Asiatic Society Of Mumbai's Library Transforms Into Cultural Hub For 'World Book Day'

Asiatic Society Of Mumbai's Library Transforms Into Cultural Hub For 'World Book Day'

The 220-year-old library, housed in the Town Hall building in Horniman Circle, constructed in the classical style of architecture, also has rare books.

Manoj RamakrishnanUpdated: Tuesday, April 23, 2024, 12:19 AM IST
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Asiatic Library | A.Savin

On World Book Day, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s library, one of Mumbai’s oldest and biggest reading rooms and repository of rare books and other treasures, says it is transforming itself from a place to just borrow books to a cultural space for everything related to the written word.

The digitisation of its vast collection of over 300,000 (three lakh) books, especially the rare and fragile ones that are no longer given for home-issue, is in full force, having had a beginning in 2016 thanks to two grants from the Government of Maharashtra. The library has made available these digitised books under the portal ‘Granth Sanjivani’. The number of members, which slumped during the pandemic, is growing again, having touched a figure of 3000, including life-members. There is also a renewed focus on library activities which has increased membership.

Dr Shehernaz Nalwalla, Vice-president of the Society and Chairperson of its Mumbai Research Centre, said, “Post Covid, we have reinvented ourselves. We would like to tell people to start reading again. Libraries can also be cultural spaces, not just a place to borrow books but also to have discussions on books. The library activities should open the ‘magic of books’ to members.” Through the Mumbai Research Centre, Mumbai centric talks, heritage walks and visits are organised. The Society also makes available several scholarships for researchers.

Financial Challenges And Unique Cultural Heritage

Another boost for the library arrived in the form of a first-time grant of Rs one crore from the Maharashtra government last year. However, funds still fall short. The library gets a yearly grant of Rs one crore from the Central government. The annual salaries of the 27 staff members is around Rs 2.5 crores. The shortfall is met with invested funds, donations, and fees which range between Rs 3000 annually to Rs 20,000 for life-time membership. “We literally scrape the bottom of the barrel every month,” said Nalwalla, who added that efforts are being made to get Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds from business houses.

Putul Sathe, a life-member since 2008 said that the library is an unique institution in the cultural landscape of the city. “It is wedded to the intellectual history of the metropolis. The collection of the library includes rare books, maps of the city and Dante's ‘The Divine Comedy’. The endowment lecture series organised by the institution offers a space for initiating a dialogue on recent scholarship across various disciplines, which according to me is the strength of the institution,” said Sathe.

Heritage Library Treasures And World Book Day Celebrations

The 220-year-old library, housed in the Town Hall building in Horniman Circle, constructed in the classical style of architecture, also has rare books, including a copy of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s ‘On The Origin of Species’, published in 1859, and artefacts, including maps, 16th Sanskrit manuscripts, the Sopara relics that include fragments of what is believed to be Buddha’s begging bowl, and coins from Akbar’s reign. This collection is available to researchers, but is not on display for a visitor because of lack of space. The library hopes to find space to exhibit these objects.  

To commemorate World Book Day, the library has planned a series of lectures this week, including a talk on ‘Myths and Legends of the Metropolis’ organised by the society’s Mumbai Research Centre, on the evening of April 23. On April 24, the B G Deshmukh Endowment lecture will feature two talks on ‘Making Regulation in India work better’. The Rustom Billimoria Endowment lecture on April 26 will have talks on ‘Women in State politics in India’.

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