The case of the Roja Muthiah Library

The fame of the Roja Muthiah Library is nowadays so well known that young Tamil scholars who enter in the field of research have a tendency to take it for granted. But its edifying history is in fact the happy end of a long process which might have ended, as is often the case, as a disaster.

First of all, because the most paradigmatic relation between book collectors and scholars in the making, who are the book users we are concerned with, is an ambiguous relation of hate and love, and when the book collectors become book sellers the law of the market and the heat of the bargaining session may even worsen the situation. Such was the world of the book stalls of Madras’ Moor Market which had been for decades the paradise of book lovers and students, myself being an occasional customer in the sixties and seventies. Roja Muthiah had already gone back to Kottaiyur and the king of the place was T.N. Jayavelu who, for example, in 1971 published an English catalogue of Rare Books on India priced in U.S. $ ! For his generation the second hand market of Tamil books was somehow upgraded by an elite of Tamil scholars (I say scholars, not necessarily professors!) who were keeping their own private library. Many of them have done great service to Tamil studies and should be remembered today for their devotion and pioneering attitudes. I had the honour to meet in my early days in India a few of them, like P.N. Appusamy, N. Kandaswamy Pillai, M. Arunachalam, R.S. Sambasiva Sharma… All of them had a library, the fate of which should have been our concern if the modern trend of research on the material aspect of our literary patrimony had already been a common practice in our approach of history of literature. Some more important private collections were also dispersed; for example, the library of Rao Saheb C. S. Srinivasachari who taught History and Politics at Annamalai in the golden age of that University, an amazing collection, particularly rich in basic documents, series of academic journals and offprints ingeniously put together in miscellaneous bundles authorwise or subjectwise, which in a way anticipated the type of documentation today available through Internet! Its catalogue spoke a lot for the erudition of some academics of those days and their extraordinary network of information.

But what about Roja Muthiah? Before 1970 he had already well expanded his collection and it was in the sheds he rented rather than in his house that I met him when searching for old editions of the Tirukkovaiyar I had planned to translate. I got one he had recovered from a reading room of Karaikudi, bearing his own stamp as “artist” Kottaiyur P. O. , Ramnad Dist., but he spontaneously proposed me a large collection of Tamil erotica, supposing perhaps that my French frivolous mind was looking in that direction in order to find my own “unmei vilakkam” of Manikkavacakar’s poem. We laughed together at this small misunderstanding and I got the opportunity to discover, apart from an enormous collection of scrap books and popular editions of puranic tales often enriched with no less popular woodcuts, quite an unexpected, and unexplored, amount of paper cuttings, pictures, drama and film notices, marriage invitation cards etc. which I had never seen collected anywhere in Tamilnad; they constituted a unique treasure for future historians and sociologists. Unfortunately, I was not mastering the budget and nobody at the French Institute took my discovery seriously enough to give it a follow up.

Already, Roja Muthiah had started his long struggle to make his quest recognised for what it really was. But in 1970, his only credentials remained a letter dated 4th August 1970 from the Department of Oriental Printed Books & Mss., The British Museum, and signed by Dr. Albertine Gaur, Assistant Keeper, who is now remembered for her tireless devotion in cataloguing old Tamil sources, such as the Tamil library of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg.

Here are her own words : “…I have given your name to Mr. Subbiah in Madras and suggested that your whole collection should be purchased by the new International Institute of Tamil Studies which is just about to be founded with the help of UNESCO. At a recent conference in Paris we all agreed that your collection will be of more value to Tamil scholars if it is preserved in Madras as a whole and not broken up over various places in Europe or America. I would therefore suggest that you accept Mr. Subbiah’s offer, in your own interest and in the interest of your country which is no doubt very dear to you.” This forgotten letter should be considered as the real founding document of the present RMRL and its chart of ethics.
However, there is no trace of any such resolution by the 3rd International Conference of the IATR in Paris and the Proceedings, which I edited with Father Thani Nayagam in 1973 only exactly as we had received them, do not record anything on the subject.

Many years passed. I had left India since ten years and the current affairs of the French Institute of Pondicherry were no more my official concern when, during a flying visit to India, I received from Roja Muthiah a letter, dated 6th May 1987, inviting me to support his attempt to sell his collection to the French Institute, after one and half year of negotiations, as is evidenced by his letter addressed to N.R. Bhatt : “…Dr. N. R. Bhatt, Head of Sanskrit Department has asked me in one of his letters to give some idea of my collection of Tamil books, which to my modest estimate exceeds fifty thousand volumes besides rare cuttings, handbills, monographs, etc, etc. This information he needed so as to explore the possibility of purchasing the whole collection for the Institute.

On 29-4-87 I have replied him, a copy of my reply is enclosed herewith.

As you know to prepare even the listing of the titles alone for fifty thousand books would be a gigantic task. However I have prepared a model catalogue for 61 titles on Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam alone and enclosed them with this letter. Particularly I would like to mention here the collection of handbills and notices printed 1880-1920 and distributed to the public on the eve of performance of dramas. They are a mine of information on socialogical (sic) matters etc…” Followed an invitation urging me to visit his library again. But I was to leave India three or four days later… (letter on next page33)

Was he remembering our first contact? I had received some more lists, all testifying the meticulous care of Roja Muthiah in the evaluation of his collection : rare Tamil old books, or more than 300 titles on Tamil Puranas or, a more tantalising one , “750 books on folk tales, folk dramas and folk songs of South India”. Anyway, the library of the Indology Department was not yet prepared to face the scope of such a collection, even if the listing of the 61 Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam editions, including about 20 editions enriched with plates, was an engaging model of accuracy. Unfortunately, the too narrow vision of classical indological studies, Tamil included, which prevailed was not yet broad enough to welcome all its popular and marginal dimensions. We could perhaps have thought of a selection, but it was only a global deal offered for twenty five lacs of rupees! Like the British Museum nearly twenty years before, the French Institute was now helpless also. And on Sunday November 1 1987, The Indian Express published the distressing advertisement : “A Famous Library for Sale” including once more, after 17 years, the same letter of Albertine Gaur …

As a matter of fact, no solution was found till Roja Muthiah passed away in 1992. The fate of his collection was therefore sealed, it seemed, like for so many similar ventures (for example, I had also heard the laments of T.N. Jayavelu) in the most paradigmatic manner : the death of the founder meant the demise of the collection as well.

This common curse has its roots in the policy of most of the libraries which, in front of a new collection acquired by purchase or donation, decide to select only whatever suits their programme of acquisition and throw away the unwanted. This is a very common attitude of the European public libraries, where the librarians are trained to chase away pitilessly all the so-called duplicates, irrespective of the condition of the other copy already in store and the predictable impossibility to replace them later. This activity is taught during the formation of professional librarians under the beautiful name of “weeding”, the gardener’s art of cleaning the place. It is a shame and a disaster which rarely enriches the second-hand booksellers and more often the waste paper dealers. Further, it deprives us of the irretrievable knowledge which could be drawn from the scrutiny of the intellectual venture of the creation and development of a private library by scholars, amateurs or book lovers. It is surprising that after three generations of erudition have now established as a rich and rewarding academic field the history of the book, of the libraries, public or private, of the reading practices and of all the social, economic and political aspects of the edition and diffusion of the printed matters, it is still difficult to safeguard the documents which allow this historical activity to function properly.

Perhaps due to the traditional respect of private archives and accounts in Chettiar families Roja Muthiah had collected the most precious documents in the field of stationary and the most perishable documents. As he advertised : “ONE LAC cuttings from news-papers. ONE LAC Pictures and Prints, and 50000 Drama Notices, Cinema-Herald and Notices, Invitation Cards, Ravi Varma Prints etc.”

In Paris, on 9-11 1983 a colloquium was organised on “Book and Printing in Far-East and South-Asia”. The session on India and South-Asia I happened to preside included a paper on “The Scott Collection in Cambridge and Printing in Southeast Asia”, an unusual collection of private documents and stationary. Andrew Dalby, Cambridge University Library warned us: “ If we study only books, we get only a vague image of the commerce of printing.” And he invited any researcher working on the history of printing in Southeast Asia “to consider the ephemeral documents”. Another paper by Graham Shaw, British Library, sketched the beginnings of the vernacular printing in India1. The work of Roja Muthiah was not mentioned as it was mostly ignored, but, indirectly, the starting impetus had been given for his well deserved recognition to come.

Between 1992 and 1994 the global effort to preserve Roja Muthiah’s heritage takes shape, and this is the best known part of the story today. The philosophy behind it is edifying. But in fact, the generous dream of Albertine Gaur did finally materialise only through the happy conjuncture of several independent elements. First of all, the American vision of libraries is different from the European one: any collection, once acquired should be preserved integrally and be given a proper place for storage; we still believe in the concept of the primordial role of the library, with the university campus built around it. The problem of storage must, anyway, be overcome.

Then a fruitful dialogue was established between Madras and Chicago. In Madras, between 1984 and 1986 the bold venture of the Dictionary team of the Cre-A: dictionary took shape, creating around it an awareness on several aspects of the Tamil heritage. The connection with American committed scholars in Tamil was also very much alive and, quite naturally, the Mozhi Trust became for some time the natural abode of the investments directed and co-ordinated from Chicago by James Nye. This is now history, just as the natural shift of ownership, cataloguing and preservation to the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust in 2005.

However we cannot forget that it is from 1970 that the fate of that private collection of books remained at stake till 1994, that is during almost a quarter of a century! It ends up almost like a fairy tale but the lesson is that we must always remain vigilant. Students should remember that each and every document which is destroyed carries away from us a small part of our heritage and that this loss is irretrievable.
1  Proceedings published in French by the Revue Française d’histoire du livre, 53rd Year, N°43, Nouvelle série Avril-Mai-Juin 1984. Also included are two very important original contributions by rare scholars who should no more remain ignored in the field of Tamil studies, one by Katharine Smith Diehl on “Catholic printing in India till 1850” and another by Gerald Duverdier on “Protestant printing in India (1712-1850)”.

(Professor Francois Gros was formerly the Director of the EFEO. He is the visiting fellow at the French institute of Pondicherry.)

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