“Publishing” and Publics in a World Without Print: Vernacular Manuscripts in Early Modern India
South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies
How did one make a work ‘public’ in the world of pre-print South Asia? What are the textual and material aspects of manuscripts that alert us to their character as ‘published’ works intended to be circulated among members of an imagined readership removed from the author or scribe in space and time? Can such textual artifacts be systematically distinguished from copies intended primarily for the use of a single individual? This essay explores these questions in the context of literary and religious works and their copies produced in South Asia during the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries in the vernacular language known variously as Hindi, Urdu, Hindavi, or Hindustani. Comparing paratextual material like colophons, opening formulae, rubrics, and marginal inscriptions across different literary genres and across different reader communities as well as comparing material aspects of different types of manuscripts—e.g. bound and unbound, illustrated and unillustrated, notebooks and liturgical manuals, etc.—reveals patterns in the way that authors and scribes signaled the public character of a finished textual artifact. Making such comparisons among large corpora of manuscripts and reading certain paratexts “against the grain” reveals the contours of various emergent reading ‘publics’ before the rapid expansion of print technology in the eighteenth century.