The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Who’s afraid of books
The facade and interior (top) of Rammohun Library. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Books are the soul of a library. But these are not good times for books. Nobody has any time for them. So, unless the state is willing to help with generous grants there is no hope for libraries.

But grants alone cannot keep a library alive. Those in charge of a library must also love books. This, however, is a rarity. Those in charge of most libraries are hardly there for love of books. So the inevitable has happened.

Libraries — all libraries — are going through a bad patch. Many prestigious ones have closed down. Some face insurmountable problems. Some, like Rammohun Library & Free Reading Room, fine book collection and glorious past, notwithstanding, have just about managed to keep themselves alive.

The largish building at Maniktala on APC Road next to the large Deaf & Dumb School is familiar enough. Passersby cannot miss the shiny letters announcing the name of the library. Close to it is the house where Upendrakishore Roychoudhury and son lived, and on the opposite pavement are the house of Jagadish Chandra Bose, who headed the library for years, and Science College.

The exact date on which the library was established is not known. However, some records exist. On September 27, 1886, on the death anniversary of Rammohun being observed at City College, it was first proposed that the library be set up. In 1893, Eric Hammergren, a Swedish national who was a Brahmo and who was later cremated at Nimtala burning ghat, expressed the wish to establish a library in Rammohun’s name. At his shradh in the house of Mohini Mohan Bose on Rajabazar Street, Bose donated Rs 100 to set up a library.

In an issue of the journal Tatwakoumudi of the next year, there is a mention of the library although neither its location nor the date of establishment is specified.

On December 28, 1904, Justice Pannalal Basu of Bhawal Sanyasi case fame, held a meeting where it was decided that the library would be opened. It did, in a rented house on Upper Circular Road, same as today’s APC Road.

The library was located for sometime in Cornwallis Street, and in 1905 a meeting was held at the Deaf & Dumb School. It was decided that the library must be situated close to the Raja’s residence, which has now been converted into the police museum.

When Satyendranath Tagore was in Bombay, Gobardhandas Damodardas donated Rs 5,000 for the library, subject to the condition that free readership be provided and the name be changed accordingly.

From 1910 the library got its new name. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation granted six cottah and Martin Company under Sir Rajen Mookerjee constructed a ground plus one building. The building was ready in a year’s time in 1913.

Jagadish Chandra Bose was its president from 1913 to 1937 and Rabindranath Tagore vice-president from 1913 to 1941. After he received the Nobel prize, his first reception was held here. Jagadish Chandra Bose held his magic lantern shows here and Rabindranath had organised first readings of many new works here. Dilip Kumar Roy, guided by Rabindranath, had held a concert here. The great and good of the city were associated with the library.

In 1987-88, two extra floors were added although the architectural style of the new floors was not in consonance with the original structure. Shortage of funds was always the bane of the library so the ground-floor hall was given out to “licensees”. One “licensee” happened to be a theatre group which allegedly staged off-colour shows. The group was ousted after much trouble.

The first floor houses the archive where books from the collections of Maharshi Debendranath, Sister Nivedita, Fort William College are kept. There is besides a constitution of the Philippines gifted to Rammohun.

This room is dominated by a huge portrait of Rammohun in his robes. It is signed by Suren Das. There are also portraits of Debendranath, Dwinjendralal Roy and Ramananda Chattopadhyay. There is a death mask of Rammohun and a lock of his hair.

The library has 63,000 books, many of them rarities dating back to early 19th century and first editions. It gets an annual grant of Rs 25,000 from the state government. Fiction is in great demand but serious research work is done by scholars.

The library has its own publications, important among which are Golden Book of Tagore, Last days of Raja Rammohun Roy and India Before and After the Mutiny by Prafulla Chandra Roy

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