THE room, barely leaving any space for a comfortable walk, was packed with racks, holding countless brown paper cones containing less-than-an-inch sorts, as they are called in the trade, of foundry type. A man in his thirties was almost groping, having to do this fewer times now, in the dusty, damp and dimly-lit room, stretching his hand to pick up cones, one after another, sitting this moment, standing that moment and climbing a step or two of a ladder the next.
Picking up a cone he was checking if he had found what he was looking for. Whenever he did, he opened the cone, full of sorts of a single clan, and set one aside on a sheet of paper that he had spread on the floor. He was trying to make a complete set of sorts of the foundry type called Pica Bengali cast in 12 points and another set of sorts of Rupasree cast in 14 points.
I ordered the sets. Foundries would sell types by weight, in kilograms after the introduction of the metric system of measurement. But I had to buy them for Tk 2 a sort, making my venture much expensive. Pica Bengali at 12 points had more than 800 sorts in the set while Rupasree at 14 points had about 500 sorts. If I had the chance to buy them by weight, it could have cost me a few hundred takas.
I was standing behind him and watching what he was doing. Sitting in the next room, the front of the shop, was Md Abul Kalam, proprietor of Madina Type Foundry, at 58, Patuatuli, Islampur in Old Town of Dhaka. Farther back, there was a small walled and roofed backyard, with a single hand-casting machine.
It was in the early 2000s. And the die had already been cast for what Charles Wilkins, aided by Panchanan Karmakar, began at Hooghly for Nathaniel Brassey Halhead’s 1778 book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, the first to have used moveable metal types.
The type foundries which once cast and sold hot metal types for use in hand composition printing in the bustling Old Town of Dhaka have long gone now. The proprietor of Madina Type Foundry, which had then run for 53 years, said that there had been about a score of type foundries in Old Town in the 1980s. There were Ratan, Meghna, Modern, Shahin, Janata, Standard and others, selling Bangla, English and Perso-Arabic foundry types. But most of them closed down, beginning later in the decade. Many of the owners switched their businesses long ago and sold all their matrices, casting machines and other materials for a throw-away price. Madina had also been running miserably for three to four years until then.
It one had about 300 employees in the trade. The number of people had come down to only four in the early 2000s. It once had 20 casting machines, which reduced to only one that time. Each of the foundries could sell, the disillusioned Madina proprietor said, types weighing 300 to 400 kilograms a day until a few years ago. The sales volume had then come down to 200 kilograms a month, an amount that hardly offered enough for survival.
Madina acquired the matrices of Ratan Type Foundry, the last to be closed in a series till then, and casting machines of Standard Type Foundry, which closed long ago. Standard, the Madina proprietor said, had sold all its machines and materials, worth about Tk 20 million, as scrap iron, for Tk 6 a kilogram. The owner could receive about Tk 50,000.
Only a handful of them still running, three or four that I could then trace, had somehow been managing survival. In 2009, I visited the foundries for the second time to buy some sorts of Pica Bengali that were left out in my first buy. This time I was given an order sheet, a sheet of paper with all the sorts printed evenly in a matrix. I had to mark the sorts that I wanted. I had about two dozen sorts left and bought them to complete my set.
The last remaining foundries then were Madina and Modern, both in close vicinity at Patuatuli, and Shahin, which at one point had also been known as New Shahin Type Foundry, on Tipu Sultan Road all in Old Town.
Madina and Shahin were still casting types but Modern was having a hard time. It could, and would, cast types only when it received orders, said Vishnu Kumar Chakrabarty, who had worked for 14 years till then as accountant with the type foundry. The foundries still extant then eagerly waited for year-ends as some schools, more outside the capital city, were still having their question papers printed in letter-press machines and election time as the electoral rolls were printed using foundry types. Yet sustenance became difficult for them.
The blow that the advent of computer technology started dealing to the foundries with their adoption in printing in the late 1980s became severe in the early 2000s. The first time typecasting faced a setback when Linotype composing for Bangla came into existence in 1936. Yet Linotype machines were costly and the trade survived. But in the 200s, hand composition had been hardly in use as newer printing technologies replaced the old letter-press printing. A few treadle presses had still been in work, more in outlying districts, until the mid-2000s. The choice of typefaces was, however, limited to one or two, mostly Susree, cast in the style of Linotype printing. A few educational institutions were still having their question papers printed using foundry types, mainly because of the low cost on offer. But the electoral roll came to be printed using the computer technology as the final nail in the coffin.
When I visited Old Town again in the early 2010s, Modern closed down; so did Madina. Only Shahin Type Foundry, on Jai Kali Mandir Road at Wari, had its shutters up, with one assistant and the manager, seated in chairs, visibly annoyed, casting a glance at the golden time that the foundries had. Shahin stopped casting types by then and was willing to sell what of Susree sorts was left with it. Shahin was doing its business selling some types for rubber stamps, materials for silk screen print, dice, paper knives and cutting blades.
When I visited Shahin Type Foundry in August this year, this time to take a couple of friends from Kolkata, one of them doing research on letter foundries, on a round of Old Town, the foundry had nothing left of Bangla face. All it had were some sorts of an English face, cast in eight points.
Shahin’s proprietor, Md Haider Ali, one of the foremost type founders to have done business in Dhaka, said that there had been no letterpress printing printers left as no one cast types and no one bought them. Dhaka’s foundry type scene was dominated by casting, by hand or with machines, with matrices, mostly bought from Kolkata and other parts of India. And it began some years after the partition of the Indian sub-continent. But one or two of them would make matrices from the types by electroforming. And he readily showed us the matrices of a face called Gana Bangla that he had made in the heyday of his business. They would cast types of English and Bangla faces, but bought Perso-Arabic types directly from Karachi in the days of the erstwhile East Pakistan.
Similarly waned the type foundries in Kolkata, with computer-aided composition knocking down the type casting technology from the pedestal it had been staid there for more than two centuries and a quarter. One such entity called Little Type Foundry is reported to be in operation on Ezra Street in Kolkata, selling about eight faces, cast in different points.
The names of Bangla faces — Abhinandan, Anusree, Balaka, Bichitra, Devasree, Nandan, Nibedan, Pica, Pragati, Prajapati, Rupali, Rupasi, Rupasree, Subhra, Sulekha, Susree, Swarupa and Upahar, to name most of them — and the sizes they were earlier referred to as — brevier, bourgeois, small pica, pica, great primer, to name a few — have become distant sounds. The types, made of an alloy composed of lead, antimony, tin and, sometimes, copper, that would hold the faces have in the process rested as lettres mortes, never to come alive to fill pages of books. The technology is dead, but the faces could remain. Yet it did not happen, not in the whole of the Bangla-speaking world. A failure to faithfully copy the lead typefaces digitally into computer-age fonts, or founts, will mark the demise of type foundries on a sad note.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion