Furdoonjee Marzbanjee founded the Mumbai Samachar newspaper 200 years ago.
What were the circumstances under which this print landmark was founded? Who took the leap to print and publish a Gujarati newspaper in a city that had no print culture? What were his antecedents? How did he succeed in laying the foundation of an edifice which has survived 200 years?
Enter Furdoonjee Marzbanjee. In the 21st century, a man like Furdoonjee would be called a serial entrepreneur, founding one start-up after another every few years. Before fashioning himself as a newspaper editor and proprietor at the age of 35, Furdoonjee had already donned many hats. His story, like those of many others born in the 18th century, starts with a migration.
The serial entrepreneur
Furdoonjee Marzbanjee was not the typical immigrant arriving in Bombay in the early 19th century, illiterate and indigent. Born in Surat into an illustrious family of Parsi priests in 1787, he was trained in Persian and Sanskrit, besides being proficient in Gujarati and Urdu. When he first reached Bombay as a teenager in 1805, Furdoonjee came under the patronage of Mulla Feroze (1758-1830), a Parsi priest and prominent community leader, whose library of manuscripts he managed. As part of his responsibilities, Furdoonjee mended and rebound a number of manuscripts in the collection.
Mulla Feroze was the leader of the Kadmi Parsis, a schismatic Zoroastrian sect that had been co-founded by Furdoonjee’s grandfather, Dastoor Kaus Munajjam (1717-1779). Mulla Feroze, as the Persian tutor to Jonathan Duncan, the governor of Bombay, also moved in the highest circles of power in the city. His influence with successive governors would later be useful to Furdoonjee. A few years after he arrived in Bombay, Furdoonjee began exploring opportunities for livelihood.
The Mumbai Samachar was run as a business venture from the very start and, as we have seen, carried advertisements from its first issue. Furdoonjee invited contributions from the general public by way of poetry, literary compositions, and notices for sale and purchase, which he would be glad to publish in his newspaper. If the promulgation of a notice involved any pecuniary gain, a charge would be made for the printing, but not otherwise.
Thus Furdoonjee was able to create a market for advertisements in his paper. The Mumbai Samachar began to incorporate elements that are now considered standard for any newspaper – columns on the weather, local crime, price currents and letters from its readers. These were major innovations for its time and were copied by all its successors. Furdoonjee also introduced the concept of obituaries in the newspaper; as it happened, one of the first obituaries to appear in its columns in October 1822 was that of his father Marzbanjee.
Furdoonjee’s business operations were conducted from a building in the Old Vegetable Market near the Bazar Gate of the Fort of Bombay. About the year 1814, he set up his printing press in the same building and began to experiment with small jobs. This was the very first instance of an Indian setting up shop as an independent printer and publisher – a desi chhapakhana. The printing press was however not yet worthy of having its own name and was simply known as Furdoonjee Marzbanjee’s Chhapakhana.
The first couple of years were a period of experimentation and the ephemeral imprints produced by the fledgling printing press with no name must have been handbills and auction notices. The very first imprint which emerged from this press in October 1814 was an almanac for the year Samvat 1871 (1814-15). A slim volume of 32 pages, it was intended as a substitute for the handwritten almanacs then available in the market. Though priced at an expensive Rs 2, it flew off the shelves as buyers flocked to the press to lay their hands on this new innovation. The durability of this almanac can be judged from the fact that its 209th annual edition will appear in Diwali 2022.
After a few years in the printing business, Furdoonjee realised that the Gujarati types which he had cast needed to be improved. He however did not have the necessary engraving skills and therefore commissioned a new set of Gujarati types to be engraved and cast in England, though he supplied the font designs himself. These types were made at a stupendous cost of Rs 11,000 and were first used in 1818 to print a Gujarati translation of the Zoroastrian holy book, Khordeh Avesta.
On 15th June, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a special postal stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mumbai Samachar – Asia’s oldest running newspaper. The Gujarati newspaper was first published in 1822 (then Bombay Samachar) as a weekly by Parsi scholar, Fardunjee Marzban.
Speaking at ‘Dwishatabdi Mahotsav’ of Mumbai Samachar, PM Modi lauded the iconic Gujarati daily for giving voice to the freedom movement as well as taking 75 years of independent India to readers of all ages. He shared that at a time when it was a challenge to get a newspaper in an Indian language like Gujarati, Mumbai Samachar expanded linguistic journalism of that era.
The office of this 200-year-old newspaper is housed in an iconic red building at Horniman Circle in Mumbai’s Fort area. As per news reports, Mumbai Samachar’s director, Hormusji Cama says that 20 years ago the newspaper conducted research and found that it is the oldest surviving publication in India and the fourth oldest in the world. Bombay Samachar (as it was called then) started primarily to inform the readers about ship movements and commodities, and gradually evolved into a true city newspaper with a focus on trade that it is today. The paper exchanged several hands before the Cama family took over in 1933. It has since steadily grown. Cama, its present director and a passionate vintage car collector, insists that placing the reader in the centre is the key to the newspaper’s success.