11 October 2006

The story has just begun

Very few people can read in English in India. My guess is, of the literate population (people who can sign their names – approx. 2 out of 3 Indians), it’s 5%. That would mean around 40 million (give or take 5 million) people know English well enough to read English newspapers in India. Still, the English newspaper industry is flourishing, garnering a substantial part of the advertising revenues. That’s reason enough for several Western media companies to invest in India (see my previous post ‘India assures a future for print journalism in English’).

This bias towards English newspapers was, perhaps, expected. The issue is language: India uses 18 different languages in 10 different scripts, much of it distributed geographically. No single Indian language can reach out to all of India. Indian-language newspapers have always suffered from this. Moreover, printing technology had responded rather late to India’s need for available scripts. There was a lack of mechanical typesetting facility for composing in Indian languages. Yet again, the problem was expected.

Indian languages are complex, with many more letters to their alphabet (a dozen or so more) compared to English or the Roman script. Then, the shapes of the letters created a dilemma, sometimes with two or more letters combining to create another letter-form. If this isn’t enough, Indian language scripts use space both above and below the line, taking up more vertical space (on an average, Indian scripts take up 15% more space than Roman scripts while setting a block of text – i.e. slightly fewer words into a given space Roman scripts). Although hot-metal casting of type in the Roman alphabet was in regular use by the 1880s, it took another 50 years to perfect a similar technology for Indian languages.

In spite of these drawbacks, India did have its language newspapers as early as 1821 when Raja Rammohan Roy in Calcutta published the first-known Indian newspaper in Bengali called Sangbad Kaumudi. This newspaper, unfortunately, is long forgotten. In 1822, Fardoonjee Marzban in Bombay published Mumbai Samachar in Gujarati, which is published even today, making it the earliest Indian newspaper on record today. The first English newspaper in Bombay was printed much earlier in 1777 by Rustomji Keshaspathi (I’m not sure what it was called).

Offset printing technology and photocomposition of type came to India in the late 1960s, once again, with a bias towards the Roman script. It took another 20 years to become popular with Indian-language newspapers as the computers and software necessary to use offset printing technology was not readily available in the Indian languages. With offset presses in place, the late eighties saw the beginning of a printing revolution in Indian-language newspapers, the benefits of which are visible today – not only in news and editorial, but also in advertising. For the Indian-language newspaper, the story has just begun.

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