When it comes to private libraries, we have more than our fair share. After all, this is the city of S.R. Ranganathan, the father of library science, whose colon classification system is followed all over the world. But one name that pops up often when talking about private book collections is that of our columnist Sriram V. “During the early part of the 20th Century, people read a lot of Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens,” says the writer and historian, before going on to share some trivia. The decision to open up some of these private reading retreats to the public is up to the family, says Sriram. “People tend to be possessive about their books; a part of any book lover’s culture. I am not flexible myself..” So, tread carefully when you visit these libraries.
Jean-Francois Lesage, embroiderer
“Rediscovering an old book is like an encounter with an old friend. I am not attached to comfort, but I am attached to beauty and books,” says the fourth-generation embroiderer and son of the legendary François Lesage.
His house in Alwarpet is filled with colourful birds, wooden chairs and embroidered textiles, and amid these sit wooden shelves housing books on architecture, art, design, textiles and gardening, all classified in alphabetical order.
Some have been placed horizontally while the others show their spines. Lesage says he likes displaying them both ways, to break the pattern.
Books accompany him wherever he goes. “Tomorrow, if there was an attack by the Martians and I had to escape, the first thing I would take is my books,” he confesses, adding that he favours those that rely heavily on images.
“I unconsciously pick up images, sentences and descriptions of textures, which I store in my mind. When I need to concentrate on a particular creation, I close my eyes and the images flit past like slides; it’s like a library of images, a sort of private Pinterest in my head,” he says.
Comfort book: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, which Lesage reads at least twice a year. He says the book feeds him as much as water does.
Much valued:Les Indianess , a book on Andhra Pradesh textile prints from the 18th Century, which he first read when he was 12.
A treasured dedication: By the iconic shoe designer Christian Louboutin, with a personal note to Lesage.
The library at Apparao Galleries is in the middle of a transition — Apparao wants to shift it to her home in Kottur Gardens. Housed in about 12 wooden bookcases and six white steel cupboards, the library has been broadly divided into art, travel, photography, design, craft, magazines, textiles, jewellery, photography and philosophy. “Fifty per cent of the library is contemporary art. I always cross-pollinate information. The titles of the books on contemporary art have also been digitised,” Apparao says.
Her biggest indulgence is picking up quirky books during tours, especially from London and the Paris Flea Market. And, when it comes to books, Apparao is greedy for space. “To be able to access your books any time is a great luxury. I have books on my staircase, too. I use every nook and cranny,” she admits. In the long term, she wants to turn her house into an artists’ residency, where they can refer books and get inspired.
Currently reading: William Dalrymple’s Kohinoor
Much treasured art catalogue : One on M.F. Husain’s first exhibition
Lucky pick: The second edition of Les Misérables , which she bought for 3 euros from the Paris Flea Market
Rithvik Raja, Carnatic, musician
Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, Raga Lakshanamu of Saha Maharaj and books on musical notations sit pretty in a wooden cupboard in Raja’s library. He has dedicated this space to around 400 books on music, some of which are editions from the 1960s and 70s, picked up from book sales or gifted by senior musicians. Books on poetry, fiction, autobiographies and philosophy, collected from concert tours and book stores, make up the rest. “What I love about fiction is that each person reads the same book, but it is a completely different story based on his/her imagination,” says the musician, who is currently reading One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan. He hopes to meet the author some day and get a signed copy.
Raja is a connoisseur of wooden furniture, too. He picked up his bookshelves from an auction at a city library, while he got an old wooden chair from his school library. He also cherishes his rosewood study table, designed by his grandfather.
Much treasured: The first edition of The Small Bachelor by P.G. Wodehouse, printed in 1927, which he picked up from the Camden market, London.
Signed copy:A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story by his teacher, T.M. Krishna, who has written a personal note.
A book you wish you could read:Chand Aur Main , a book of Urdu poetry.
Venkataraman Balakrishnan, theatre director
Bows and arrows and stacks of scripts share space with classics, mythology, historical accounts, Sanskrit plays, and books on martial arts at the library of Theatre Nisha’s director. Clearly, these influences seep into Balakrishnan’s plays as well. “For instance, I associate archery with acting. The basis for both is the same — intuition and instinct. All crafts have a single starting point,” he says. Many of the books have been passed on to him by his father, an avid reader.
A copy of Legacy of Gandhiji , signed in Hindi by Rajendra Prasad, has been preserved. His books range from the works of Kalidasa and Bhasa to D.H. Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling’s classics. History and anthropology also fascinate him. For his next play on devadasis, Balakrishnan is reading Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India by Davesh Soneji. However, his guilty pleasures are the old comics he devoured as a kid. “When I write a script, I refer to those. Some images from Amar Chitra Katha still have an impact on me,” he says.
Signed copies: Aurangzeb by Indira Parthasarathy and Andal Priyadarshini’s autographed translation of Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth
Comfort book: The Mahabharatha
Oldest on the shelf: 19th-Century essays of Lord Macaulay
Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, editor and co-founder, Blaft
The first thing you notice about Devadasan’s library is a photo frame of an illustration, featuring a coy bride and a monster. It is from Kumari Loves a Monster, a picture book authored by the co-founder of Blaft Publications and illustrated by Shyam Shankar. There is also The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction , published by Blaft, with arresting images — like that of a woman drinking blood from a skull with a straw. “I do like dark humour with sarcasm as the sidedish,” she smiles.
A Batman fan, Devadasan, dressed in a colourful shirt with Batman comics print, is game for comics in any form — be it filmy Hindi Raj comics or social satires such as Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet in Vikaspuri on New Delhi’s water crisis, which she calls “a fictional dark urban fable”. She collects comic books from across the globe. Vietnamese comic book The Art of Pho by Julian Hanshaw and Cook Korean! by Robin Ha, a Korean cook book with recipes, are some of her proud possessions. The latest addition is a Bhutanese comic book in English called Garpa-The Attendant by Chimi Wangmo. She shows me another, Worse Things Happen at Sea by Kellie Strom. “The art draws me to these books. I wonder how long he took to draw this. Each page has so much detailing. I’m waiting for the second volume,” she shares.
Reading now: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, presented by Sonny Liew.
Oldest on the shelf: A cloth-bound volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published by Blackie and Son
Comfort book: The 13 1/2Lives of Captain Bluebear , authored by Walter Moers
Flashback: Lawyers, comics and erotica
T.S. Santhanam, founder of Sundaram Finance, had a big collection of 1930s’ Billy Bunter comics, among others. And V. Sundaram IAS, had a phenomenal collection of British Raj books, dating back to the 1850s. Generally, lawyers had impressive libraries because the legal system demanded that you refer and research.
An interesting collection that has survived is that of J.H. Spring Branson, a fairly well-to-do lawyer in Madras, who lived on Mount Road. A few old libraries have books carrying his stamp. I also know of one lawyer who had a huge collection of erotica.
People always wanted to borrow them from him. As far as musicians go, Dr. T.S. Parthasarathy, musicologist, had a huge collection of music-related books at his home in CIT Nagar, Saidapet.
Many of them would not part with their books. V.C. Gopalaratnam, a well-to-do lawyer, would maintain a register of people who borrowed books, and remind them to get the books back.
P.S. Sivaswami Iyer, another prominent lawyer, would not allow anyone to borrow books. If you knew him well, you had to sit in his house and read. He would also not allow you to open the book fully, claiming that the binding would be ruined!