Printing started in Kerala in the 16th century. It began when members of a Roman Catholic sect known as Jesuits, who were engaged in spreading Christianity in Kerala, set up printing presses in Kochi, Kollam, Ambazhakkad, and Vaippikkottu. The first book was printed in 1578 in Ambazhakkad. It was the Tamil translation of the book Doctrina Christum, the original of which was written by the missionary St. Francis Xavier in Portuguese.
All the four printing presses initially printed only Tamil books. As such, though printing technology was introduced in Kerala in the 16th century, it took many more years for readers to lay their hands on a printed Malayalam work. Further, by the beginning of the 17th century, the printing press in Ambazhakkad became non-functional.
The Malayalam script first came into print in the book Hortus Malabaricus printed in Amsterdam in The Netherlands. After that Malayalam was printed in Rome and Mumbai. Rev. Benjamin Bailey (1791-1871), an Englishman engaged in Christian missionary work in Kerala, established a printing press in Kottayam in 1821 and printed the first Malayalam book in 1824. The book was a collection of eight stories for children translated from English by Bailey himself.
Before printing started, Malayalam was written in a style called chathura-vadivu (square in shape). Early Malayalam printing done in Rome and Mumbai was in this style. Bailey changed this script into a form called vatta-vadivu (round in shape) more suitable for printing. Everyone welcomed the change because the round script was better than the square one in appearance and it made the job of type-casting easier.
The round script was used for long till a change was made in 1967 according to the recommendations of a committee headed by Sooranad Kunjan Pillai. The suggestions for this were given by Sri. N. V. Krishna Warrier in the 1960s through the Mathrubhumi weekly. In fact, much before Kandathil Varghese Mappillai had put forward similar suggestions through his newspaper Malayala Manorama. He had recommended writing joint-consonants separately by using the crescent shaped punctuation mark (chandrakala) to separate them.
Malayalam Printing: Benjamin Bailey was the person who laid the foundation for Malayalam printing in India. The first Malayalam printing press in Kerala, C. M. S. Press, was established by him in Kottayam. Besides getting many books printed, Bailey also played a crucial role in developing Malayalam script. The credit for publishing the first Malayalam newspaper, named Njananikshepam, also goes to Bailey. It was printed and published from C. M. S. Press from 1848 onwards. The contributions Bailey made to the field of Malayalam printing and publishing are incomparable.
The Round Script
Vatta-vadivu is the word used to refer to the rounded Malayalam script that came into use when printing started in Kerala. Before that Malayalam was written in a square style known as chathura-vadivu. The early Malayalam books printed in Mumbai and Rome were printed in the square script. Bailey was the person who understood the need to have a modified script for printing, to make type casting easy and to improve the visual comfort of reading. It was a practical change that was welcomed by everyone.
The Square Script
Before printing was introduced, and even during the fledgling stages of printing, Malayalam was written in a square-shaped script referred to as chathura-vadivu. Early books like Sampkshepa Vedartham and Alphabetum were printed in Rome in this script. The New Testament printed in Mumbai in 1811 also used the same script. It was Benjamin Bailey’s imagination and practical thinking that led the shift to the new script.