Private library earmarks rare books for posterity

Gnanalaya in Tirukokarnam is one of the largest private libraries in India, lovingly maintained by a septuagenarian couple

November 17, 2017 04:04 pm | Updated 04:04 pm IST

B Krishnamoorthy and his wife Dorothy at Gnanalaya Research Library in Tirukokarnam.

B Krishnamoorthy and his wife Dorothy at Gnanalaya Research Library in Tirukokarnam.

B Krishnamurthy and his wife Dorothy meet us at their home in Tirukokarnam near Pudukottai. The wooden desk in the foyer is stacked with books. As the directors of Gnanalaya, a private library and research centre that the couple established in 1999, the lives of these former Tiruchi residents are intertwined with their mutual love of books.

What makes Gnanalaya unique, is not just its collection of 1,20,000 Tamil and English books, but also the fact that it has been lovingly nurtured to become one of the largest private libraries in India, with an enviable list of rare first editions.

“We bought every book in our collection at a certain stage of our life, so each volume has a story behind it,” says Mrs Dorothy, who has worked as a Botany lecturer in various colleges.

Her husband, Mr Krishnamurthy is the narrator of these stories, a human computer who seems to have the history of Tamil literature and publishing on his fingertips. “I’m getting on in years now,” says the 76-year-old, “so I am planning to introduce audio guides on all the books in Gnanalaya on a shelf-to-shelf basis.”

But until that happens, visitors will still have the pleasure of listening to Mr Krishnamurthy’s anecdotes about how he went about indulging his passion for literature while maintaining a career as a teacher in Government schools.

Paper chase

“My father was my earliest supporter in this hobby,” says Mr Krishnakumar. “I had been collecting old books from my college days in the 1950s, but started thinking of starting a library only after my father gifted me a trunk containing a hundred of his favourite books when he retired in 1962.”

Not many people may remember that Tiruchi used to be a centre for business in old books, says Mr Krishnakumar. “Though the Manikkodi Literary Movement was based in Chennai, most of their writers were from the Thanjavur district and their works used to be available in plenty in Tiruchi,” he says.

Manikkodi was a Tamil non-fiction literary weekly published from 1933 to 1939 that launched the careers of writers like CS Chellappa, Puthumaipithan and Chitti.

It was a trader in old books who helped him to contact VRM Chettiar, then a leading publisher and translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s works into Tamil. The acquaintance was to grow into a lifelong friendship, and eventually, it was Chettiar who advised Mr Krishnamurthy to marry Dorothy, and “be the ideal secular couple” in 1969.

Besides VRM Chettiar, publishers Moraiyur Chokkalingam and AK Chettiar (who also made his name as a documentary filmmaker), guided the Krishnamurthys in their selection of books and put them in touch with other like-minded collectors.

History of printing

Pudukottai was the fifth district in which the Krishnamurthys served from 1979. After retirement, they built their home in Palaniappa Nagar, Tirukokarnam, in 1985, and for a while, stored their books in their residence. But when the tomes started getting underfoot, they decided to buy the 2400 sq ft plot next door and constructed the Gnanalaya Library at a cost of ₹ 11 lakhs.

Since then, the library has slowly grown in stature as the first point of reference for political speech writers, students of Tamil culture and scholars from foreign universities looking for authentic publications related to South Asia and Southern India.

“The Chettiar community in this region played a major role in the nascent Tamil publishing industry,” says Mr Krishnamurthy.

“For all their social functions, they had the practice of printing books to be given as mementos. These could be original works or reprints of older books. So for a collector like me, every old home would be a treasure trove of rare editions.

“The biggest drawback in modern Tamil publishing is that books as recent as 60 years old have not been reprinted. So what is the hope of reviving older publications that chronicled the achievements of an earlier generation? How many people know anything about the great musicians and cultural icons of those days?” he rues.

Rare gems

The three-storey Gnanalaya building has high ceilings, to allow the air to circulate freely around the valuable paper treasures inside. Despite suffering from respiratory problems due to the dust, Mr Krishnamurthy delights in personally introducing visitors to the rare gems stored on shelves and in cardboard boxes.

We are showed the Sakthi magazine, published by Y Govindan, of Rayavaram, who ploughed in ₹1 lakh on an advanced printing press in 1934 that would revolutionise the industry. A 1942 issue of Sakthi has a luminous Rukmini Devi Arundale looking out of a cover that evokes the clutter-free design of the American Time magazine.

In a box are letters written by Rajaji and poet Bharathiyar’s daughter Thangammal, laminated to stop decay.

The library owns one of only two photocopies in the State of Thampiran Vanakkam , the very first book published in Tamil in 1578, and a hand-written 1867 Latin-Tamil dictionary, among others.

Mr Krishnamurthy often assists researchers with his detailed inputs and also speaks at literary gatherings. Mrs Dorothy recently translated the first complete version of Meditation by Marcus Aurelius into Tamil for Sandhya Publications.

The couple have kept their library free for reference, even though they spend ₹2.5 lakhs annually on its maintenance. Checking the volumes for damage is constant process.

“Transferring this collection to a digital platform would be ideal, but we cannot afford it,” says Mr Krishnamurthy. “While people appreciate our collection, very few consider it anything worth trying out on their own.”

The Krishnamurthys hope more youngsters will seek out books for leisure rather than as a means to pass examinations. “We want to take the books across to as many people of the next generation,” says Mrs Dorothy. “It’s sad that people don’t read for pleasure anymore.”

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