Robin Jeffrey

National University of Singapore


Printing in India: technology, commerce and turning points – puzzles and possibilities

This talk is an embryonic exploration of printing technology in India – what came, when it came, how it spread, who put it together and looked after it and who paid the bills. My curiosity grows out of puzzlement over how little we seem to know about these what, when, how, who questions, even though scholars and administrators of India for the past two hundred years have relied so heavily on printed words. My talk also stems from having met print-shop managers in the early 1990s who were managing the rapid transition from letterpress to offset and who had remarkable knowledge of their equipment and how to squeeze value out of every impression. This talk asks the following questions (with little hope of satisfactorily answering any of them): Where were the earliest presses made? Where did the pressmen come from and how were they trained? Where did the paper come from? How were presses moved out of the port cities? When and why did manufactured iron presses (Albions? Columbians? Stanhopes?) arrive from Britain and US? Had iron presses proliferated into every mofussil town by the time of the Vernacular Press Act of 1877? To what extent did Monotype, Linotype and power-driven rotary presses become part of the Indian print scene before 1947? How important was the arrival of cheap offset printing from the 1970s? What is the future of the digitally ‘printed’ word in post-print-on-paper India?


Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore. His most recent book, written with Assa Doron, is Waste of a nation: garbage and growth in India (Harvard University Press, 2018). He is the author, also with Assa Doron, of The great Indian phone book (Hurst, Harvard and Hachette India, 2013). He published India’s newspaper revolution: capitalism, politics and the Indian-language press 1977–1999 (Hurst) in 2000 with three Indian editions (Oxford University Press) since then. He lives most of the year in Melbourne.


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