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Can new media revive Christian publishing in India?

What is significant is that missionaries didn't stop with Christian literature but expanded its scope to include local material
Can new media revive Christian publishing in India?

An Indian Catholic nun arranges books about Pope John Paul II at the Pauline Book and Media Centre in Hyderabad in this file photo. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)

Published: October 23, 2018 05:39 AM GMT

At a time when the publishing industry has an overarching influence over many aspects of human life, the pressing question is, has the Indian church kept pace with the development and progress of the industry?

The answer is yes, to a degree, but there is much more to be done if the church is to make a big impact on mainstream publications.

It is worth recalling, with pride, that the church played a lead role in publishing materials for mass consumption in former times.

It was Christian missionaries who brought modern printing technology to India, primarily to promote Christian literature.

The art of printing is believed to have entered India through Goa, and Jesuit missioners are credited with bringing the first printing press to the country.

According to a correspondence between Jesuit Father Gasper Caleza and St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, the printing press was supposed to be sent to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). But for some reason it never made it past Goa, which gave rise to the nation's first printing operation in 1556.

Undoubtedly, its arrival gave tremendous impetus to the publishing of literature meant primarily for the Christian community.

In the early 18th century Dutch missionaries began printing copies of the Bible and other literature in local languages including Tamil.

This gave a tremendous boost to the publishing industry in India, from which there was no looking back.

This modest initiative led by missionaries aiming to provide materials for worship and faith formation eventually grew into a huge network of printing and publishing across modern India.

What is significant is that the missionaries didn't stop with Christian literature but expanded the scope of their content to include local literature.

For example in the 18th century, in the area known as Bengal (now divided among India and Bangladesh), Protestant missionary William Carey emphasized the development of indigenous languages and literature and the importance of making education more accessible.

Since Carey was a great linguist, under his guidance the Serampore mission published materials in Assamese, Bangla, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit versions of the complete Bible.

Carey and his associates Ramram Babu and Mrityunjay Vidyalankar also translated the Ramayana and other Indian classics. Their example inspired the Calcutta School Book Society (1817) to publish textbooks in Bengali.

Similarly, in southern India, German missionary Herman Gundert published 13 books including his translation of the Bible into Malayalam.

His publications in regional languages in the south helped them to develop further, and nowadays publications in Malayalam are more prevalent than those in many other languages in India.

It is also worth noting that the first Malayalam newspaper, Nasrani Deepika (Christian Lamp), was launched in 1887 by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic religious organization. It now ranks as a highly influential newspaper in the southern state of Kerala.

Meanwhile the Deepika, a contemporary version of Nazrani Deepika, is popular among intellectuals in Kerala while the mass-circulation Malayala Manorama, the second-oldest newspaper in Kerala, is owned by a Christian-family. The latter claims a readership of over 20 million people.

In recent years we have witnessed some Indian Christian publishers trying to make their mark in the industry. India has a sizable Christian book market with over 25 million Christians and at least 20 major Christian publishing houses catering to the growing needs of the community.

While the initiatives and achievements of various Christian churches in publishing have been commendable, it is disconcerting to see that the momentum generated has not been sustained to the extent it could have been.

To put it another way, Christian publishing in contemporary India has not been able to make a decisive impact on the larger publishing landscape.

One could argue the tiny Christian community, which makes up just 2.3 percent of the population and has limited resources, could hardly have fared better than it has done.

While this may be true at a regional level, I would argue the community has failed to reach anywhere near its potential in terms of publishing material for the nation as a whole. This is partly due to a deficit of entrepreneurs.

Consequently, the Christian community does not possess a single daily newspaper with a national presence, nor a "serious" magazine that the average Indian takes note of.

Several efforts have been made to rectify this by creating a national publication that could serve as a template for the Indian Catholic Church to promote its views on a range of social and religious issues.

One such attempt saw the launch of Indian Currents some 30 years ago.

The weekly, now run by the Capuchin congregation, is doing a reasonably good job of highlighting issues that affect the Christian community in India. But it needs more financial support to widen its subscription base and make its mark among national publications.

In the growing market for social media and internet-based publications, the Christian community must accelerate its efforts and make its presence more widely felt.

This is possible because the community has a good number of trained media professionals, so it is just a matter of harnessing their potential by creating a network among them.

Moreover, modern media is more cost effective than traditional media outlets, which required more capital and had more overheads.

Perhaps the community needs to take its cues from modern media and make use of these platforms to ensure its messages reach the audience they deserve across India as a whole.

Father Babu Joseph SVD, a former spokesperson for the Indian bishops' conference, is a media consultant based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

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