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Bonding with books

B. Krishnamurthy, founder of Gnanalaya Research Library at Pudukottai. Photo: M. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

The warm smell of parchment is an aphrodisiac to him.

Surely, there must be something stimulating about sitting in a high ceilinged room, walled in by majestic tomes and musty paperbacks on all sides, flipping through centuries of tales waiting to be told.

When a book is opened, time stands still for a special man as the moment is sheer magic for him. Magic that continues to tie B. Krishnamurthy to his books.

Bibliophile Krishnamurthy is the proud possessor of 70,000 titles. His ‘Gnanalaya’ Research Library at Tirukokarnam near Pudukottai is easily one of the biggest private libraries in the country. The USP of his library is the wide collection of priceless first editions in Tamil.

“First editions are always special. Often, subsequent editions are shorn off the preface, forewords and valuable introductions that the author may have written. These provide a rare insight into the life and times of the author, the social and historical context which can enhance research.”

He may have not read the entire collection of books, but he is well aware of what lies within their covers. “Even if I am a thousand miles away, I can tell you which rack and which row to find the book you are looking for.”

His veritable treasure trove is a sanctuary for researchers who flock from India and abroad. The man who pursues knowledge relentlessly is absolutely unselfish in sharing it and that is what makes him an invaluable asset for research scholars. “My wife Dorothy and I have met almost all major Tamil writers. We have been able to add valuable inputs to any research as we know the thinking process of the author and what you may call as the other side of the story. In that way, I am happy we can enhance research,” he smiles genially.

Gnanalaya is typical of all oaks being acorns once. The first seed for its existence was sown when Krishnamurthy at seventeen, stumbled upon ‘Swadeshi Geethangal’, Subramania Bharathiyar’s first self- published anthology of poems.

“I was puzzled when I discovered ‘En Maganae’, a poem by Madurai Muthukumaran among Bharathiyar’s poems. Later I learnt that Bharathi had called for national songs and poems from poets before publishing his anthology. It was then I realized the value of first editions. It revealed Bharathis’ generous spirit to acknowledge his peers.”

As a book collector Krishnamurthy has the instincts of a pearl diver. For years, he has delighted in rummaging in old bookshops to unearth hidden treasures, apart from inheriting a few private collections. With both husband and wife in government service as teachers, the books were carted around every time one of them was transferred till they settled down in Pudukottai . In 1999, with their retirement benefits, the couple set up ‘Gnanalaya’ as a full- fledged library.

An ardent admirer of Gandhian thought and Vivekananda’s philosophy, he attributes the growth of the library to friends, scholars and writers who encouraged him. The library is home to 15,000 titles in English covering a motley of subjects while the rest are Tamil books, magazines and journals.

Treasured among his stack are letters of Rajaji and Bharathiyar’ s daughter Thangammal Bharathi’s first editions of Bharathi and Bharathidasan, early issues of revolutionary magazines like ‘Kudiarasu’, ‘ Viduthalai’ and Gandhi’s Harijan, back issues of the Reader’s Digest right from the first Indian edition and 1,500 Tamil literary magazines from 1920 to 2010.

“From Bharathiyar to Sujatha, the literary careers of writers took off in these little literary magazines. But today commercial magazines have taken over and these literary magazines have very poor subscription,” he says wistfully.

Krishnamurthy reiterates that preservation of books requires two key elements: air and light, though you could say that love is the secret ingredient that ensures the oldest of books are well preserved, nay cherished. As a fully air- conditioned library in a region with erratic power supply would apparently cost a fortune, the library has been built at a height of 14 feet with windows at nine feet to let natural light and air work wonders.

Battling escalating maintenance costs, he reveals that last year alone cost him Rs.2,50,000 inclusive of staff salaries. Until recently, no charges were levied and the Krishnamurthys entertained visitors at home, free of cost. Today, a minimal service fee for photocopying and lamination is charged. Though the library does not lend books, researchers are free to browse for hours and take photocopies.

The man has you starry eyed when he glibly talks about books and draws parallels and allusions to literary works- all in the same breath. Little wonder that he is a sought after guest lecturer. He has delivered lectures on Tamil Renaissance, social movements and printing technology in Singapore, Penang and London. His enthusiasm to revive old and out of print has borne out well, resulting in more than 3000 books being reprinted on his suggestion.

Krishnamurthy is well in step with the age and believes in keeping up with the times. “I am not against technology. With the growing popularity of e-books, we are planning to explore that option to provide greater access to researchers.”

He has come up with an innovative way to record the leagacy he owns. “Today my memory is pretty good, but soon age would get the better of me. I may not be able to locate books easily. So, I am currently recording a oral history of all the books in the library. Each shelf would have a recorder that would narrate the contents of the rack for better reference.”

Krishnamurthy’s only regret is his inability to woo youth to turn to books.

“Education has become highly job- oriented today and language has taken a backseat. Appreciation of literature and creative thinking is naturally bound to suffer,” he laments.

Post retirement, ‘Gnanalaya’ has evolved into this book lover’s full time fixation. Not the one to idle his hours away, he spends his day lost within the covers of his precious tomes and inviting kindred spirits to do the same.

Shared Passion

Wife Dorothy Krishnamurthy shares her husband’s passion for books and is highly instrumental for the existence and growth of ‘Gnanalaya’. Incidentally, as Krishnamurthy lightheartedly puts it, ‘It was my books that drew her to me’. In 1969, the couple married in true Gandhian style, attired in khadi, without any religious conversion on both sides. Dorothy Krishanmurthy worked as Professor of Botany in various government colleges. She is an avid translator and her first publication was ‘Valarpirai’, a translation of Tagore’s ‘Crescent Moon’ which interestingly was the first book Krishnamurthy lent her that marked the beginning of their courtship.


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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 12:34:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Bonding-with-books/article15774634.ece

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