Beginning the dissertation

Finding a topic

I didn’t expect it, but the journey of finding a dissertation topic was very tumultuous. When I came to Reading, I had thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to do more research on Kaithi. In the course of the months, and after dissertation week in December, I was less and less sure if that is what I wanted to do. In the mean time, I thought it could also be interesting to do a dissertation about intellectual property in typeface design, and how notions of protection and ownership have evolved over time. I almost made up my mind about this topic before being dissuaded by the potentially controversial nature of the subject and difficulties I could face in finding detailed information about recent court cases involving typeface design. All of this meant that by the time we went into the winter break, I was completely topic-less.

During the holidays, I contemplated falling back on my practical project to find a dissertation topic. I considered doing something related to the organization of words in a dictionary, and the concept of alphabetization. Fascinating as the subject was, I couldn’t really find a way to mould it into a dissertation subject.

Of course while this was going on in my head, the deadline for the proposal submission was becoming dangerously close. Before I knew it, it was three days before the submission and I still didn’t have a topic. By this time, I was praying for a miracle. The epiphany happened when I was reading Graham’s Shaw’s article ‘Calcutta: birthplace of the Indian lithographed book’, from the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, No.27. I read like a fiend over the next two days, and identified the ideas that interested me. What did Indians in the nineteenth century think about western books? How would books produced by Indians look like, would they be different? When did a popular “Indian” print culture emerge? I managed to turn in a proposal on time, but to be honest I wasn’t quite satisfied with what I had submitted. It was too general, and I knew I was running of risk of doing a broad survey and not looking into any details at all.

(Re)Writing the proposal

After a few weeks of research, and feedback from Gerry and Fiona, I rewrote my proposal. I have tried to narrow down the topic and make the research questions more specific. I’m still labouring to find a title, and the rather long working title is “Characteristics of the lithographed book, produced by Indians and for Indians, in north India during the 19th century”, but here is the progress I have made so far in defining the restrictions for the subject:

[1] Shaw, Graham (1998) ‘Calcutta: birthplace of the Indian lithographed book’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, Printing Historical Society,  89-111

a. Lithography has been chosen as the only production technique whose output will be studied because it allowed flexible arrangements of text and image; and liberated the printer from the restrictions of metal type, which having been invented for the Latin script, was easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation in the height and width of individual glyphs, the ways in which glyphs could be combined, and the size of character sets in other scripts. Lithography also did not require the same expertise or financial investment as setting up a “typographic” press. In fact, it has been credited as having a more far-reaching effect on the vernacular print culture in India than printing with type. [1]

b. The second, “books produced by Indians and for Indians” will allow one to study how the transition from the manuscript tradition to printed book was made in terms of design, layout and organization of information; as well as comment on the difference between the accepted cultural notions about the format, aesthetics and authority of a book in India and the west.

c. The geographical area—the northern part of India that will include cities such as Lucknow, Kanpur, Delhi and Benares—has been chosen not only because it had a fledging lithographic tradition, but because it was a vibrant multi-script society with Hindustani, the spoken tongue, being printed in both the Persian and Devanagari alphabet.

d. Finally, the limitation of time will enable one to focus on a period that saw the evolution of the principles that guided the design of the vernacular book (lithography was introduced in India in 1823). The nineteenth century is also a period of development for popular literary genres in Hindustani, and a growing national movement; this gave an impetus to Indians to engage in printing.

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Comment 1

  1. d ray June 28, 2013

    Dear Pooja,

    Its really an interesting topic that you are working on. Its great to see someone working on lithography. The details you have provided above are quite enriching. I am working on Bengali children’s literature in colonial Bengal and I happened to see your blog while searching for Graham Shaw’s Calcutta: Birthplace of the Indian Lithographed Book. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the copy of the essay online but read your write-up. Would it be possible for you to let me know the where I can get a copy of the essay?
    Wishing you all the best for all your projects in future.

    best
    d r

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