Dating the first Bengali block print specimen

Abu Jar M Akkas | Published: 00:10, Feb 21,2018 | Updated: 20:03, Feb 20,2018


GEORGE A Grierson, in the first part of the fifth volume of his Linguistic Survey of India, in 1903, established that Orientalisch- und Occidentalischer Sprachmeister (Oriental and occidental language teacher), compiled by Johann Friedrich Fritz, published at Leipzig in 1748, contains the Bengali alphabet in print on page 84, headed ‘Das Bengalische oder Jentivische Alphabet’ in German and ‘Alphabetum Bengalicum s. Jentivicum’ in Latin. These were consonants, and a conjunct letter, running to page 85. The book has Bengali numerals, from 1 to 10 and from 20 to 100 by a step of 10 and 1000, on page 209, headed ‘Bengalische Zahlen’.

The specimen is taken from Aurenck Szeb, a life of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, of Georg Jacob Kehr, which was printed at Leipzig in 1725. Sprachmeister in its page 84 reprint, under the heading of the plate, says, ‘ex G. J. Kehrii Aurenck Szeb’ — from G. J. Kehr’s Aurenck Szeb. In Aurenck Szeb, the specimen headed ‘Alphabetum Bengalicum seu Jentivicum’, on a plate facing page 51, there is a name written in Bengali — Śrī Sarjānta Balapakāṁ Maer, or Sergeant Wolffgang Meyer. The numerals, from 1 to 11, are printed on page 48, with the sidehead: ‘Numeri Bengalici’.

Bengali block print
Plate from Observations physiques et mathématiques (1692)

Fritz’s Sprachmeister, in its second part, Orationis Dominicae, or the Lord’s prayer, contains a specimen of Bengali text, on a folded plate, headed ‘Bengalica’, in 13 lines, with a note ‘from page 84’, referring to the Sprachmeister pagination. This is a transcription of the Lord’s prayer in Malay into Bengali letters, which appear ill formed and do not follow the writing style of Bengali. All the vowel marks, often replaced with full vowels, are written after the consonants in a linear fashion as European languages are written.

This is also a reprint of the specimen printed in John Chamberlayne’s Oratio Dominica, printed at Amsterdam in 1715. The text, headed ‘Bengalice’, is printed on page 23 of the book. The Linguistic Survey refers to this as Chamberlayne’s Sylloge, but with disapproval because of the crude forms of the letters. But in view of two other specimens, one published in 1692 and the other in 1729, it can be established that the letters were, in effect, Bengali. There have thus been two specimens reprinted twice — the 1715 Chamberlayne’s reprinted in the 1748 Fritz’s and the 1725 Kehr’s reprinted in Fritz’s Sprachmeister.

Bengali block print
Plate from Oratio Dominica (1715)

Sajanikanta Das, in 1946, or 1353 Bangla San, when Bāṁlā Sāhityera Itihāsa: Gadyera Prathama Yuga was published by Mitralaya at Kolkata, established that the 1748 Fritz specimen was the fourth. The second was the Kehr specimen. The first, as Sajanikanta Das said, was the specimen printed in Observations physiques et mathématiques, by Jesuit Fathers, printed at Paris in 1692. Sajanikanta puts the reference down to an article by Father H Hosten published in the Calcutta Historical Society journal Bengal: Past and Present, Vol IX, Part I. Twenty letters and their variants are printed, ‘après le page 74’, or after page 74,  headed ‘Caractères des lettres des peuples de Bengale’ and the numerals, from 1 to 10, under the head ‘Chiffres de Bengale’ along with Burmese letters and numerals.

Sajanikanta referred to a specimen, printed in Dissertationes Selectae, by David Mill, published at Leiden in 1743, as being the third specimen. The book has a section called ‘Miscellanea Orientalia’ on the grammar of Hindustani, by Joannes Josua Ketelaer, with a print of the Bengali alphabet, headed ‘Alphabetum Brahminicum’, after that of Devanagari. The plate, in full, is headed ‘Alphabetum Brahm. III. B.’ and contains the full Bengali alphabet, with consonants followed by vowels.

Commenting on the Devanagari alphabet in Dissertationes Selectae, Sajanikanta criticised Mill’s comment on the Bengali alphabet being in currency in the whole of the Indian subcontinent, especially in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. He also referred, in passing, to the first print of the Devanagari alphabet in a book titled, for short, China Illustrata, by Athanasius Kircher published at Amsterdam in 1667. Before Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language came out in 1778 in moveable types, Halhead’s another book, A Code of Gentoo Laws, printed at London in 1776, had a plate with the Bengali alphabet. The plate headed ‘Bengal Alphabet’ contains the vowels, the consonants and the connected vowels. The list of Bengali print specimens pre-1778, thus, increases: the 1692 Jesuit Fathers’, the 1725 Kehr’s, the 1743 Mill’s, the 1748 Fritz’s and the 1776 Halhead’s. He, however, did not consider the 1725 Chamberlayne’s.

Bengali block print
Plate from Aurenck Szeb (1725)

In 1996, Sripantha, or Nikhil Sarkar, in his Yakhana Chāpākhānā Ela (When printing presses arrived), first published in 1977, referred to a research article — probably Bāṁlā Mudraṇera Chāra Yuga (Four stages of Bengali print) by Barunkumr Mukhopadhyay — which attests the Bengali alphabet being published in China Illustrata in a plate headed ‘Alphabetum Bengalicum’. The letters are not well-formed but are not difficult to recognise, Sripantha commented. He listed eight specimens: the 1667 Kircher’s, the 1692 Jesuit Fathers’, the 1725 Kehr’s, its 1748 Fritz’s reprint, the 1743 Mill’s, the specimen of 1773 typefounder Joseph Jackson, which is referred to as ‘Modern Sanskrit’ in A History of the Old English Letter Foundries by Talbot Baines Reed published at London in 1887, the 1776 Halhead’s and the specimen in ‘An Asiatic Vocabulary’ in The Ayin Akbary or the Institutes of the Emperor Akbar, translated by Francis Gladwin and published at London in 1777.

Barunkumar Mukhopadhyay in his article in Dui Śataker Bāṁlā Mudraṇa O Prakāśana (Two centuries of Bengali print and publishing) that is edited by Chittaranjan Bandyopadhyay and published by Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Kolkata, in 1981, refers to the 1667 specimen as being the first. Sripantha’s Yakhana Chāpākhānā Ela contains a plate of the 1667 specimen, his first of the eight specimens of the Bengali prints from block that he has referred to, headed ‘Specimen of the Bengali script as printed in China Illustrata in 1667.’ In 1992, Mofakhkhar Hussain Khan also referred to this plate printed in his book, The Bengali Book: History of Printing and Bookmaking (Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1999, page 495), as the first specimen of Bengali block print headed ‘“Alphabetum Bengalicum” inserted after page 42 in China monumentis by Athanasü Kircher.’

While the Kircher book, China Illustrata or China Monumentis, of 1667 appears not to have any such plate headed ‘Alphabetum Bengalicum’, not even La Chine illustrée, the French translation that was printed at Amsterdam in 1670, the graceful penmanship as evident in plates of the Kircher book is absent from the plate that Sripantha and Khan have referred to. The plate, printed in both the books, rather appears to be from Actorum Eruditorum Quae Lipsiae Publicantur Supplementa (Vol 9, Leipzig, 1729). The Actorum Eruditorum plate, so far being referred to be in the Kircher work, perfectly matches the specimen printed in Sripantha’s Yakhana Chāpākhānā Ela and Khan’s The Bengali Book. It, therefore, appears that the specimen, now being thought as the first specimen of Bengali block print from a book printed in 1667, is from Actorum Eruditorum, a scientific journal of the German lands.

The Actorum Eruditorum plate, inserted after page 30, headed ‘TAB II ad Suppl T. IX Sect. I pag. 30’ has the specimen of 42 Bengali letters and their variants in three columns headed ‘Fig. 3 Alphabetum Bengalicum’. Page 30 of the book has a sentence referring to Figure 3 as saying ‘Succedit Fig. 3 Alphabetum Bengalicum e duobus MStis’ — Figure 3 shows Bengali alphabet in two styles of handwriting. (I express my gratitude to Astrid Van Kersschaever, of the inter-library loan section of the University of Gent library in Belgium for sending me a scan of the plate.)

Bengali block print
Plate from Actorum Eruditorum (1729)

If the plates from Observations printed in 1692, Oratio Dominica printed in 1715 and Actorum Eruditorum printed in 1729 are put side by side, there appears no difficulty in recognising them as Bengali letters of the same style. While the 1692 and the 1729 specimen appear to be cursive and slanted, the 1715 specimen appears to be roman, or upright, and speaks of efforts for space normalisation. The three specimens together also appear to constitute a clan, distinct from other specimens of the Bengali letters that had been in print from blocks before 1778.

Sripantha in his book has left out the specimen from Edmund Fry’s  Pantographia as it was published at London in 1799, by the time Bengali moveable type came into existence. Barunkumar Mukhopadhyay, however, has listed the specimen referring to it as being from Encyclopedie Francoise published in 1772. The Pantographia specimen, which contains 24 Bengali letters, not in the order of the alphabet, headed ‘Bengallee’ on page 18, in the associated text on page 19, says: ‘This is the character used in the extensive country of Bengal, now subject to the English East-India Company. It was copied from pl. 18 of the Encyc. Franc. des Alph. anc. et mod.’ Although no book titled Encyclopédie française des alphabets anciens et modernes could so far be traced, plate 18, which Pantographia refers to, is found in more than one books. The title that Fry gave could very well be a generic reference but the specimen is part of what it is copied from. A book titled Caractères et alphabets de langues mortes et vivantes, contenant vingt-cinq planches, which is available on Google Books, contains a plate headed ‘Alphabet Bengale’ with 16 initial vowels, 34 consonants, in a reverse order from right to left, vowels with consonants and some conjunct letters. The book has a description, headed ‘Planche XVIII. Bengali’, referring to the plate. The text in French says, in translation: ‘The Brahmins of the kingdom of Bengal in writing the Sanskrit language use the letters the way we use letters here. The Bengali letters are written as ours, from left to right; for an easy reading, the most difficult conjunct letters are given down the table, which we cannot guess without this help. Others are much easier and we decide, for this reason, not to crowd the table. We know that the kingdom of Bengal, otherwise known as Orissa and Jagannath, is located at the mouth of the Ganges, at the bottom of the bay called Bengal; its capital city is Dhaka and it is under the jurisdiction of the states of Grand Mughal.’

A scan, on Google Books, of a copy of the book, kept in the British Library, in its metadata, lists it as being published in 1775 and another scan of a copy, kept in the Bavarian State Library, lists it as being published in 1745. The scans do not have cover pages, making it difficult to establish the year of publication. Both the books have the note on page 10 and the plate (18) in the plate section. The plate and the text are also printed in the first part of Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéreaux, et les arts méchaniques, published at Paris in 1763 and in Planches pour l’Encyclopédie ou pour le dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts libéraux, et des arts méchaniques, (Vol 2, 2nd edition) printed in 1766. As the page number containing the text and plate number are the same across the four instances, they could be cases of reprint. And this increases the number of candidates to have contained specimens of Bengali print from blocks.

Sripantha in his book, on page 6 and page 55, lists a specimen of Bengali, a type specimen issued by English typefounder Joseph Jackson, referred to as ‘Modern Sanskrit’, in 1773. Talbot Baines Reed in his book, published by Elliot Stock at London in 1887, on page 317, describes this as ‘Bengal.—(or Modern Sanskrit), a corruption of the older characters of the Hindoos, the ancient inhabitants of Bengal.’ with the note: ‘With regard to the Bengalee letter, Rowe Mores states that this was cut by Jackson “for Mr. William Bolts, Judge of the Mayor’s Court of Calcutta, for a work in which he had been engaged at the time of his sudden departure from England about 1774.’ William Bolts in the second part of his Considerations on India Affairs, titled Appendix to Considerations on India Affairs, published at London in 1775, had a specimen of 40 letters, including variants, of Bengali in a letter dated 23 September 1773, as printed on page 285, that he wrote to William James, a director of the East India, setting out ‘a Proposal for the Introduction of Printing in Bengal, and a Specimen of the Bengal Alphabet in new-invented Types.’ This may not have been printed from blocks.

With the Actorum Eruditorum plate, so far being referred to, by mistake, from China Illustrata of 1667, coming to have been known to be from the book printed in 1729, the Observations plate becomes the first specimen of Bengali print from blocks. The plate that Barunkumar Mukhopadhyay, Sripantha and Khan refer to becomes the fourth with the Oratio specimen taking the second place.

With two more instances, or probably more pending further research, coming in, the list of specimens of Bengali print from blocks before 1778 comes to be longer: (1) Observations physiques et mathématiques of 1692, (2) Oratio Dominica of 1715, (3) Aurenck Szeb of 1725, (4) Actorum Eruditorum of 1729, (5) Dissertationes Selectae of 1743, (6) Sprachmeister of 1748, (7) Recueil de Planches of 1763, (8) Planches pour l’Encyclopédie of 1766, (9) Considerations on India Affairs of 1775, (10) Gentoo Laws of 1776 and (11) Ayin Akbary of 1777.


Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age. The research paper was read out in the opening session of an international academic workshop and conference in relation to the British Library’s project ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ that the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Kolkata hosted in July 14-15, 2017.

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