The Evolving Nature of South Asian Bookmaking

The Evolving Nature of South Asian Bookmaking
The Evolving Nature of South Asian Bookmaking

Years ago, a friend bequeathed her collection of stamp albums to my sister and me. At the time, I tucked them away neatly in a box. While reading Old Stacks New Leaves: The Arts of The Book in South Asia (University of Washington Press, 2023), I came across an image from a stamp album owned by Deep Krishna Mehrotra, father of Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, from 1931. Immediately, I fished out my box to observe, count, and categorize the stamps. There were at least 2,000 of these with impressive images, collected from 44 countries. I confess I would have continued to ignore them had it not been for this exciting new publication.

Old Stacks New Leaves is a distinctive and scholarly study wherein editor Sonal Khullar reconsiders genealogies, text-image relationships, and the materiality of books in varied historical and contemporary forms dating back to 1,100 CE in South Asia. The trajectories traced in this book resist what Khullar calls, “A straightforward development from pothi [horizontal loose-leaf folios] to printed book and from oral, scribal, and performance cultures to silent, distant, or passive reading, writing, and seeing.”

Main poetry pages 1–2 of Sadequain’s Ruba‘iyat-i Sadiqain Naqqash, 2nd edition (1971). Reproduced with permission of Sibtain Naqvi.

These traditions range thematically and geographically, having forged complex interconnected networks over the centuries. They include but are not limited to Nepalese palm leaf manuscripts, royal Mughal (Indian) and Persianate folios, British imperial photograph albums, Urdu lithographic assemblages, stamp albums, intimate diaries, and contemporary artist projects about books.

A Devīmāhatmya folio, © Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Two Raginis (verso), folio from the “Devasano Pado” Kalpasutra and Kalakacharyakatha, © Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The scholarship complicates common understandings of South Asian bookmaking, whose regional practice and access benefited from Indic, Western, Islamic, and cross-cultural influences in the last millennium. For instance, Holly Shaffer writes about the Poona Photographic Company album (a volume containing portraits of Queen Victoria with Indian officials and other photographs of British imperialists), illustrating the merger of the South Asian album (muraqqa) with colonial photographic formats in a pre-Partition India. In another example, Jinah Kim discusses early Indic art of the book or the Indigenous pothi that combines Brahmanic, Buddhist, and Jain traditions in Nepal and North Indian centers in the 11th century.

Karachi-based visual artist Naila Mahmood’s photographic project about North Indian cookbooks in the first half of the 12th century demystifies connections between the local consumption of goods and the impact of colonial institutions on Indian gender and education constructions in the region. Amid a backdrop of kinship and locale, they may also prompt a bout of nostalgia for readers. I am thinking of my mom’s vintage cooking manuals — in the 1990s, the monthly food magazine Dalda ka Dastarkhwan was found in almost every Pakistani household. (“Dalda” is a vegetable oil brand while “Dastarkhwan” in Turkish is “tablecloth” and refers to traditional dining spaces often laid out on the ground in South Asian custom).

Regardless of readers’ existing knowledge about book histories, a compelling essay or an inspiring image in the publication will surely pique their interest. Khullar’s discussion of secondhand markets in India invoked my memories of book hunting in Karachi’s packed fairs and chaotic bazaars where thorough browsing often resulted in locating out-of-print and limited editions. (My favorite find is a gorgeous royal blue linen bound and richly illustrated copy of the Bible.) Pristine and decaying books alike deserve appreciation and preservation, a point Old Stacks makes successfully.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai, illustration and illumination in Muraqqa-i-Chughtai (1928)

Old Stacks, New Leaves: The Arts of the Book in South Asia (2023) edited by Sonal Khullar is published by the University of Washington Press and is available online and in bookstores.