Asha Sridhar explores the 108-year-old Ranade Library and sees what it has to offer

The silence in the hall is deafening and the air is punctuated only intermittently, by the sound of a page turning.

Men and women, young and old, including R. Rajappa, sit around sturdy wooden tables reading the day’s news. Looking down on them are imposing portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, among several others, and surrounding them are early 20 century books such as ‘Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English’ by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley and volumes of the ‘Historian’s history of the world’.

Housing close to 8,000 books, mostly belonging to the 1800s and 1900s, the quaint 108-year old Ranade Library in Mylapore, seems like an anachronism, with the daily arrival of newspapers and magazines seeming to be the only marker indicating the passage of time.

K. S. Hemanth Kumar, honorary secretary of The South Indian National Association, which manages the library, observes that the free reading room is quite popular in the neighbourhood. “The library was founded in 1905 and was named after Mahadev Govind Ranade. It was originally located on Brodies Road (present day R.K. Mutt Road) before moving to this location on Luz Church Road in 1928,” he says, adding that the library was founded by Dewan Bahadur R. Raghunatha Rao, V. Krishnaswami Iyer, and P.R. Sundara Iyer.

“The Srinivasa Sastri Hall above the Ranade Library was opened in 1955 to host lectures and meetings and was named after V.S. Srinivasa Sastri who was also the vice-president of the Association for a short time,” he says.

M. Narayanaswamy, a senior member, had written about his association with the institution during its centenary year in 2005. The spirit of the times then, he says in his work, demanded a permanent forum for informed discussion of public affairs and a library was a necessary adjunct to provide information on current developments.

Mr. Narayanaswamy, who wrote mostly about the period spanning the mid-1940s to 1950s, He recalled how a well-known defence expert told him that as an indigent student, he regularly went to the reading room of this library to read newspapers and journals that he could not afford to subscribe to.

In the early fifties, a small group of members met every Sunday morning to discuss recent books, the second five-year plan, developments in the Soviet Union and China and Bertrand Russell among other topics, he wrote. Mr. Hemant says that the hall has been venue to lectures by several eminent persons over the years, and that the library continues to hold annual lectures. In 1957, the Gokhale-Sastri Institute was begun in a location just off Luz Church Road, for which K.N. Shanmugasundaram donated land.

The heavy catalogue of the library lists old books such as ‘A Short History of Free thought’ by J.M. Robertson, early copies of the Indian Annual Register and Indian Quarterly Register, ‘New India or India in Transition’ by Henry John Stedman, ‘The Religions of India’ by Hopkins and several titles covering archaeology, anthropology, politics, philosophy, science and the freedom movement.

Taking stock of the library’s identity today, Mr. Hemant says that like any old library, they are faced with the conundrum of finding the balance between taking into account readers’ preferences and guarding and preserving rare books. Mr. Narayanaswamy also said, “Weekends are spent in other ways than attending lectures and parliamentary discussions can now be followed live in drawing rooms.” He suggested restocking and modernising the library and establishing links with professors and research students of social sciences in universities.

“We want to modernise the library, for which we need more members. Most of the rare books in the library are reference books for those interested in research,” says Mr. Hemant. Of these, many are in fragile condition, due to the lack of healthy patronage. The library’s annual membership costs a meagre Rs. 100.

“Over the past few years we have been receiving book donations covering contemporary titles as well,” Mr. Hemant says, adding that they have between 300-400 members, of whom many are not active.

More In: Chennai | News | Columns