'The Workers Who Typed': The Labouring Stories of Book Production in Modern India

The world of the printing press in the 19th century was complex and specialised. Among other workers, compositors, who typed the words, emerged as an important new category of labour.

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This article is the fifth in a series on the history of labour in India. The first part dealt with carpenters, the second with tailors, the third with textile workers in colonial India, and the fourth with the artisans in the attar industry.

Printed words have layered histories and journeys; they go through authors who conceptualise them, editors who edit them, and compositors who type them. The history of the book is often written as an intellectual history, or alternatively, as the history of publishing houses and the capitalists who led them. But hidden in the space between the paper and the printed word in a text are the labouring stories of compositors, proofreaders, letter-press machine men, binders, and ballers.

The labouring world of printers in the 19th century was newly created, complex, hierarchised, and specialised. Workers included rollermen, inkers, flymen or flyboys, trimmers, sorters, helpers, washers, sponge men, etc. Among them, the compositors were numerous, an important sub-group who often commanded the highest wages and prestige in the industry. Compositors arranged the letters for a movable type printing press and emerged as an important new category of labour, with many Indian artisans leaving declining trades and seeking employment in the presses.

Representative photo. Photo: CC BY 2.5/Wikimedia Commons

The world of books was changed forever with the coming of printing presses and Europeans in India. The earliest movable metal type printing presses in India arrived with Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in Goa in the 16th century. European colonial experimentation with the creation of metal types for Indian language scripts continued over the subsequent two centuries, with books printed in languages including Tamil, Sanskrit, Bengali by the mid-18th century. From the 17th century, some Gujarati merchants – as well as Armenian merchants based in India – also imported presses and attempted to expand regional printing.

Despite these earlier experiments, large-scale printing presses for commercial and government purposes originated primarily with the expansion of British colonial authority in the late 18th century, most notably in Bengal. Likewise, Christian missionaries in India established several printing presses throughout India to spread Christian literature and produce school textbooks. Vernacular language printing presses exploded in the second half of the 19th century coinciding with a burgeoning public sphere that appreciated printed texts.

Printed and lithographed texts were produced in such a large quantity through numerous local presses that the colonial state sought to map both the number of presses and contents produced through the Press and Registrations of Books Act in 1867. This Act persists in India today, and as per an Indian Express report, it was recently used by the UP Police in pressing charges against some Samajwadi Party leaders for putting banners against then BJP leaders.

The story of compositors in printing press

Calcutta was among the first cities to experience the wide-scale recruitment of Indian compositors. These labourers were recruited first for the English language printing presses that printed government materials, newspapers, and books for the British community in Bengal. However, around the turn of the 19th century, many were also recruited for Indian-owned Sanskrit and Bengali presses.

Across India, by the 1880s, printing presses were some of the largest private employers, with some, such as the most famous Munshi Newal Kishore Press in Lucknow, employing up to a thousand workers. In addition, the colonial regime demanded a veritable army of compositors and other print labourers to print its reports and official papers. Some of the most notable early forms of labour organisation and agitation in South Asia, including large-scale strikes, were organised by compositors in printing presses. But the stories of these communities of labourers are often forgotten and elided, made secondary to the stories of authors, readers, and capitalist printers.

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Compositors, as the successors of hand-written manuscript scribes and copyists, required extraordinary literary and linguistic command along with distinct skills of distributing the type properly and the knowledge of various descriptions of type used. The more skilled a compositor was, the fewer mistakes a manuscript contained. Presses made sure that the compositor also worked as the first proofreaders to save the cost. Below the skilled compositors were young apprentices who knew how to read and write and learned the task of distributing and recognising various types. This work could take them up to 12 months to learn. If they proved fairly successful in reading manuscripts, they were kept as assistants to skilled compositors who taught them the method of type-setting, both of the letters and the more complex table works. A skilled compositor knew which sizes of types and fonts to use for the title page, content page, and main text.

Colonial administrators were often dismissive of the Indian compositors that they relied on to print their reports and government papers. They lamented that low levels of English language literacy among compositors meant that they could not spot errors, leading to garbled or incorrect spellings. The Superintendent of the Government Press in Allahabad, F. Luker, told the Industrial School Committee in 1902 that ‘the ordinary Indian compositor may be said to know absolutely nothing, and it is a hopeless task to attempt to teach this…have no inherent taste for designing, and who do not possess sufficient intelligence to understand the most elementary principles of display.’

Printing presses, particularly government ones, recruited workers through public calls and also kept an army of unpaid or very low-paid apprentices under foremen who were given employment if they could do the job properly. Others such as missionary and private presses relied on industrial or general schools for recruiting their apprentices. For example, the Oriental Watchmen Press recruited its workers from the Seventh Day Adventist Mission Schools. Similarly, the Ramabai Mukti Mission Press in Poona, which was interestingly run entirely by women workers, recruited its female apprentices from its mission school.

Although compositors in the late 19th and early 20th century received higher rates than some other factory labourers for their skills, they were also paid by the piece, meaning for the amount of work done. This meant that their pay was often uneven, high when there was demand for work but low when there was little work.

A Printing Industry Enquiry dated 1936 shows an interesting phenomenon where piece rate compositors made more money than regularly employed compositors. In Bombay, where there were 1,033 compositors in regular employment and 239 on piece rate, the wage difference between them was Rs 36 and Rs 44, respectively. In the rural area of what is now Maharashtra, the salary of a regularly employed compositor dipped to half. While regularly employed workers held protests demanding improved wages, pieceworkers demanded consistent work during periods of low demand.

Moreover, the work of compositors could often be hazardous to the workers’ health, because of the widespread use of lead in printing presses, though protesters only rarely called for improved protections. Labour strikes and demands for higher wages among compositors sparked extreme frustration among colonial bureaucrats. In some regions, government presses sought to transfer their work into prisons, and convicts were forced to engage in printing, which colonial administrators also saw as an appropriate way of “disciplining” convicts. Following the 1905 press strike in Calcutta, the government of Bengal sought to move most of their printing of forms and reports into regional jails as both a cost-saving method and a means to avoid delays when non-convict labourers were on strike.

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Not all printed books and newspapers in colonial India were produced through movable type print, and this meant that some presses relied on scribes, rather than compositors. The vast diversity of Indian languages and scripts was addressed through multiple styles and technologies of book production.

A sketch and description of a steam-powered lithographic press in the Makhzan al-Fawaid, Moradabad, 1909. Photo: Author provided

In particular, readers and printers of Urdu, Persian, Shahmukhi Punjabi, Sindhi, and other languages that use the adapted Perso-Arabic script often preferred lithography (stone printing) to movable type print, in part because movable type was unable to capture the nuances of nastaliq. Some printers for languages that used other Indian scripts also preferred lithography, because it was often cheaper to set up a lithographic press than a movable type press. At lithographic presses, scribes typically hand-copied a text using a grease crayon onto a piece of copy paper, which was then transferred to lithographic stones. The stones were subsequently used for printing up to several hundred copies of a text.

As a result of the dominance of lithography in some areas of book production, a long-standing Indian artisanal community – scribes or katibs – transitioned into labour in both small-scale and industrialised printing presses. But as was the case with compositors, by the early 20th century, lithographic scribes increasingly organised protests against press owners and managers, with many who were hired as pieceworkers demanding more regular pay. By 1935, the Punjab Press Workers’ Association helped to organise a union, specifically for scribes, partially in response to a series of lithographic strikes in Lahore and other major centres of lithographic print.

Whether working as compositors in movable type presses or scribes in lithographic presses, these workers understood their centrality to both the colonial bureaucracy and the exchange of knowledge and information among Indians. In several important cases, they organised and agitated against both the colonial state and the Indian capitalist press owners to improve their economic and material condition.

The Indian printing industry, estimated to be of Rs 25,100 crore and employing about 90,000 people, has faced unprecedented pressure during the pandemic. Despite major technological shifts over the previous two centuries, the printed world remains an important site of work, in which labourers, publishers, and writers sometimes jostle against each other as they exert forms of influence over books and texts.

Dr. Amanda Lanzillo is a postdoctoral fellow with the Princeton University Society of Fellows, and lecturer in the Princeton Department of History, where she writes and teaches on South Asian history. Follow her on twitter @lanzilloamanda

Dr. Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor of British Imperial, Colonial & Post-colonial History at Nottingham University. He writes on the modern history of India. Follow him on twitter @arun_historian.