Features Wednesday, April 29, 2015 - 05:30

Hidden behind the Daly Memorial Hall in Bengaluru’s Nrupatunga Road, surrounded by tall peepal trees, is one of the city’s lesser known gems. Far before it was anointed the Silicon Valley of India, a melting pot of different cultures now at the verge of over flowing, Bengaluru was a laid back city tracing its attitude to its colonial past. Two gentlemen from this era, one a collector of pottery fragments in the Madras Presidency and the other a Father associated with St. Joseph’s College, left behind a legacy that continues even after a century. The 106 year old Mythic Society Library has few visitors, but is a repository of invaluable original texts available nowhere else in the world. Few months back at the Pune International Literary Festival, Maneka Gandhi narrated to the audience how the library was a rich source of information for her literary work. The awe Gandhi created with her words is not felt when one enters the library. Nothing feels extraordinary, it is usually deserted. But when you spend time looking at what it holds, you understand Gandhi’s admiration. As I enter the library, TN Srinivasan, the old librarian, looks up and smiles as he works on his computer. He has spent 45 years in this profession, he says. If I want to know more about the library, I should begin by reading few old journals published by the Mythic Society, he says handing them over to me. For years before, in 1909 when the library was started, F.J. Richards, then the Collector of the Bengaluru Cantonment, and Father Reverend Tabard, a missionary, were eager to learn more about Indian culture and philosophy. They wanted to study about the archaeology, art and literature surrounding them. During its initial days, most of the books were given to the library by the Mysore government. Some books from the Mysore Secretariat Library were also transferred here. “90% of libraries in India have removed the catalogue system, but here it still continues,” says Srinivasan, carefully handling a hundred year old manuscript written in a script resembling Telugu, with seven hundred verses describing Hindu Goddess Durga’s victory over Mahishasura to form the Devi Mahatmaya.   Walking around the library, it is hard to miss a large wall hanging. It is a rare copy of the Magna Carta Libertatum published by the British Museum, in London, in 1965. Originally signed in 1215, this charter led to the emergence of a civil society in Europe. The library has different sections for books in Sanskrit, Kannada and English. Almost like a maze, it is rather easy to lose your way amongst a collection of over 40,000 books. Some of the oldest books stored here date back to the year 1795 and are tightly bound with handmade paper. Old editions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, published in 1799, along with many other books on technology, art and literature, all in Sanskrit, are kept in a small, dimly lit room. Large cabinets filled with a vast collection of dictionaries, epigraphic volumes and several accounts on the history of Mysore are a part of the Kannada section.  Books written by Englishmen on Indian architecture, mythology and art lay untouched on the shelves. Sitting in the library and delicately turning pages of brittle paper and the lurking fragrance of old books only enhances the experience of reading Shakespeare’s works, bound and published in 1860. The library has some works from Indian contemporary history as well.  Mahatma Gandhi’s weekly journal, the Harijan also finds its place in the collection. In an edition published on 8th March 1942, Gandhiji writes about Indira Nehru’s engagement with Firoz Gandhi, defending it, as he received several angry letters written against the union on the grounds of religion. However, only the issues published in 1942 of the Harijan are available here. Staying true to its purpose, all the publications of the Archaeological Survey of India are maintained here. Archaeological journals are also received from the Institute of Regional Studies which in Pakistan. Books in French, German and Sinhalese were also stored here, but as people stopped referring to them, these books were given away to other institutions. “Books are the best friend of mankind. We use it here to preserve it for the future generations,” adds Srinivasan as he talks to me about the preservation of books that is done by spraying them a de-acidification spray once a year to increase their lifespan. Nobel laureates CV Raman and Rabindranath Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi were patrons of the library. Many in Karnataka and India would remember Dr N.G. Pavanje, a renowned artist, known for his works in western art. Having heavily influenced art especially in Old Mysore, a gallery showcasing his works is maintained by the library. The collection includes toys and artefacts and numerous paintings by him. The most interesting article displayed in the gallery is Dr Pavanje’s passport, open to the page showing his British visa. The entire library is open to all, and for free. Scholars and students still use the library for research work. A self- sustaining institution, supported by the Mythic Society, it is not backed by the government in any way. As I left, I asked Srinivasan as to why he thinks fewer people visit libraries these days.  I told him I wanted to quote him on that. He stayed silent for five minutes, and then sat down to write something on a piece of paper. It read, “True scholars and readers will always prefer to read a hard copy of books. This is the temple of knowledge and the only place for the solace of the mind." (All photographs by Vijayta Lalwani)

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