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A 100-year romance with books

For booklovers Motilal Banarasidass (or MLBD, as it is often called) represents an unparalleled storehouse of treasures from India's ancient wisdom pool.

Sundarlal (wearing a white cap) with Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

THE YEAR 2003 marks an important event in the history of the venerable publishing house, Motilal Banarasidass: it turns 100. For book lovers Motilal Banarasidass (or MLBD, as it is often called) represents an unparalleled storehouse of treasures from India's ancient wisdom pool, publishing books on our culture, religion, tradition, and scriptures. MLBD has published over 5,000 works related to Indian and Asian philosophy, history, culture, architecture, archaeology, language, literature, mysticism, yoga, tantra, medicine, astronomy, astrology, and other such subjects.

P.S. Ganapathy, Manager of the Bangalore branch, says with pride: "We have brought out some priceless works, like the Puranas, the Vedas, the Mahapuranas, the sacred books of the East (65 volumes) by Max Mueller, Sanskrit books, Agni, the A to Z book on Indian yagnas, etc.." MLBD's list is impressive: one can be sure that any book on India, will be available at this exclusive book store, where at least 200 of them are bestsellers, at any time. Among the current bestsellers are their books on Vedic mathematics, which are fast becoming popular amongst students and parents alike.

Says Mr. Ganapathy: "We have published books on Vedic mathematics by various authors, including Jagadguru Sankaracharya Bharati Krsna Tirth Ji Maharaj of Govardhan Math, Puri, and Dwarka. This subject has become so popular that Vedic mathematics books are accepted as textbooks in some schools in UK today."

Most of the books MLBD publishes are extensively researched and authored by highly respected scholars, and edited and approved by an eminent panel of scholars. MLBD is particular about scrutinising works it has published, because people have come to rely upon its publications for authenticity. In fact, the publishing house turns down 90 per cent of the manuscripts that come to it seeking publication.

The pioneers of the Bansrasidass family.

MLBD also brings out books based on research and study conducted at organisations such as ICHR, IGNCA, ICCR and so on, promoting ancient culture, history, philosophy, and other subjects related to Indology. Its publications comprise a very successful niche market.

The beginning of MLBD dates back to 1903, when Lala Motilal Jain (a descendant of the family of court jewellers to Maharaja Ranjit Singh) borrowed Rs. 27 from his wife's savings, earned from her knitting work, to start a bookshop selling Sanskrit books.

He set up a bookshop in Said Mitha Bazar in Lahore (in undivided Punjab). His son Lala Banarasidass Jain looked after the establishment, which soon came to be called Motilal Banarasidass.

Around 1911, MLBD opened a branch at Mai Sewan Bazar, Amritsar, under the supervision of Lala Sundarlal Jain, another son of Lala Motilal Jain. However, the untimely death of Lala Banarasidass in 1912, led to the closing of this branch, with Lala Sundarlal returning to Lahore to look after business there. Lala Shantilal, the son of Lala Banarasidass also joined his uncle in the business, after leaving school.

Communal riots during the partition years destroyed the bookstore. The family had to migrate to India and set up business again in Patna in 1937. After Independence, the family stayed at Bikaner and Patna, before moving to Varanasi in 1950. In 1951, a branch was opened at Varanasi. Finally, the family settled down in Delhi in 1958. Ever since they have stayed at the same residence and are a great example of the almost non-existent Indian joint family with the five sons of Lala Shantilal (who run the business today) and their families all living under the same roof.

With continued efforts of Sundarlal Jain and Shantilal, MLBD scaled new heights in the publishing business. With the support of scholars such as India's former presidents S. Radhakrishnan, Rajendra Prasad, and other literary and spiritual stalwarts, MLBD has done commendable work in presenting India's past to successive generations of readers. In 1992, Mr. Shantilal Jain was awarded the Padmashri for his contribution in the field of Indology.

The bookstore is an abode of knowledge.

Says Mr. Ganapathy: "We are shipping books all the time to NRIs and those living abroad. That constitutes about 70 per cent of our business. The sad part is that Indians living here don't realise the value of the knowledge available so freely to them." Mr. Ganapathy is ecstatic to state the case of a software engineer from Infosys, who came to the bookstore looking for a book on Sanskrit grammar. "The reason he cited for reading Sanskrit grammar was that once you decipher this grammar, software programming logic comes easily to you."

Despite a century of successful existence, MLBD has had its share of woes too. Besides poor reading habits (especially in this niche area of Indological books), the firm has been battling against problems like increased overheads, high cost of paper, competition from MNCs, and so on. However, this has not deterred them from celebrating their centennial year. MLBD has a full calendar of events this year, comprising seminars, workshops, conferences on subjects as diverse as meditation, Vedic mathematics, famous authors, and the like. They also plan to bring out some low-cost publications and give special discounts on their books this year. Celebrations will take place at their various stores in Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, Varanasi, and Patna at different times of the year, with June-July being the time when the Bangalore store will have some offers.

MLBD certainly looks like it is going to have a good year ahead, with spirituality on the rise and demand for literature on alternative Indian medicine, Ayurveda, new age books increasing steadily. The local branch of MLBD can be contacted on 6542591.


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