Anindita Mazumder

Bat-tala of yore, the birthplace of Bengali popular literature, was located in Chitpur area near the crossing of Rabindra Sarani and Beadon Street. The neighbourhood owed its name to the twin Banyan trees which stood by a pond.

Biswanath Deb was the first entrepreneur to set up a printing press at Bat-tala in 1818, marking the beginning with the printing of arithmetic textbook. With the passage of time and spread of primary education in both vernacular and English, the printing trade was no longer confined by geographical limits but spread to  Garanhata, Kumartuli, Ahiritola, Burrabazar, Simulia, Mirzapur and Bagbazar. The Bat-tala printers’ network grew like the aerial roots of the banyan tree that gave the quarters its name. In other words Bat-tala books were not produced in Bat-tala alone. The name acquired a generic or descriptive significance though often in the derogatory sense. Timir Nashak, Hedayatullah, Pitambar Sen’s Sindhumantra, Sanskrit and Bengali Presses were some of the well-known establishments.

Bat-tala books were cheap and shoddily produced. In the mid 18 Century, Reverend James Long described the presses occupying the bylanes as “with little outside to attract” but plying a busy trade. A typical establishment operated with worn out wooden press and equally worn out type-face, somehow held together to print on inferior paper. Often if one of the type-faces broke the compositor would use any other type-face in its place without any qualm. No wonder the end product were replete with misspelt words and printer’s devil. The compositors too, were poorly paid.

But it made printing economical. While the Srirampur Press charged Rs 24 for the complete set of Ramayana Bat-tala publishers sold it for only Rs one and a half. Pornographic pamphlets were even sold for one paisa.

The inventory of Bat-tala books was quite wide and included drama, novels, religious and cultic text, book of magic, Kamsasthra, homeopathy, veterinary sciences and even detective stories. It was home to a rich array of comedies, sketches and farces, reflecting the social life of the era. In fact, Chitpur Jatrapara was kept alive by these Bat-tala tomes. Illustrated Bengali religious works, both Hindu and Islamic, were printed at Bat-tala. In a secular tradition, Hindu publishers brought out Islamic texts while Muslim publishers engaged Hindu authors. The distinctive Bengali Panjika (almanac) was also printed here. But the greatest contribution was the spread of Classic Literature.

Ramayana, Mahabharata and Chandimangal, translations of Arabic and Persian Classics apart, they did brisk trade in ephemeral literature serving the lower middle class of both urban and rural homes with titles like Vidyasundar, Chandrakanta, Rasamanjari, Ratibilas, Premollas, Madhumalati, Madhujamini and so on. Women were among the target readers with a collection of songs replete with sexual innuendoes and meant for Basarghar selling briskly.

Bat-tala did produce a certain amount of erotica which can be attributed to the flourishing Babu culture. As a product of popular culture Bat-tala could not escape the consequences of the hedonism of Babus which gave birth to ‘kheurgaan’ and the custom of having mistresses. However, folk art can sometimes influence its more cerebral sister and this was evident from the influence of earlier Bat-tala romance, Hemlata-Ratikanta in Pyarichand Mitra’s Alaler Gharer Dulal or Bankimchandra’s Durgeshnandini. But Bat-tala aroused the hackles of the bhadralok with Western education and those belonging to Brahmo Samaj.

Bat-tala also helped in the spread of vernacular Press and journal. Gangakishore Bhattacharya who found the journal, Bengal Gajeti supported his establishment with printing of books including the beautifully illustrated Annadamangal of Bharatchandra.

Initially, rural traders coming to Burrabazar often returned with a few titles from Bat-tala such as Adarshalipi or book on veterinary sciences. Sales were promoted by canvassers who also took books to village fairs, often at far off rural areas. While peddling they would collect manuscripts or punthis from rural Bengal which in turn would be printed at Bat-tala, thereby acting as a bridge between oral tradition and literacy. The huge collection of manuscripts at Calcutta University was nearly all acquired by these hawkers. Nagendranath Basu (1866-1938) the editor of the encyclopaedia Bishwakosh, gathered these manuscripts through the hawkers.

Remarkably, the evolution of Bat-tala literature coincided with that of Kalighat Pat. Both flourished in the second decade of 18th Century and catered to popular taste while making available books and pictures of gods and goddesses at cheaper rates to the masses. Both castigated the Babu Culture, religious hypocrisy and alleged evils of modernism including women education. In fact when in 1872 Elokeshi, a young wife was murdered by her husband after being seduced by the Mahant of Tarakeshwar, it led to several productions both in Bat-tala literature and woodcuts as well as Kalighat Pats.

Bat-tala’s influence was not limited to literature alone but to art through woodcut, lithographs and chromolithographs. Compared to metal engravings and lithographs woodcuts were the least expensive means of reproducing illustrations and hence, were used for popular religious books, almanacs and Bat-tala literature.

Bat-tala woodcuts were no longer confined to books; they took the form of loose prints, roughly coloured by hand.  They were printed on single sheets of paper. While Kalighat Pats were anonymous, Battala artists used to sign and add the name of the printing press. Well known artists included Benimadhab Bhattacharya, Madhabchndra Das, Nrityalal Dutta, Ramdhan Swarnakar. The so called ‘bazaar artists’, shunned Western influence, excepting for the furniture on which Sundaris reclined or the angels hovering around Mother Goddess. By the end of the century, there was large turnout of cheap chromolithographs from a host of Bat-tala presses, at Chorbagan, Kansaripara, Pathuriaghata and Boubazar.

Till 1860s the great printing mart was centred at Bat-tala and adjoining areas, at the heart of Bengali town. The Hindu College was also first set up in this area. It was only later that it moved to what was then called Pataldanga. The Sanskrit College, Hare School, Medical College and University also came up in the same area and the printing and publishing centre of Calcutta had to migrate to College Street.

Today the erstwhile Bat-tala area still has a number of old litho presses rubbing shoulders with the Jatra establishments, printing banners, bills and vouchers. A lone bookshop- Diamond Library, another, selling almanacs and few litho presses on Rabindra Sarani are all that have survived the onslaught of time.