Written by Sunil Trivedi
Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom” — American author Ursula K Le Guin speaks for all book lovers, who also admire art and architecture. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Library or the State Library has that liberating effect on visitors. Usually, after a visit to the grandiose Durbar Hall, the next stop is the Library. Edwin Lutyens’s biographer Christopher Hussey called the Library the most beautiful of the four State Rooms, with its tall columns, topped by arches and a cupola. Author ASG Butler, in comparing its size and sophistication, called the State Library “daughter of the Durbar Hall”. It is a room to be “stood in and felt.”
Two commissioned paintings hang on opposite walls — The Creation of Man by Glyn Philpot and Caxton and His Press by Vivian Forbes. They suggest that after the creation of man, the invention of the printing press was probably the most important event in human civilisation. An ode to the elegance of the Library and the Rashtrapati Bhavan is inscribed in Persian at the Ashoka Hall. It says: Ba een raunaq-o-zeb-o-zeenat makaan; nadeedaa baroo-e-zameen aasmaan (A building full of such vibrancy and beauty cannot be seen anywhere on earth or in the sky).
The aesthetics of the Library’s architecture is matched by the unique collection of books that adorn the shelves, which were also part of the original design. These are nearly 60 ft in length. The book collection in the Library would please Lutyens, who was friends with writers like James Barrie, HG Wells and WB Yeats.
Many books in the Rashtrapati Bhavan Library have their own tales. A book with a rather long title — The British Gallery of Engravings from Pictures of the Italian, Dutch and English Schools Now in the Possession of the King and Several Noblemen and Gentlemen of the United Kingdom with Some Account of Each Picture — finds a place on the shelves. Written by Edward Forster and published in 1807, it was presented to Lord Curzon, viceroy from 1899 to 1905. On the flyleaf, Curzon has written: “The book was presented to me by Raja of Hill of Tripura.” This book appears to have travelled from the Government House at Calcutta (Kolkata) to the Library. The book was in disrepair until it was restored by the National Archives in 2013.
Another extraordinary book is A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultan by Alexander Beatson, a lieutenant-colonel in the East India Company’s army. It comprises “a narrative of the operations of the army under the command of Lieutenant-General George Harris and of the siege of Seringapatam”. One of the turning points of modern history, Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed in this battle on May 4, 1799. Beatson’s book of about 450 pages with 17 detailed chapters, 49 appendices and several tables and maps was completed, printed and distributed in just about a year. This is quite a feat considering the tedious process of composing and printing at the end of the 18th century. The book was some kind of a celebratory publication to mark the victory of the Company. Its dedication to the “Chairman, Deputy Chairman and Directors of the Honourable East India Company” is dated May 4, 1800 — exactly one year after Tipu’s death.
The oldest book in the Library is A Catalogue of the Original Works of William Hogarth (1795). Hogarth was among the most popular painters and cartoonists in the 18th century. Images by Hogarth in the book testify to Charles Lamb’s assertion, “Other pictures we look at; his pictures we read.” Besides Hogarthian satire, the Library’s joyful partiality to political humour and cartoons is seen in a full almirah devoted to the issues of the British weekly, Punch from the year 1841 to 1930. There are many cartoons featuring Mahatma Gandhi in the issues of the Punch.
Each of these precious books is looked after with utmost care by SNS Prakash, who has been associated with the Library since 1983. His attachment to the books shows most when borrowers don’t return them on time. Currently, the books in the Library are being converted into digital form, to be made available online. This digitisation is part of the larger initiative of making the Rashtrapati Bhavan open to the people of India.
Sunil Trivedi is Officer on Special Duty (Research), President’s Secretariat
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