himself in the proverbial university of life. And so, the boy initially began selling fruits door-to-door as well as doing other odd jobs.
Eventually, he landed at the doorstep of Thomas Graham of the American Mission’s press in Bhindi Bazaar. Graham employed the lad for a monthly salary of ₹ 2 for cleaning and polishing types in the type-foundry of the press.
And in that smudgy and noisy den, Jawaji Dadaji had found his life’s calling.
For the next ten years, he applied himself with industrious ardor, learning and mastering the craft and art of type-cutting and casting from Thomas Graham who was filled with admiration for the boy. By the end of this period, Graham had exhausted his own knowledge about type-cutting and allied skills.
In 1857 the Mission Press was sold to the Times of India. Jawaji now became the employee of the Times of India and worked there for five years at a salary of ₹ 10 per month. In 1862–63, he quit the job and joined the Induprakash Press, recently founded by Laxmanshastri Halbe and Keshvshastri Gadgil for a nice monetary leap of ₹ 13. But it was a year and a half later that his fortunes really soared when he joined the Oriental Press for a substantial ₹ 30 monthly salary.
Jawaji Dadaji was now an independent type-caster. And apart from this generous salary, Jawaji had also earned a solid reputation as an expert maker of printing matrices, known for his dexterity in the craft and for producing exquisite types.
The entrepreneur in him awoke.
And so, Jawaji Dadaji decided to set up his own foundry than help others make money from his skills. After an uncle reneged on his promise of giving a loan of ₹ 300 to Jawaji, the uncle’s friend, Khuma Sheth, spotting promise in this young man, loaned him ₹ 700 without any collateral.
Almost immediately, Jawaji Dadaji rented out a modest place near his house in Kolbhat Lane[iii] and started a small foundry, circa 1864. He purchased secondhand Marathi and Gujarati type matrices from the selfsame Thomas Graham and procured casting machines locally. To assist him in type-cutting, he teamed up with Ranu Ravji Aaru, a fellow-illiterate. Their partnership would blossom into a deep friendship that lasted until Ranu’s death. Ranu possessed an “inborn sense of form, symmetry, elegance; and the shapes and formations [they] gave to the Devanagari, Gujarati and Kannada letters” endured for over seventy-five years.
Jawaji’s innate confidence in his own abilities paid off spectacularly : he quickly repaid his loan with interest and secured a bigger loan elsewhere. However, fortune had even greater things in store. There are two divergent but related accounts regarding this.
The first account[iv] tells the story ofGanpat Krishnaji, one of the homegrown pioneers of printing in Mumbai, known for his lithographed editions of the Marathi Panchangam since 1831. These editions, which had become wildly popular were halted after Krishnaji’s demise in 1860. Jawaji revived its printing using Moveable Type instead of lithograph.
According to another account[v], there existed another lithograph-Panchangam printer named Shastri Vitthal Sakharam Agnihotri, an orthodox Maharashtrian Brahmin. He threw the gauntlet before Jawaji Dadaji: to print the Panchangam using set types in return for a princely reward of ₹ 500. Jawaji picked it up. Working with Ranu, he “casted a whole series of specialised types and got a specimen page printed” using Moveable Type instead of litho. Agnihotri was amazed at the output but couldn’t afford to pay the promised reward of ₹ 500.
However, this exercise further spurred Jawaji’s confidence. He was ready to scale the next peak. And so, he purchased a tiny printing press in 1867 and named it Nirnayasagar. The brand new, high-quality Panchangam that then began to ensue, yearly, from its presses became its inextricable part ever since. Just as he had discovered Ranu, Jawaji now hired Ramchandra Amrit More as the manager of this newly-minted Nirnayasagar Press. This relationship too, attained fruition as a lifelong bond. Ranu now looked after the foundry.
Jawaji not only did the type-casting himself, he also kept abreast of every new development in printing technology, laboriously going through the catalogues of the latest machinery, equipment, types, and other implements and deciding which equipment he should purchase and which he could manufacture locally. He would also manually repair any breakdowns in machinery. He was perhaps the best illustration of what are today known as “hands-on managers.” This apart,[vi]
And now Jawaji Dadaji embarked upon what he made as the sacred calling for the rest of his life.
Jawaji Dadaji employed all his skill, masterly craftsmanship and eye for visual elegance to the service of the Sanskrit alphabet. He was indeed the perfect forerunner of contemporary computer font-makers who design Devanagari (and Bharatiya Bhasha) fonts. But because he was the pioneer, he encountered seemingly-insurmountable difficulties in composing and printing Devangari letters. And overcame them with the same boyish industriousness that he retained throughout his life.
The result was the birth of the Akhand type, a creation and a product entirely of his own labours, bolstered by the skill of Ranu. In designing this type, the “delicacy and skill needed in the cutting could well be compared to a jeweller’s, with far less of settled patterns than the latter’s.”
For decades, the patented Akhand type was not available for sale. Eventually, Jawaji sold it only to printing presses that met certain norms and scrupulously adhered to the highest standards. In fact, the compositing and printing quality at the Nirnayasagar Press touched the pinnacles of such perfection that at one point, it was remarked[vii] that
This is how it began: a century-long saga of publishing rare Sanskrit (and Bharatiya Bhasha) works spanning a vast array of genres. The first of these was a compendium of Puja Paddhati (roughly translated as, “procedures for ritual worship”) comprising detailed instructions of the performance of Puja along with the relevant accompanying mantras. This became an instant bestseller among an audience consisting of purohits who perform Pujas in the homes of Grihastas (householders). The compendium was called a Pothi. In Jawaji’s own lifetime, these Pothis witnessed innumerable reprints, and Nirnayasagar became a household name.
The works were sold at a throwaway price because the impulse behind publishing them stemmed from far ancient and profoundly noble roots. As far as Jawaji was concerned, the commercial success of this endeavor was merely incidental, accidental even, and completely secondary. To him[viii],
But it is in the realm of a freedom struggle of a far more fundamental sort that Jawaji Dadaji distinguished himself singularly. He lived in the Dickensian “worst of times, the season of darkness,” when the infamous Monier-Williams had pompously declared that Sanskrit was a dead language. Like other stalwarts had done in their own field, Jawaji Dadaji set out to prove Monier-Williams wrong by paying him back in his own coin. Here is a small glimpse of what he accomplished[ix] with extraordinary poise.
The results of this years-long painstaking effort are the paeans of high praise (quoted in the beginning of this essay) that these selfsame Western “Sanskritists” heaped upon the impeccable volumes of the Nirnayasagar Press. Not to mention that they came to depend on Nirnayasagar for obtaining the most authentic editions of our lore — both rare and popular. And this contribution of the Nirnayasagar Press to our freedom struggle is of a far profounder kind to Indians — the kind of freedom that was hidden subtly in their very DNA, the freedom that our Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita so eloquently describe. It’s also a freedom far more valuable and far, far removed from the patchwork of national, spiritual and territorial loss that Mohandas Gandhi eventually, supposedly “won” singlehandedly.
What is also significant is the fact that Jawaji didn’t give a second thought about the enormous cost that producing such high-quality volumes would entail. This was also compounded by other hidden ardours. Apart from his penchant for zero errors, the Nirnayasagar Press had to literally create a market almost from scratch.
It was also an era where old, stringent orthodoxies persisted. His target market of which traditional Sanskrit pundits and the like formed a sizeable chunk was largely averse to printed books, which were considered impure. One is reminded of the episode of “Mahamahopadhyaya” Hangal Virupaksha Sastri’s caustic note[x] against “praeent (print).” Additionally, he had to assemble a large number of traditional and orthodox Pundits for such tasks as textual examination, correction, proofreading, etc. In other words, the same, print-averse orthodoxy. But they readily agreed and were moved when they witnessed his spotless conduct and his genuine and abiding reverence for the same tradition that they upheld, preserved and perpetuated. He won them over with his sincere humility and his absolute non-interference after he entrusted them with a project.
This was how Jawaji Dadaji went ahead undaunted, and actually created this market with another simple device: he spoke, nay printed the truth on each volume — “these books are printed in ink made with cow’s ghee.” And met with tremendous success. Very soon, he had access to a whole universe of eminent scholars and Pandits across Maharashtra. When we read the kind of scholars, we’re left speechless with admiration. Here’s a partial list: Dr. Mahadev Moreshwar Kunte, Shankar Pandurang, Gopal Hari Deshmukh, Narayan Vishnu Bapat, “Mahamahopadhyaya” Pandit Durga Prasad, and Pandit Kashinath Pandurang Parab… Ramchandra Bhikaji and Ganesh Bhikaji Gunjikar, Prof. Rajaram Ramkrishna Bhagwat, Pandit Govind Shankarshastri Bapat…Narayan Balkrishna Godbole, Janardan Balaji Modak and Vaman Daji Oka, Vasudevshastri Panshikar. This was truly a golden era of traditional scholarship in Maharashtra, the kind which we have never seen since. It was the legacy of scholarship nurtured, promoted, safeguarded and conserved since the time of the Peshwas.
An early and notable volume was Raghunath Bhaskar Godbole’s Bharatvarshiya Prachin Aitihasik Kosh (Dictionary of Ancient Bharata’s History) published in 1876. It subsequently earned the status of authority in its field and became a primary source for Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade’s lectures on the Rise of Maratha Power.
And then with the publication of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava in 1879, the Niranayasagar Press blazed another glorious trail.
Two years later, in 1881, Jawaji started a Marathi monthly, Balbodh under the editorship of Vinayak Kondadev Oka who ran[xi] it for thirty-four years.
And then in 1886, the Nirnayasagar Press launched its iconic Kavyamala (literally, Garland of Poems) series. The volumes published under this heading are what eventually came to be known as the “Nirnayasagar Edition” in common parlance. As the text of the series itself declared, it was a “Collection of Sanskrit Kavyas, Satakas, Champus, Bhanas, Prahasanas, Chhandas, Alamkaras, etc” edited by Pandit Durga Prasad of Jaipur and Pandit Kashinath Pandurang Parab.
Each issue of Kavyamala contained ninety-six pages and the annual subscription was six rupees. In due course, the Nirnayasagar Press also separately published the Kavyamala Gucchaka (Anthology) series. A total of fourteen volumes of the Kavyamala Gucchaka and ninety-five volumes of the Kavyamala series are currently available.
The same impulse and spirit of sanctity[xii] characterized the publication of these issues as well.
In his lifetime, Jawaji Dadaji published 193 books in Sanskrit, 228 in Marathi and 15 in Gujarati and Hindi, and “had casted seven varieties (or sizes) of types for Vedic Sanskrit, and 20 of Devanagari, 15 of Gujarati, two of Hebrew and one of Kannada.” He earned stupendous sums of money, reinvested them wisely, and donated them anonymously without expectation. In his own[xiii] words,
His labour was as prodigious as it was done in the spirit of Karma Yoga, the same spirit that animated such contemporary stalwarts as D.V Gundappa and Swami Sri Sacchidanandendra Saraswati. And this great herald of elegant Sanskrit printing, this fighter of the cultural freedom of Bharatavarsha, this selfless benefactor Jawaji Dadaji passed away on 4 April 1892, when he was merely 53 years old, anticipating Dr. Ambedkar’s quote that “life should be great rather than long.” On this occasion, Col J.E. Jacob who had edited a Nirnayasagar edition of Vedanta-Sutra remarked,
However, the noble institution that Jawaji Dadaji had founded, built, and bequeathed not only survived but thrived on for several decades.
In Tukaram Jawaji Chaudhari, the father had found not just an able successor but a son who in the truest sense of the Sanatana dictum became AtmAvai putra nAmasi, taking the finest traditions of the Nirnayasagar Press to even greater summits. A scholar was an eyewitness to Tukaram’s order to destroy fifty printed forms when he discovered a minor printing mistake. During his tenure, the number of Sanskrit publications grew[xiv] to a whopping 400 “with an equal increase in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi books.” He also forayed into the world of Kannada books.
Scholars, connoisseurs and avid, serious bibliophiles also aver that Tukaram continued the same ritual of publishing these volumes as a sacred duty even if it meant substantial financial losses. Two eminent volumes stand testimony to this:
In 1905, the Nirnayasagar Press published eight commentaries of Adi Shankara’s Brahmasutra Bhashya (commentary) in royal size in two volumes — a total of 1500 pages.
A few years later, eight commentaries of Adi Shankara’s Bhagavad Gita Bhashya was similarly published.
It took a really long time before all copies of these weighty tomes were completely sold. The publisher didn’t recover the costs. Here’s another anecdote[xv] testifying Tukaram’s attitude, sense of duty and dharma.
By 1910, the Nirnayasagar Press was at its zenith employing
The humble foundry that Jawaji Dadaji had begun in a nondescript rented building had now transformed into a sprawling nationwide publishing empire encompassing “Srinagar to Rameshwaram…from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas and from Dwaraka to Puri.”
After the demise of the childless Tukaram, his younger brother Pandurang Jawaji took charge and ran it with the same vigour and dedication. However, as we noted in the beginning of this essay, the political, social, and ideological currents of Bharatavarsha drastically changed for the worse after Independence. The teaching and learning of Sanskrit and everything associated with it was actively discouraged in mainstream academia with the avowed aim of extinguishing it. After seventy years, we see how this vile project has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the purveyors of this destruction.
Therefore, publishing Sanskrit and allied works not only became unviable but reduced one to penury. Hundreds of once-thriving, kindred publishing houses shut down in an astonishingly short period.
Pandurang Jawaji’s daughter-in-law, Smt Laxmibai Jawaji held the fort till late 1960s — mid 1970s. One of the last significant Nirnayasagar publications was the two-volume Samskrita Subhashita Kosha (Encyclopedia of Wise Sanskrit Sayings) published in 1967, the centenary year. On an email forum, here is how a certain gentleman recounted his visit to a Nirnayasagar Press in its death-throes:
I am not aware of the exact date or year when this iconic institution finally closed its shutters. I would be really grateful if knowledgeable people updated me with this tidbit of information.
And if it is any consolation, here is the full text of the encomium that the towering scholar, Dr. V Raghavan wrote on the venerable Nirnayasagar Press. Emphases are all added by me.
Nirnaysagar Press, Bombay, occupies a unique position in the history of Sanskrit learning and education in this country. There had been efforts and organizations in different centres like Banaras and Calcutta tor bringing into print Sanskrit Classics which had been preserved for long in manuscripts in paper and palm-leaf; but when we consider the stages of improvement from the lithograph prints of the earliest stages in Banaras to the excellent and attractive editions of the Nirnaysagar Press, Bombay, one can realize the extent of advancement in the art of printing and the facility and aid which the printed books gave to the of Sanskrit study, not only in the institutions — schools, colleges and Universities — but also in the traditional Pathashalas and in the houses of Pandits. In fact, Sanskrit study and education in the classics of Sanskrit literature may be said to have grown with the publications of the Kavyamala and other Sanskrit works brought out by the Nirnaysagar Press.
The history of the Nirnaysagar Press and its founder Jawaji would read like a romance to those of this generation who do not know how that Press came to be founded. Jawaji came of the humblest family which could afford no education and what he achieved contributed perhaps most significantly to the spread of knowledge in the three fields of Sanskrit, Marathi and Gujarati. He started life rubbing types for Rs. 2/- a ninth and became eventually the Founder-Proprietor of the most outstanding Devanagari Press of the country, having on its establishment 400 workers.
With his experience in types and type-casting, Jawaji founded a type foundry of his own in 1864 and five years later established the Nirnaysagar Press where he printed works with the types cast by him. As different from the Devanagari of Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, those of Jawaji’s had a distinct character, shape and beauty of their own in all the sizes and in Roman and Antique. These Nirnaysagar Publications — say of the Brahmasutras or of the Bhagavad Gita — with several commentaries and the series of diverse types used in them, with variations text, quotations, pratikas, etc., had a distinct personality of their own with the text and commentaries clearly demarcated and the ink-impression very distinct and free from diffusion and the whole thing very pleasing to the eye and helpful to the mind of the reader.
Through the Kavyamala, both in its works-series and in the collection of minor works called Guchchakas, the Nirnaysagar Press had brought into print almost all the leading works in poetry, drama and criticism and had also unearthed many a rare minor work lying in manuscript collections in Jaipur, Tanjore and other centres. But for these publications, the knowledge of Sanskrit literature and its contributions, their variety, etc. would not have been realized by the scholars. The work of the Press became much enlarged by the anxiety of outside bodies and scholars desiring to take advantage of its excellent typography and getting their works printed at that Press, the most notable example of this being the Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata of the Southern recension and works of Dvaita Vedanta undertaken by the pioneers of Kumbhakonam who sought the help of the Nirnayasagar Press for their publications. Several Jain works were also brought out through the Nirnaysagar Press. In several Shastras, for a long time, the Nirnaysagar editions were the only ones available for teachers and students.
[i] Nirnayasagar: A Century of Type Casting, Printing and Publishing: Vinayak Y Kulkarni: 1969, Maharashtra Information Centre
[iii] Now, Dr. M.B. Velkar Street in Kalbadevi
[iv] ’निर्णयसागर अक्षर साधना’: PB Kulkarni
[v] Nirnayasagar: A Century of Type Casting, Printing and Publishing: Vinayak Y Kulkarni: 1969, Maharashtra Information Centre
[viii] Ibid: Emphasis added
[x] Hanagal Virupaksha Sastri: Jnapaka Chitrashale — Vol 5: D V Gundappa,
[xi] Nirnayasagar: A Century of Type Casting, Printing and Publishing: Vinayak Y Kulkarni: 1969, Maharashtra Information Centre
[xv] Ibid: Emphasis added