In March 2022, MLA Sudama Prasad, Chairperson of the Bihar Vidhan Sabha Library Committee, stated that of the 540 public libraries that existed in Bihar in the 1950s only 51 remain. A report presented by the committee revealed that six districts—Kaimur, Arwal, Sheohar, Sheikhpura, Banka, and Kishanganj—did not have a single library.
Sheikhpura once had one of the richest libraries in the State—the Ali Khan Library at Hussainabad. Nawab Syed Ali Khan founded the library, and employed scribes to make copies of manuscripts; a dedicated team of staff members toiled day and night to make its collection world class. The library possessed letters of Nawab Ali Ibrahim Khan Khaleel Azimabadi (Chief Justice and Governor of Benares Province and a native of Doolighat, Patna) that threw valuable light on the political and social conditions of India in the last decades of the 18th century. Nawab Musahab Hussain Khan “Adl”, son of Nawab Ali Jawwad Khan of Hussainabad, compiled the letters into three volumes in the 19th century. Like many other personal collections and private libraries, the Ali Khan Library, too, contributed the last remaining lot of its books to the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna in the 1970s.
Bihar, specifically Patna (formerly known as Azimabad), emerged as a cradle of art, literature, and culture in the early 1700s, with nawabs and zamindars providing patronage. But with the abolition of the zamindari system under the Bihar Abolition of Zamindaris Act, 1949, the condition of the land owners declined rapidly. As they dismantled their collections, some lots of books and manuscripts found their way to bigger libraries, but much was sold off by incompetent heirs looking to make a quick buck. Lack of interest, space crunch, and shift in academic and literary taste were the other reasons why the collections were eventually lost.
Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, a repository of about 21,000 Oriental manuscripts and 2.5 lakh printed books, which was opened to the public in 1891 by Khan Bahadur Khuda Bakhsh, is the best known surviving relic of Bihar’s glorious past. It started off in 1842 as a private collection, the Muhammadiya Private Library, of Muhammad Bakhsh Khan, father of Khuda Bakhsh Khan.
The private libraries, including this one, were always open for common people. Madarsa E Deenia, a college established by Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan Qayamat in Doolighat, Patna, in the early 1700s, gave its students free access to the private library of the Nawab, as also to the madarsa’s library. Poets such as Sheikh Muhammad Raza Nejat Dehlavi and Mirza Muhammad Wasil Dehlavi came to Patna and remained affiliated to the house of the Nawab for years. Members of the Nawab’s family continued to add books to the collection.
Syed Eqbal Haider Khan, grandson of Nawab Syed Mohammad Haidar Khan of Doolighat and a descendant of Ahmad Ali Khan Bahadur Qayamat, states that most of the books in the family’s collection were rarest of rare manuscripts. It had books such as the deewan (collection of poems) of Sheikh Muhammad Abid Dil Azimabadi; Ghulam Ali Rasikh’s diary, which is still known as Biyaz E Doolighat; and Nawab Nejat Hussain Khan Ashki’s Sawanah E Lucknow, the most important text on the culture of Lucknow in the early 1800s. Later on, the books were divided among the family members who settled in Doolighat, Khwaja Kalan, Gulzarbagh, Kashmiri Kothi, Sheikhpura, Hussainabad, Bhagalpur, Sangi Dalan (all in Bihar); Ranchi (now in Jharkhand); and Karachi and Lahore (in present-day Pakistan). Each of them continued to contribute books to the collection.
Eqbal Haider Khan states that his grandfather had a huge collection of legal documents and books on law.
Nawab Syed Mohammad Akbar Khan of Doolighat, too, had a vast personal collection that included, as stated by his eldest grandson Mohammad Ali Khan “Faqeer” in a list titled Asas al Bait (1976), three huge book cabinets with only manuscripts. Akbar Khan himself wrote poems and books, a few of which were published. The manuscript of his book, Tazkera, was found in the private library of Nawab Syed Ali Jaffery in Muzaffarpur in 2021.
- In March 2022, MLA Sudama Prasad, Chairperson of the Bihar Vidhan Sabha Library Committee, stated that of the 540 public libraries that existed in Bihar in the 1950s only 51 remain
- Yet Bihar was once famous for its libraries
- Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, a repository of about 21,000 Oriental manuscripts and 2.5 lakh printed books, is the best known surviving relic of Bihar’s glorious past
- The State government has a role to play in the decline of libraries all over Bihar today
A legacy of the educated
Sunil Kumar Saxena, great-grandson of noted Urdu poet poet Rai Durga Prasad and descendant of Maharaja Ram Narain Mauzoon, Deputy Governor of Bihar, said that was a time when all influential people used to maintain a library: “They were educated people and books were passed on to them as a legacy.” He recalled the library of Raja Shetab Rai, Deputy Governor of Bihar, and the hundreds of books and rare manuscripts in the possession of the Raja’s descendants, Rai Sultan Bahadur and Rai Badshah Bahadur, both noted zamindars.
Rai Durga Prasad had a huge collection of religious texts, almost all of them in Urdu and Persian. A sizeable portion of the collection was donated to the Khuda Bakhsh Library, while the rest were destroyed with the passage of time. Saxena mentioned the library of Anant Prasad Mathur, a medical practitioner who had books on medicine and surgery in Urdu and Persian. Today, these books and their owners only survive in memory.
Another important library was on the premises of Imam Bandi Begum Waqf Estate of Gulzarbagh, with books on science, politics, art, religion, philosophy, and literature. “Gulzarbagh had one of the largest personal collections of books,” recalled Ather Ali Jaffery, grandson of Nawab Syed Ali Jaffery. Some of them were destroyed in a fire and others were eaten by termites. Whatever remains now is not even one-tenth of the total corpus available then.
At present, libraries that are reminders of the State’s enviable past include the Madrasa E Sulaimania, the Bihar Hitaishi District Central Library, the Sachidanand Sinha Library, and the Anjuman Taraqqi E Urdu (Subah E Bihar). The Madrasa E Sulaimania still has a large number of printed books, and Urdu and Persian manuscripts. Similarly, the Sachidanand Sinha Library, though breathing its last, has an excellent collection which, if preserved, can contribute to the writing of a comprehensive history of Bihar.
The Yahya Imam Library was another notable library in Patna. It was founded by Yahya Imam, who was initially employed as assistant librarian at Bihar National College, Patna, and later in Patna University. A book aficionado, Imam had a dynamic personality, which gained him many friends, including Mahendra Pratap, former vice chancellor of Patna University. Imam had a library of rare books and manuscripts in his Imambara.
The story goes that Imam would get a cartload of books and unload them personally at his library. In its heyday, Imam’s house was a hub of intellectuals such as Allama Jameel Mazhari, Ghazanfar Nawab Danish, Ghalib Imam, and Maulana Mustafa Jauhar, who would read and discuss books, play cards, and turn the place into a lively space of intellectual exchange.
“The Bihar government typically spends 0.01 per cent of its budget on libraries, revealing its attitude towards education.”
Imam’s father, Meer Qasim Hussain, also had an excellent collection of books. One of the exceptional manuscripts in it was the deewan of Hakeem Nawab Syed Muhammad Ali Khan Anjum Sheikhpurvi, a dear disciple of Mirza Ghalib. When the library declined, its collection was donated to Patna University and Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library.
In November-December 1959, the Idarah E Tahqeeqat E Urdu, an institute of Urdu research in Patna, organised an exhibition of Urdu manuscripts, letters, documents, and images sourced from almost a hundred personal and public collections across Bihar, among them Madrasa E Sulaimania, Yahya Imam Library, Ali Khan Library (Hussainabad, Sheikhpura), Rai Mathura Prasad, Rai Jagdeesh Prasad, Tajeshwari Narain, and Sri Mannu Lal (Gaya). There were objects from collections in Agra and Gorakhpur too. The Governor, Dr Zakir Husain, inaugurated the exhibition and Chief Minister Shri Krishna Sinha delivered the inaugural address.
The government has a role to play in the decline of libraries all over Bihar today. It typically spends 0.01 per cent of its budget on libraries, revealing its attitude towards education. Much of Bihar’s multicultural heritage has already disappeared. There is an urgent need to preserve what remains, but the State government evidently has other plans. A couple of years ago, it was intent on demolishing a part of the Khuda Bakhsh Library to make way for a flyover, and recently, the old building of Bihar Urdu Library was demolished for the same purpose. The flattened site of Mohammad Raza Khan Waqf estate, which once had a beautiful mosque, an Imambara and a library, speaks volumes about the attitude of the Bihar government towards its heritage.
Recently, on the evening of March 31, in the fracas following a Ram Navami procession, an armed mob set fire to the 112-year-old library of Madrasa E Azizia (affiliated to the Bihar Madrasa Board since 1930) in Bihar Sharif (Nalanda), destroying its collection of 4,500 rare manuscripts and books. The fire raged the whole night, obliterating a historical structure and leaving Bihar poorer by one more library.
Syed Faizan Raza is a senior IT professional from Patna who is now based in Jaipur. Ali Fraz Rezvi is a theatre artist and a student of Preventive Conservation.