Treasure house

Published : May 21, 2010 00:00 IST



THE Asiatic Society of Mumbai has come to be seen as a huge intellectual storehouse, so it is a quirky fact that it was started because James Mackintosh, a Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, saw the city as an intellectual desert. In 1804, he established the Bombay Literary Society in an effort to instil some wit and intellect in the citizenry. In 1826, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland decided to associate with it, leading it to be renamed the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, BBRAS for short, a unique case of a sapling becoming a branch, as the Societys publicity literature states. And so it remained until 1954, when it was renamed the Asiatic Society of Bombay, and finally in 2002, when the citys name changed it became the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. In between, the BBRAS had taken into its fold many smaller societies such as the Medical and Literary Library, the Geographical Society of Bombay in 1873, the Agri-Horticulture Society, the Medical and Physical Society and the Literary and Scientific Society. Besides their own respected ancestries, they brought with them large libraries. The present-day Asiatic Society of Mumbai is unrivalled in the richness of its antiquarian source material, including curious and acceptable presents given over the centuries by individuals .

Last year, some of these treasures, staggering in their antiquity and variety, were put on display by the Society. The treasures include the manuscript on Vasupujyacharita, detailing the life of the Jain Tirthankara Vasupujya, in Sanskrit (1242); the original Italian manuscript of Dantes The Divine Comedy (1350); the Aranyakaparvan of the Mahabharata with illustrations, a 16th century Sanskrit manuscript whose discovery assisted in the study of pre-Mughal miniature paintings; Shahnama of Firdausi in Persian (1843); William Shakespeares First Folio (1623); Sir Walter Raleighs History of the World (1736); and Captain James Cooks Voyages to the South Pole and Around the World (1777). There are also Buddhist relics from Sopara, which are believed to include fragments of the Buddhas begging bowl, a fifth century gold coin of Kumaragupta, and a rare five-tola mohur from Akbars times.

The library has over 100,000 books 15,000 of which have been classified as rare and valuable including many in ancient and modern Indian and European languages. There are more than 3,000 manuscripts, mostly of paper, but some of palm leaf. The newspapers and periodicals date from as far back as two centuries ago: there are copies of The Times of London of 1801 and defunct newspapers such as Hindu Patriot and Native Opinion. The Societys coin collection numbers 12,000 pieces and its map collection an impressive 1,300.

Essentially, the activities of the Asiatic Society fall into the three broad categories of holdings or assets, research, and activities for the public. All three areas were in various stages of distress. With a history that goes back 200 years, there was an urgent need for the conservation and preservation of the Societys holdings. The other areas of focus included expansion of facilities and funding for researchers, increase in library memberships and urgent structural and aesthetic repairs to the building itself.

The major hurdle is, of course, funds. The finances of the Society are a matter of grave concern, said Dr Aroon Tikekar, its president. Seventy per cent of the Societys income goes towards salaries it implemented the Fifth Pay Commissions scales. If Maharashtra implements the Sixth Pay Commission report, salaries will take up 90 per cent of the income. Currently, the Society is believed to have a deficit of Rs.16 lakh. Present sources of income are from membership, funds from the Central government, private endowments and donations.

Tikekar said honorary office bearers were forced to spend most of their time on issues such as salaries, while the actual work and purpose of the Society took a backseat. He said the situation had reached a crossroads and hoped the Society would not have to make a choice between being a money-generating lending library and a research-oriented one. He recalled that as early as 1864 the then president of the Society had foreseen this scenario and said that the Society is on the verge of a revolution. Perhaps, the time for that revolution has come.

Going into the Societys basement is like entering another world, quite literally. The past comes to life in many forms, and it starts on the way to the basement. Beyond hatstands, umbrella holders, sprung sofas, easy chairs, footstools and marble busts and statues of past worthies, an iron spiral staircase winds down to the lower level where there is still more period furniture. This mixes easily with the modern space-conserving rolling shelving. Books, manuscripts, maps and the heady scent of old paper fill the space. So abundant is it all that it takes a while to realise that everything there is priceless. The realisation dawns on one not just by looking at the ancient titles but in the pride and quiet devotion shown by the staff to the work they are engaged in.

The Special Collections room is, to put it colloquially, a place to die for. It houses 10,000 of the rarest of the rare books, testifying to the vastness of the Societys collection. The heavy wood cabinets are stacked with books that are more than 500 years old. The oldest in the collection is on Greek grammar and dates to 1495. Although due for conservation, it does not look as if it requires it the paper is thick and white. Other treasures that are clearly visible are an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwins On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection and Ovids Metamorphoses, a fully illustrated work printed in Venice in 1553 and translated by Lodovico Dolce, a prolific author of the time.

Further down the corridor are steel cupboards whose shelves are stacked with manuscripts bound in traditional red. The oldest is a Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript dating to A.D. 1200. Written in Pali and illustrated with colours that remain vivid, it was donated by Bhagwanlal Indraji, the 19th century Indian scholar known for his contributions to archaeology.

Sometime in the 1990s, the Society was separated from the Central Library, and some space meant for the Society was temporarily granted to the library. Unfortunately, the Central Library continues to occupy this space, and the Society makes do with less space for its teeming book population. Preservation of this teeming population, many members of which are old and rare, is paramount.

On a daily basis, and particularly during the annual stocktaking, books that show signs of age are sent to the basement for preservation, a process that is laborious and time-consuming. The Society is one of the few libraries in India that does it. The book first goes for microfilming, then fumigation and finally conservation. The microfilm laboratory has two cameras. The larger one is for the thousands of broadsheet publications the Society has and the smaller one for books that can be filmed without having their binding broken. Victor Joseph, who heads the laboratory, said: The priority is on the ancient history of India. Even donors to the Adopt a Book scheme have an interest in this subject. The laboratory is equipped to develop the film as well as to duplicate rolls. Insects are not always visible. They can hide in the binding, said Joseph, explaining why all books are fumigated. Thymol, an oxygen-reducing substance that smells like oregano, is the primary chemical in the process. Old handmade paper is really the best [quality], he said.

The Society has books from the 16th century that remain in excellent condition, while more modern ones are lined with the telltale tracery of bookworms, which have a great liking for cardboard. Conservationist Sunil Bhirud said: It is like biscuit to them.

After fumigation the pH, or potential for hydrogen ion concentration, of the paper is tested. Old paper is less acidic than new, which can have a pH as low as 2.5. Old paper is, thus, inherently more durable and so easier to conserve because there is less acid to be washed out. Bleach is used extensively in machine-made paper, and while this whitens paper, it also makes it acidic, thereby lessening its life. It is vital that a book is conserved before the pages become brittle because this will reduce the risks of loss during conservation.

After establishing the pH, the ink is tested to see whether it is soluble in water; 99 per cent of ink is not. Next, the book is examined for number of pages, insertions, maps and so on, after which the pages are separated from the binding. The separated papers are then de-acidified. A page is placed between a plastic wire mesh and soaked in a tray of water, this being a neutraliser. Within 20 minutes, the water turns a dirty yellow, the effect of dust, stains and acid leaching off the paper.

The page is then neutralised to an acceptable pH of 7.5. The excess chemical is flushed out with running water, and then the page is laid out on a rack to dry naturally for 24 hours. The simple process of de-acidification effects a miraculous change on the pages. When previously it was stiff, now it is supple and can even be rolled.

Pages that are brittle or have broken are put together by a simple process called tissuing, in which the broken pieces are sandwiched between sheets of lens tissue imported from Japan. A paste that is primarily carboxymethyl cellulose mixed with an insect repellent is applied on a sheet of glass. Tissue is spread over this and more paste is brushed on. The larger broken piece is positioned on the tissue, and with a brisk tap of the sticky brush, Sunil Bhirud airlifts the smaller broken pieces and places them deftly so that the jigsaw is completed. Another tissue seals the work and the page is restored in its entirety.

Tissuing does dull the page, but it remains readable and as Sunil Bhirud said: It makes it safe. Besides, he pointed out, it is a reversible process and not a case of operation not successful, patient is dead. The process is complete when the pages are put together into book form and given an acid-free cardboard as the cover. For purists, the cover may be a sacrilege because the thick red or blue cardboard makes the book look like something from a government records office, but in the interests of conservation it seems a small price to pay.

None of these books will ever be issued, but they are available on microfilm for researchers and members. It costs Rs.5,000 to conserve a book, and the Society has an Adopt a Book scheme. Adopted books have the names of their parents inscribed inside.

Attracting more people to the Society, whether as members or via the Adopt a Book scheme or to the Literary Club, which holds book readings, is part of the plan to revitalise the institution. The imposing facade of the Society should not be the only reason for it being a popular city landmark, said one official, adding, We were more known as a backdrop for various films and advertisements than for the actual worth of the Society. But even though the filmy appearances kept the Society alive in public memory, every shoot took its toll on the structure. Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect who is restoring sections of the building, said the fascination film-makers had for scenes that involved vehicles being driven up the beautiful expanse of 30 steps that lead to the main entrance resulted in some damage to this most imposing architectural feature of the Society.

The building that houses the Asiatic Society and the Central Library was previously the Town Hall. With some funds coming in, large sections are being repaired and restored. Lambah lists rotting wooden trusses, sagging beams and roofs as some of the serious problems affecting this centuries-old structure. Other less dangerous but important issues deal with the restoration of the original aesthetics. The old teak trusses that have rotted will be replaced with steel supports.

While purists may raise an eyebrow, Arup Sarbadhikary, structural rehab engineer, says it is essential. Wood is prohibitively expensive and so certain structural members had to be substituted by steel but never concrete beams. Sarbadhikary and Lambah believe strongly in maintaining the structural integrity of the building, and so timber boarding will hide the steel supports. The roof is the main focus of immediate attention.

As part of the effort to maintain integrity, a lime pit has been created on-site to slake and cure lime over a period of five months. The woodwork will be stripped and sanded, the vinyl will be stripped of the wood panelled floor, original fittings like the four-foot-long brass tower bolts will be restored and the wooden window louvers, so typical to Mumbai, will be scraped free of paint and made mobile again. The Societys Darbar Hall is being turned inside out. Once restored, it will have the additional benefit of good acoustics along with restored aesthetics such as damask wall coverings.

The ongoing restoration and conservation works have thrown up some small but wonderful surprises. The first gem was the discovery that the soaring pillars in the main hall were cast iron and not plaster as they were believed to be. For the growing numbers of aficionados of Mumbais architectural heritage, this is exciting news because it changes an established time line. It was believed that Watsons Hotel, now known as Esplanade Mansion, was the oldest cast iron structure in the country, dating to 1867. But the discovery at the Society proves that cast iron was imported into Bombay as far back as 1833, three decades earlier than was previously supposed.

The other thrilling nugget was a find in mid-March, in the godown of the Central Library, of old correspondence of the erstwhile Bombay Geographical Society. Both bits of news may leave the majority of the population cold, but for heritage aficionados each is a little gem of information that offers yet more insights into the glory of this city that is to such a great extent epitomised by the Asiatic Society.

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