An archive for Tamil studies

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

At the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, the private hoard of an unconventional collector of printed material of all sorts forms the nucleus of a major research facility focussing on South Indian studies, particularly the culture and soc ial history of Tamil Nadu.


THE value of private collections in preserving the print heritage of the country has been recognised only in recent years, and there have been several initiatives to make them accessible to researchers and other scholars. These collections could provide a new dimension to historiography, prove to be repositories of source material for scholars, and enable us to understand society better.

One such attempt is the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai, the lifetime collection of an unconventional bibliophile. Established in April 1994, it is emerging as a major research centre for South Asian studies, especially the social and cul tural history of South India.

Muthiah Chettiar, a painter of signs, moved to Chennai from Kottaiyur, a tiny village in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, and set up a sign board shop, Roja Arts. He had inherited from his father a fascination for imprints and began collecting them. F irst he bought books relating to art, particularly paintings, and gradually his interest extended to other subjects. In Chennai he got to know book dealers of the now defunct Moore Market, and was introduced to the world of antiquarian books. He was also in touch with scrap paper dealers, from whom he could get the magazines he wanted.

With business not doing too well in Chennai, Muthiah Chettiar moved back to Kottaiyur. He hoarded his treasure there in a rented building adjacent to his ancestral house. At the time of his death in 1992, at the age of 66, his collection had grown to nea rly 100,000 items in Tamil - books, journals and single sheet material such as drama notices, some of them dating back to 1886. The collection covers the whole gamut of Tamil culture and heritage, and the items span a period of more than 150 years, the e arliest being a book, Kandar Andhathi, published in 1804.

It was in 1975 that this writer first visited Kottaiyur and met Muthiah Chettiar. By that time the fact that he had such a collection was known to some researchers although none had any clear idea of what it contained. Muthiah Chettiar called his collect ion India Library Services. For consulting his books he charged a modest fee - which covered coffee and lunch as well. He would give books one at a time, and at times one got to browse just two books in a day. I kept in touch with him and met him wheneve r he visited Chennai. He was always concerned about the care of the collection after his time.

C.S. Lakshmi (Ambai), the Tamil writer and scholar on women's studies, visited Kottaiyur to use India Library Services for her research on women in India. Much later, when she was at the University of Chicago as a scholar-in-residence, she briefed South Asia scholars there about Muthiah Chettiar's collection. The university launched a global effort to save the material. It bought the entire collection from the family. It had been decided that the collection would remain in Tamil Nadu to form the nucleus of a research library on South Indian studies, in collaboration with the Chennai-based Mozhi Trust, an organisation set up to develop resources for language and culture.

The trustees of Mozhi saw in the project scope to develop systematically a comprehensive facility that would acquire all varieties of printed material - both book and non-book - and conserve them through preservation microfilming. James Nye, bibliographe r for Southern Asia and Director of the Centre for Research Libraries at the University of Chicago, and Cre-A Ramakrishnan, the innovative publisher, along with P. Sankaralingam, Reader in the Library Science Department of the University of Madras, went about the task of setting up a digital library. From Kottaiyur the material, packed in 1,110 specially designed cardboard boxes, was moved in five trucks, to the library building at Mogappair in Chennai. Sankaralingam, who took over as the full-time dire ctor of the library, emerged as the man for the moment. His dream was to provide under one roof research material and facilities for students of South Indian studies in fields ranging from humanities to social sciences. He drew up a project to catalogue and microfilm the collection. He set about the task of organising shelving facilities, installing microfilm cameras and creating machine-readable catalogue records compatible with major international systems. In order to orient the staff to preservation microfilming, a workshop was conducted in Chennai by Julio Berrios, Chief of Micrographics, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Personnel from other organisations involved in similar work, such as the Tamil Nadu Archives, the Theosophical Society Librar y and the Library of Congress division at the United States embassy in New Delhi also participated in the workshop. (Sankaralingam passed away in 1997, and this writer became the Director of the library.)

Printed material has a rather short lifetime owing to the high acid content in paper. Acid reacts with the atmosphere and turns the paper brown and brittle. If such material is handled frequently, it will lead to further damage. So it is necessary to sto re the contents of books in an archival medium. Worldwide, microfilming is the accepted form of archival preservation as far as printed material is concerned. If microfilm rolls are stored as per standards set by the archival community, they can easily l ast for 500 years. Researchers can access the contents of a book through a microfilm reader, instead of having to handle the original imprint. At RMRL, cataloguing and microfilming are done simultaneously.


In a major innovation, technologies developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, Pune, have been adapted to create machine-readable catalogue records. Catalogue data for Tamil items are entered in Tamil script. The system in use at RMRL can display and print the catalogue in Tamil script. Transliteration of the data into Roman script, both for display and printing, is automatic. These catalogues can be loaded into major international systems, including LC MARC and OCLC, the largest bib liographic databases in the world.

Support for the project came in the form of grants from various sources, the Wellcome Research Institute, London, the Ford Foundation, and later the Government of India. Now the work of cataloguing and indexing of the articles in the magazines is halfway through.

THE strength of the library lies in the variety of subjects on which Muthiah Chettiar collected books and the attention he paid to non-book material and books such as theatre handbills containing film songs and even some private letters. These strengths define the direction in which the collection should grow. Ever since the library was set up, handbills, invitations and other ephemera are being added to the collection.

Muthiah Chettiar's collection can be classified broadly into three. The first is literature, both classical and contemporary. This includes devotional literature, an area that has not received much attention from Indian scholars. The second category, ind igenous medicine, includes classical medical books from different traditions, such as Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani. For example, there is a collection of aphoristic and quoted verses forming the core of Siddha medicine; the complete writings attributed to Agasthiyar, and a collection of Nadisastiram, the diagnostic manuals based on the reading of the pulse. Traditional medicine was one of Muthiah Chettiar's interests, and he himself has written a book on antidotes to scorpion bite. The third set pertains to aspects of popular culture such as ballads, folk songs, drama and cinema. Added to this is a lot of single-sheet material, such as invitations to private functions and newspaper clippings. Popular magazines of the 1930s and 1940s offer a rare opportun ity to researchers to chart new scholarly directions. Commenting on Muthiah Chettiar's collection, a scholar records: "Within his library's eclectic range of subject matter, including medicine, folklore, religion, cinema and women's studies, and material s such as theatre playbills and popular song books, Muthiah Chettiar attempted to capture the essence of his people. Scattered worldwide, about 60 million people speak Tamil."

Harichandra Vilasam

There are certain works of special interest, such as the complete set of 1,500 verses by Gnana Vaithiyan, which studies the interaction of medical concepts with metaphysics and social issues. There is also the work of Yakobu Munivar, a Tamil convert to I slam, who details in his voluminous book his trip to Mecca and his introduction to the Unani system of medicine there.

Padarthaguna Chinthamani is a book published in 1907 on the various uses of local fruits, vegetables and herbs. Of particular importance are the indigenous animal husbandry practices in titles such as Mattuvakatam.

A researcher studying the freedom struggle as it manifested in south India will find important material here. For instance, there are Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa's books, translated by Kugapriyai, and journals such as Sakthi, which contain numerous articles by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders such as Indulal Yagnik.

ONE important segment of the collection relates to folklore. With remarkable foresight, Muthiah Chettiar acquired ballads such as Desingurajan Kathai and Nallathangal Kathai, which were published by the end of the 19th century. He collected differ ent versions of these ballads. In fact, acquiring multiple editions of a work was characteristic of him. Considered pedestrian, titles such as these are not preserved in libraries. Yet ballads have come to be recognised as sources of historical and liter ary information. Dr. David D. Schulman, Professor of Indian Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, elaborated this point in an interview published in Frontline (June 10, 2000). Ballads, he says, are historiographical texts that are just one stage removed from the actual event. If one is sensitive to this fact, then one can discern history in many genres. Several versions of subjects of traditional drama, such as Harichandran Kathai, are also preserved in the library.

RMRL collaborates with other archives across the world. The archive of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam has sent it a copy of Janamithran, a magazine brought out from Chennai in 1920. The Department of Communications of E dith Cowan University, Perth, Australia has given a microfilm version of all volumes of the Indian Cinematographic Committee Enquiry Report of 1929, including the rare fifth volume. RMRL has a collaborative project with the Tamil Nadu Archives and also w ith the Maraimalai Adigal Library. It collaborates with the Kalachuvadu Trust in a project to document the writings of Pudumaipithan, the Tamil writer. Its latest project is a joint venture with the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai.

Keeping Muthiah Chettiar's collection as the nucleus, the holdings of the library are being expanded with additional acquisitions. A vital part of its process of collection is represented by bequests of printed material from scholars. The initial success of the library gained acknowledgement in the form of bequests of valuable collections from renowned scholars such as A.K. Ramanujam, Edward Dimock and Milton Singer. Part of the collection of Gift Siromoney, who was Professor of Statistics at Madras Chr istian College, including his publication on the language of the Narikuravas, a nomadic community of Tamil Nadu, has been received. The library has received a generous donation of books on South Asian studies from scholars such as Kali Charan Bahl. V. Pu rushotham, a lawyer practising in the Madras High Court, whose passion is the chronology of Sangam literature, has donated his collection of nearly 2,000 books. Almost a complete collection of the published works on the Indus script is included in this c ollection. The latest donation comes from Saraswathi Samman award winner Indra Parthasarathy. The collection of contemporary Tamil literature includes impressive runs of the works of Ka. Na. Su and Si. Su. Chellappa. One of the prized imprints that have come to it through a recent bequest is Uthayatharagai, the first Tamil journal printed in 1842. There are 30 issues now with the library.

Recently, RMRL came into possession of print material spanning the War years - 1939-1945. M.S.M.M. Meyyappa Chettiar owned a film distribution company, the South Indian Pictures Corporation, in Chennai. During the War the company operated from Karaikudi. In June 1999, his grandson, Meyyappan Jr, contacted the library and offered to donate a collection of magazines and documents he possessed at his ancestral house at Karaikudi. The RMRL team set out promptly and brought in the hoard, which included seven dailies, 12 magazines from the War period, song books and publicity brochures, and a near complete set of the acts and rules relating to the film industry that were enforced during the British period. For instance, the government had passed an order tha t as a measure of economy the length of a film should not exceed 11,000 feet. If a film-maker made a film supporting the War, then preference was given in the supply of raw stock. This order is in the form of a booklet. Recently, RMRL located the collect ion of freedom fighter Covai Ayyamuthu in Pollachi, and microfilmed the titles. There are other private collections too, though not as large as Muthiah Chettiar's, scattered in various parts of Tamil Nadu. Work is on to create a network of these collecti ons in order to provide better access to more extensive Tamil source material.

Although microfilming is considered to be the answer for long-term storage, for short-term use and quick retrieval, scholars prefer the digital medium. Apart from the flat-bed scanner used for scanning paper material, the library has acquired a state-of- the-art microfilm digital-scanning equipment. Using this, microfilm can be scanned and the images can be either stored on compact disks (CDs) and digital video disks (DVDs) or the images can be made accessible through cyberspace. The equipment is capable of producing high-quality images that can be transferred even for the purpose of publishing.

RMRL aims to develop on a systematic basis a comprehensive facility that will acquire all varieties of printed material and preserve them by microfilming. Ever since culture studies gained importance, one problem faced by historians and social scientists is the deficiency of accessible primary material. RMRL meets this demand. The idea is to make it a repository of books and documents related to South Indian studies, particularly the culture and social history of Tamil Nadu. The long-term goal is to lin k up with all major centres of learning within the country and outside. The library will also offer a model to develop similar facilities to libraries in other regional languages. In fact, RMRL serves as a model for South Asian cultures, which have a lon g and rich history.

S. Theodore Baskaran, a former civil servant, is Director of the Roja Muthiah Research Library. The author of several books, he was a Senior Associate of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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