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A man of letters

MAR 22 -

In 1952, a landmark was set in the history of Nepalese printing with the creation of lead type of Nepal Lipi. Text could now be typeset in metal letters and printed by letterpress machine. The ancient alphabet had broken free from handwritten manuscripts and stone inscriptions, and entered the era of modern technology. The man behind this innovation is an unassuming pressman named Pushpa Ratna Sagar.
Sagar was born in Kathmandu in 1922 to a family of hereditary Tibet traders. As could be expected, he was sent to Lhasa at a young age to join his ancestral business house. It was 1943, World War II was raging; and en route to Tibet, he arrived in Kolkata to the boom of Japanese bombs raining from the sky. A few days later, Sagar went on to Kalimpong where he joined a mule caravan for the journey over the Himalaya to Lhasa. He arrived in the Tibetan capital after a three-week expedition, and assumed his duties at the family shop. But the rookie merchant proved more interested in Nepal Bhasa than merchandising. Sitting behind the shop counter, he pondered on the advancement of his mother tongue, which was then slowly emerging from a century of official suppression.
Sagar thought that a grammar book that everybody could use would be a great help in the development of the language. And seeing that such a manual wasn't easily available, he decided to write one himself. So, whenever he had free time in between his shop keeping duties, he put pen to paper and began writing a grammar. He corresponded with Dr. Hans Jørgensen in Denmark, an expert on classical Nepal Bhasa, and obtained much encouragement and input for his endeavour.
Returning to Kathmandu in 1949 after leaving the shop in the care of his elder brother, he worked to finish the project he had started in Lhasa. Finally, in 1952, the book was published under the title Subodh Nepal Bhasa Vyakaran. This was the second  major work after martyr Shukra Raj Shastri's Nepal Bhasa Vyakaran, which was published from Kolkata in 1928. It was prescribed as a textbook in all the schools where Nepal Bhasa was offered, and proved very popular with the students.
Sagar's interest in language and publishing led him to thinking about setting up a printing press. Democracy had been established in Nepal in 1951, and the nation was taking its first steps on the road to modernization. A printing press fitted in well with the new policy of glasnost. Having also lived in Kolkata for about five years and been exposed to Western technology, he could put to good use the knowledge he had gained. And so Sagar joined forces with former Lhasa merchants Ratna Man Singh Tuladhar and Mahila Kaji Tamrakar and set up the Nepal Press in 1952. Equipped with second-hand British Vicobold and other machines imported from Kolkata, the Nepal Press went into business at Sagar's own home at 122 Asan Tyouda Tol.
The Nepal Press was a champion of Nepal Bhasa, and printed books and other matter making full use of the newly gained freedom of the press. Thaunkanhay, a literary monthly magazine (publisher Ratna Man Singh), and Nepal Bhasa Patrika, the first daily newspaper in Nepal Bhasa (editor and publisher Fatte Bahadur Singh), also started publication from here in 1952.
While his elder brothers looked after the Tibet business, Sagar devoted himself to the printing press; but he continued to play a part. He served a term as secretary of the Kathmandu chapter of the Nepalese Chamber of Commerce Lhasa. In 1957, when Chou En-lai visited Kathmandu, the chamber gave a reception in his honour, and Sagar had an opportunity to meet with the Chinese premier and exchange gifts.
Besides language, Sagar's other passion was Nepal Lipi. He decided that the script would gain wider use only if it could be printed by printing machines. And so he set out to produce metal type used in letterpress printing. There was no foundry in Nepal that could make the matrices needed to cast the types. So he had an artist Gyan Ratna Bajracharya design a font, and sent the pictures to Eastern Type Foundry in Kolkata to do the production. The first Nepal Lipi types were thus made in 1952. Till then, the only typefaces available for printing in Nepal were Devanagari and Roman.
In 1960, the three partners in the Nepal Press parted company, and Sagar set up his own operation called the Nepal Printing Press. Besides managing a flourishing printing business, he continued serving his mother tongue. In 1986, Sagar earned another distinction by bringing out the first Nepal Lipi typewriter. Since there were no facilities in Nepal to make the metal type used in typewriters, he travelled to Allahabad in India carrying with him the pictures of the characters designed by artist Keshav Ratna Bajracharya. There, he contacted a foundry, Characters Types, and gave them the designs to cast the types. Returning to Kathmandu, he had the letters fitted to a batch of Remingtons, and thereby literally typed his name in history.
Sagar's dedication did not go unnoticed. In 1994, a literary organisation Nepal Bhasa Parishad decorated him with the title "Bhasa Thuwa". In the following years, the soft-spoken pressman continued to display his resourcefulness. In 1998, he published a dictionary entitled Nepal Bhasaya Maulik Sabdakosh. A second edition appeared in 2005.
Computers have superseded typewriters, offset has taken over letterpress, and Nepal Lipi has progressed from metal type to Unicode. Reflecting on these developments, a picture comes to mind of a merchant writing a grammar in his family store in Lhasa.Posted on: 2009-03-21 08:52


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