Precious Prints On Paper
Venture beyond the staple antiquarian focus of most desi collectors. Instead pursue books of greater bibliographical significance to India
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This is a wonderful time to be a book collector. A gentle tap or just a casual swipe of your screen allows you to browse the inventory of hundreds of antiquarian bookshops around the world. Whatever your collecting focus, there is a specialist rare book dealer out there who can supply you with at least some, if not all, the items in your want-list. But what to collect? In the world of antiquarian dealing and collecting, the three most desirable qualities are rarity, importance and beauty. There are only a small number of books that possess all three. We know the usual suspects here, from the exquisite European and Islamic illuminated and calligraphic manuscripts to the typographic splendor of the Gutenberg Bible to the sumptuous folios of Audubon’s Birds and Shakespeare’s First Folio — these have displayed their sustaining power not just in the auction markets but in our bibliophilic hearts, too.
But such antiquarian high spots are beyond most of our pockets, and seldom turn up on the rare book market. If you are a serious book collector or even an impassioned bibliophile, may I suggest venturing beyond the staple antiquarian focus of most desi collectors — British Raj curios such as aquatint plates by Thomas and William Daniell, first or limited editions of Kipling, and sepia photographs of staged hunting conquests — and focus instead on pursuing books of greater bibliographical and typographical significance to India?
What could be more significant and more thrilling, rarity-wise, than trying to locate and acquire the first or earliest printed books in India? No copy exists today of the very first book printed on Indian soil in an Indian language: a pamphlet printed in Tamil called Doctrina Christam also known as Tambiran Vannakam in 1577. This booklet also has the honour of being the first book printed in Indian type, and the first book printed from non-roman type anywhere in the world. Only one copy exists of the 1578 edition of Doctrina Christam, and again just one copy of the 1579 edition — though sadly and rather ironically not in India. One is held at Harvard, the other at the Bodleian library at Oxford. All the more reason why Indian collectors should hunt for copies extant somewhere, waiting to be unearthed.
Better chances prevail of finding the first typographically significant Indian book: the 1778 A Grammar of the Bengal Language at Hooghly. Charles Wilkins designed the first fine typeface for an Indian script here, and it is a splendid example of printing from movable Bengali type. Expensive as it may be to acquire, a few copies are at least still around, and by snapping them up collectors would be making it possible for these precious copies to survive; to be preserved and not be lost or destroyed forever.
These examples are only two among several other bibliographically exciting Indian imprints waiting, perhaps even languishing, somewhere for some intrepid Indian collector or bibliophile to come looking for them. Why then, when there are so many fantastic high spots in our own printing history (let us not forget those beautiful Rajasthani painted miniatures) to hunt for, should we run after the already over-collected high spots?
If all this is perhaps too antiquarian for your taste, there are newer and more contemporary lines of collecting: fine press books, miniature books, bird books and artists books. A fine example of a fine press book that also doubles as an artists book is Salman Rushdie’s privately printed Two Stories (1989) illustrated with five woodcuts and three linocuts by Bhupen Khakhar, and signed by author and artist. Out of a total edition of 72 signed copies, 12 were deluxe, bound in full leather with gilt onlays and accompanied by a separate suite of eight prints, each signed by Khakhar.
An even earlier example of such fine bookmaking was the edition of Three Stories of the Raj by Ved Mehta from 1986, which was designed by famous book designer Adrian Wilson. An edition of 300 deluxe copies in quarter morocco leather and decorative boards with the illustrations hand coloured by Zahid Sardar. These copies were printed letterpress and signed by Mehta, Wilson and Zardar. Finally, I have kept my own favourite line of collecting for the last: fine press books. Printed letterpress from metal — not digital — type on fine, archival paper in two or even three colour inks, the text accompanied by engraved decoration, and all of it held in a beautiful designer binding.
You can begin with collecting specimen pages of the great classic fine presses — Kelmscott, Doves, Ashendene or Eragny — who used fine typefaces and handmade paper to print a text, and by simply rubricating the initials that begin a chapter, or by surrounding a passage with a decorative, hand coloured border, created books of great typographical beauty. This tradition of fine bookmaking, luckily for us, did not end with those iconic presses, but continues on in the work of several modern and contemporary presses whose books we can better afford and whose work often reveal, perhaps more than anything out there today, what the art, craft and beauty of the printed book in the present looks and feels like. A collector once remarked, “The fun of collecting increases, paradoxically, in proportion to the seriousness with which one takes it.” I hope you are serious, and I hope you have fun. Because there is nothing quite like the pleasure of the chase.
Sebastian likes to write about book collecting, and is in constant pursuit of rare books. He is the author, most recently of, The Book Hunters of Katpadi, a bibliomystery
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