A treasure trove in need of patronage

Madras Literary Society was formed in 1812 to encourage study and research of Asiatic literature 

Updated - July 15, 2022 09:44 am IST

Published - July 14, 2022 10:26 pm IST

Madras Literary Society has thousands of books that are kept on huge shelves that extend from the floor to the high ceiling.

Madras Literary Society has thousands of books that are kept on huge shelves that extend from the floor to the high ceiling. | Photo Credit: R. RAGU

Many who travel on the busy College Road in Chennai often miss the beautiful colonial-era Indo-Saracenic style red sandstone building tucked in the Directorate of Public Instruction (DPI) campus.

The over-a-century-old building houses the library run by the Madras Literary Society (MLS), which historian S. Muthiah recorded as “perhaps the oldest subscription library east of Suez [canal].”

On entering the building, one is welcomed by the sight of thousands of books kept on huge shelves that extend from the floor to the high ceiling, which gives the deceptive look of being a two-storey structure from the outside. While the aesthetically designed building was constructed for the library only in 1905-06, the society and the library themselves are 210 years old.

MLS was formed by the British in 1812 as a learned society, similar to that of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (ASB) started in the late 18th century, with the objective of “study and encouragement of Asiatic literature and research”.

Journalist and historian N.S. Ramaswami, in his book Madras Literary Society-A history (1812-1984), says the intellectual curiosity of the Britons to understand India was at the back of the foundation of MLS and ASB.

While it just runs the library now, MLS, in its early days, acted as an active platform that brought together scholars and supported their research and intellectual pursuits, apart from bringing out Madras Journal of Literature and Science.

It was MLS that gave birth to the Government Museum at nearby Egmore in 1851: it was the geological specimens and antiques gifted by MLS that formed the initial collection of the museum.

The library’s present collection of around 70,000 books includes a treasure trove of books published in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. The oldest is a copy of Opera: Omnia Quae Extant in Greek and Latin, published in 1619.

Ramaswami, in his book, states MLS and its library had their “palmy days” during the fourth to the sixth decade of the 19th Century. “In this quarter of a century, it was a real intellectual court of appeal, an arbiter in matters of scholarship,” he says.

Fast forward by a century-and-a-half to today, the society is a shadow of what it had been. While other activities of the society have largely ceased, the library remains underutilised despite the value it offers. Efforts are being made by the society to address the financial constraints and inadequate patronage, which remain the key concerns.

The heritage building is maintained by the Public Works Department, with the society paying a nominal rent. The society is run by an elected committee. While around 300 books selected based on their antiquity and importance have been preserved, many of the remaining old books are in dire need of preservation, an expensive and delicate process.

The library largely relies on the annual subscription fee and donations. V. Umamaheshwari, the librarian for nearly three decades, says the library has around 260 members, roughly the same number that existed even a century ago. The members can borrow books published after the 1960s. Older books can be accessed and referred to on request. The librarian recollects that until 10 years ago, MLS remained the only library in Chennai that delivered books to members at their doorstep. The facility was suspended as it became financially unviable.

Architect Thirupurasundari Sevvel, general secretary of MLS, says efforts are being made to widen the membership. The society has improved its presence on social media to reach out to more people, particularly the youth. It has launched an ‘adopt a book’ programme, in which people can partially or fully contribute to the preservation of a book.

The society is exploring options to digitise books based on importance. “We need not digitise all the old books as their digitised copies may already exist elsewhere. But there may be other books that are present only here. We need to prioritise them,” she says.

For instance, she points out how rare old maps of the Buckingham Canal were digitised based on the suggestion and support of philatelist D. Hemachandra Rao, who died recently.

Ms. Umamaheshwari says work was under way to create an online catalogue of books with adequate descriptions so that research scholars can make a better use of the facility. The society is also organising talks every month, mostly on second Saturdays, to get more people to visit the library.

She wants to create awareness among the hundreds of people who work in the government offices on the DPI campus. “Even they are not interested in or aware of our existence. If a small fraction of them become members, it will be a great support,” she adds.

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