The MIDS library in Chennai houses over 1,300 rare books about the city

Want to dive deep into the history of Chennai through the written word? The library of 50 year-old research institution Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in Adyar, houses rare literature dating back to the 17th century, tracing the roots of famine, the city’s census, its rulers and even Tamil cinema banner. It is now open to the public 

August 23, 2023 03:08 pm | Updated 03:08 pm IST

People flipping through rare books at the MIDS exhibit.

People flipping through rare books at the MIDS exhibit.

A quick stroll inside what was once economist Malcolm Adiseshiah’s pleasantly white and green bungalow, shows that homes can often become meccas for research. At the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), the wheels of change often churn out academic papers about economy, society, culture and the environment. On occasions, the organisation lets the public peek into its everyday lives. One such instance is its book exhibit commemorating Madras Day.

At the auditorium, books tracking life in Madras all the way from the 17th Century stand upright in neat stacks. Residents from the area flit in and out of the exhibit. This is besides the researchers who arrive at the campus in droves.

The librarian, R Murugan, says that there are about 150 pieces of rare literature on display. “We have books by colonial historians and writers like JT Wheeler, H Dodwell, Curator of the Madras Record Office and Henry Davidson Love. They cover topics like famine, migration, prostitution and even fairs and festivals,” he says. This however, is only a handful of its total collection on Madras.

The long and thickly bound black book — Review The Madras Famine 1876-1878 — has long and detailed notes on how this particular period ravaged much of the city. Its implications, in many ways, led to the construction of the Buckingham Canal where men, women and children who toiled through a ‘long day of hard labour without shade or rest’ would be given 570 grams of grain (rice) and 43 grams of protein in the form of dal.

The TN Census report from 1961

The TN Census report from 1961

Murugan says that books like The Records of Fort St George by the Madras Presidency and the Vestiges of Old Madras 1640-1800: Traced From the East India Company’s Records Preserved at Fort St. George and the India Office, and From Other Sources are of paramount importance to historians who help trace the city’s history through records of its colonial ancestry. It is the books that pop-historians of our day use to explain history in easier terms.

“The two books contain sundry work, consultation, despatches, military records and notes on trade. They help contextualise each other and show, in meticulous detail, the Madras of the past,” he says. This is especially so because the books record Madras’ establishment as the first British presidency, its subsequent turbulence and growth over the next century and a half.

Another prominent display is that of the census reports of Chennai from 1961. Books also show pictures of politicians overseeing census surveys being conducted in households.

The librarian makes it a point to speak of the book Thirupporur and Vadakkuppattu - Eighteenth Century Locality Accounts by authors MD Srinivas, TG Paramasivam and T Pushkala. “Chennai would receive rains only through one monsoon — the North East one between November and December. In the 18th Century, several dams were built around the city to ensure consistent supply of water. The grains that would sprout as a result of fertile lands thanks to a regular water source, would be collected and offered to the deity at the Thiruporur Kandaswamy temple and equally distributed to all those who helped build the dam and farm. The whole system shows the growth of civilisation,” he says.

Report of the Madras Records, a book by H. Dodwell.

Report of the Madras Records, a book by H. Dodwell.

Murugan says that although their library has around 1,300 books on the Madras Presidency, they all seemingly limit themselves to a colonial understanding of the city and its long heritage. “What about accounts of people like (saint) Vallalar who sang the Tevaram (a series of Saivite devotional hymns) in the streets of Mylapore? History need not start with the time of Francis Day,” he says.

It is perhaps time to dig deeper.

The Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) library houses 63,000 books and is located at 79, Second Main Road, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. It is open to the public between 10am and 5pm between Monday and Friday.

The TN Census report from 1961

The TN Census report from 1961

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