A glimpse of letterpress legacy

by Abu Jar M Akkas

A man is picking up small metal pieces, one after another, from a case, of four drawers, full of compartments for each of the letters. He picks them up without looking into where he is putting his hand, sets them, one after another, on a compositing stick, to make up a line. When the line is too short for the usable width on the stick that he has set earlier, he spaces the words out with spacing leads. When the line is a bit long, he takes out some spacing leads or replaces them with small spaces.

As he finishes composing a page, he locks up the metal pieces, known as types, into a chase so that they do not loosen off. He runs an inked roller onto the chase, puts a sheet of paper and presses with roller again so that the ink comes off onto the page for proof correction. When the proof is done, he corrects the mistakes that he might have made.

Once this is done, a machine man mounts the chase onto the bed of a press, puts ink on a disc, with an automated roller inking the types. As the machine runs, the machine man takes a sheet of paper kept on a feed board and places it on the platen. The platen and the chase bed close together to make an impression, letters set beautifully, from the impact, to make text.

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It usually took place, in earlier days, in a small dusty, dark room called print shops. The owners could buy the metal types, made of an alloy composed of lead, antimony, tin and, sometimes, copper — so that they can withstand the impact of the press and can last for several hundred papers of print — by weight from type or letter foundries. Type foundries, which cast the lead types off matrices, made from punches, one each for individual letters, have long closed the shop as computer technology started making inroads. The last remaining type foundry, in Old Town of Dhaka, stopped casting types about a decade ago and stopped selling whatever it had five years ago.

Yet, the technology, which started journey for the Bangla language — with Charles Wilkins, aided by his able assistant Panchanan Karmakar, making punches, matrices and casting types — in 1778 for the first Bangla grammar book, A Grammar of the Bengal Language, by Nathaniel Brassey Halhead that was printed in Hooghly, is now nowhere to come by.

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But a glimpse of the process is on offer at the National Museum at Shahbagh. It began an exhibition, to run for a month till October 8, called ‘Ancient Bangla Printing Process through Hand Composition’, on the ground floor just inside the building entrance. Ancient? Not quite. It could be ancient if the 1778 milestone is counted, but it is just old if the time the print shops were closed, which is just a decade ago, is counted.

The exhibition showcases a treadle machine, pedalled, a full Bangla type case, some metal types therein and some others on display in plastic containers. Blocks of Dhaka Prakash, a weekly newspaper that came to be published in March 1861, with poet Krishna Chandra Majumdar as its first editor, and a re-printed copy of the paper, along with rubber, zinc or metal blocks of other print jobs also offers insight into the process. A short view of how text is composed and how the text is printed comes as an added experience. A number of posters put up there offer important information and specimens of texts printed in the initial days of Bangla printing, yet punches, matrices and moulds that were used to cast types could have brought the experience to a full circle.

 

The author is the deputy editor of New Age