Lekshmanan’s collection boasts rare photos of Netaji

On a narrow lane off Melaoorani Vaikkal Street in Karaikudi is a nondescript but astonishing private library that represents a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts, photos, books and other material of great archival value.

S.N. Lekshmanan is a 57-year-old bibliophile with a collection of nearly 70,000 old books, historic photos and rare manuscripts.

His huge collection comprises 200-year-old books on classical Tamil, music, medicine and art. There are also letters, pamphlets and handbills going back to the days of the Indian National Army (INA) in the early 1940s.

There are portraits of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and V.M. Letchumanan Chettiyar, Chairman of the Indian Independence League (IIL), along with his colleagues.

The photo of Netaji with three of his major generals, Chatterji, Giyani and Habib Rahman, was taken in Tokyo in 1942. The group photo of Lekshmanan Chettiyar with others, bears Netaji’s signature. “We are fighting the cause not of India alone, but of humanity as well. India freed means humanity saved,” said Netaji in his signed letter to Chettiyar.

The unassuming bibliophile displays a collection of about 250 post cards and about 50 telegrams sent by the INA troops to Mr. Chettiyar, when they were in exile in Malaya. Among the ‘INA collection’ are handbills and pamphlets announcing street plays and public meetings, details of donations given to the INA, membership cards and Netaji’s writings in the National Liberation Week and his messages.

“I got most of the INA collection from my father who served in the INA and died in Malaya in 1971,” Mr Lekshmanan told The Hindu. He collected some more material after visiting Malaya, Burma and from old paper marts in parts of Tamil Nadu, he says. A ninth standard drop-out, Lekshmanan hails from Pandukudi, near Thiruvadanai in Ramanathapuram district. He could not pursue his studies after his father’s death and took up business, only to end up as a bibliophile.

Though he developed an interest in Tamil literature after reading Appusamy stories by Bagyam Ramaswamy and ‘Tokyovil Thirumanam’ by Saavi in the local library at Pandukudi, his penchant for collecting old Tamil classics began when he visited Sri Lanka in 1982 while on a business trip. During his stay in Colombo, while his friends went to a movie, he visited an old book shop. “I asked for a book and the bookstore man gave me “Kalithogai”, a classical Tamil poetic work written by C.V. Thamodrampillai and published in 1887.

That was a turning point for Lekshmanan. He developed a passion for collecting old Tamil classics after going through the preface in which the author pointed out that Tamil was more than 15,000 years old. On his return, he settled in Coimbatore to pursue his tobacco business, but started scouting for old Tamil books.

During a visit to Sulur Sandai to procure tobacco, more than a quarter century ago, he stumbled upon ‘Sathurakarathi’, the first Tamil dictionary written by Veeramamunivar and published in 1824. This turned out to be the oldest of his collections.

Since then, there has been no looking back as his collection swelled with rare literary works such as the Ramayana and Mahabaratha, Mukkudal Pallu, depicting the struggles between shaivites and vaishanavites, and Thiruvilaiyadal on palm leaf.

Stacked in his library are Athisudi (the moral treatise in easy verse for children by poet Auvaiyar), put together by Saravanaperumal Aiyar in 1832, Tholkapiam, the earliest extant edition of Tamil literature, written by Mahalinga Aiyar and published in 1848. Lekshmanan also has a collection of more than 6500 text books, collection of English rhymes printed in London in 1810, more than 6000 century-old books, magazines and dailies. Research scholars from India and abroad visit his library, but are not allowed to borrow books. He has spent the bulk of his earnings on the collection. Indeed, it is safe to say he has devoted his life to collecting books and preserving history.

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