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If you have any preconceived notion about how a library should look like, leave that thought behind while stepping inside this 129-year-old Library in Kolkata! Empty reading rooms, damaged rare collection of books on the floor, layers of dust, damp rooms, and broken ceilings- have become synonymous with this age-old library.

What’s worse? Take Shakespeare or Horace in your hand, and you will find termites crawling out of them. Even though the outer look of the building blends with the other iconic structures in that surrounding, but that is a complete façade, almost like photo filters to hide the real you!

LifeBeyondNumbers spent a day in one of Kolkata’s oldest public libraries- Chaitanya Library, whose one of the founding members was Rabindranath Tagore, but sadly now its glorious past is lost in the layers of dust.

While authors are struggling to breathe in this library, the heaps of rare collection of books on the floor are a bookworm’s nightmare in the true sense of the term. Is Kolkata hiding its story of negligence behind this iconic heritage building? Let’s find out!

Chaitanya Library

Chaitanya Library

The inception of this iconic library

It was in 1836 Calcuttans got familiar with the taste of literary hub due to the foundation of Calcutta Public Library (CPL), which was the result of collaboration between Indians and Britons. However, in the late 19th century, CPL began to face competition from societies like Burrabazar Family Literary Club (1857)Mahomedan Literature Society (1863)Hindu Literary Society (1876)Bagbazar Reading Library (1883)– which were some of the many new libraries and reading rooms serving Indian users exclusively and were flourishing back then.

Chaitanya Library is the brainchild of Gaur Hari Sen and his bosom friend Kunj Behari Dutta. Grandfather of Kunj Behari, Shri Ganganarayan Dutta was then a well-to-do person in the Beadon Street locality. Gaur Hari persuaded him to donate some money and a large room on the ground floor of his house to set up a library. Apart from that, Noni Mohan Banerjee donated Rs.20 for the library.

Chaitanya Library

(L to R) Sir Asutosh Choudhury, Acharya Brajendranath Seal, World Poet Rabindranath Tagore, Acharya Ramananda Chattopadhyay – some of the eminent personalities who used to visit the library

A library whose founding members included Rabindranath Tagore and Reverend Alex Tomory- the rotting of books here due to negligence questions Kolkata’s fondness for its literary heritage.

The enthusiasts got hold of a cupboard and a few English and Bengali books with an amount of Rs.300 rupees. The subscription rate was decided to be 2 annas a month while a life member was required to pay Rs.10.

In Hindu mythology, the Goddess of Knowledge is known as ‘Saraswati’ and therefore on the occasion of Saraswati Puja in the February of 1889, Chaitanya Library was inaugurated.

Why is the location of this library attention-grabbing?

Chaitanya library started its operation at 4/1, Beadon Street (Dani Ghosh Sarani) with two periodicals, Bangabasi and Sanjibani and a daily, Indian Mirror. What makes the location of this library worth mentioning is the history attached to this place.

Standing next to the library is the iconic Minerva theatre, behind the library is Rambagan red-light area. Late Iconic singer Ramkumar Chattopadhyay’s house is just opposite to the library. Scottish Church College, Bethune College, and the 200-year old Neemtala ghat are just a few kilometers away from here.

Why is the library struggling to survive?

In the year 1889, there were 284 members out of which only 6 were females. Women were not allowed to read and write during that time so they were hardly seen in the library.

Back then, it was a different era altogether. Debates were organized in the library every week and stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore, BankimChandra Chattopadhyay, C V Raman, Nabinchandra Sen, Judge Jadhulal Bhatta, Sister Nivedita used to visit this place,” said Treasurer of the library Debashish Dey (58).

In our memorandum, we have Rabindranath Tagore’s signature as well. He used to write letters from Santiniketan and send it to this library. Jakhon uni Knight peyechilen, ak copy nakol amader shinduk e chilo (when Rabindranath Tagore was awarded Knighthood on June 3, 1915, there was a replica of it in our locker.) We haven’t seen it in person but it was published in Statesman and Anandabazar Patrika back then,” said Dey.

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President of the library, Pradip Sengupta (70), who is looking after it for past 15 years, said, “The library is heading towards a slow death, and even if we plan to restore the books, we are always out of funds.

Apart from Sengupta and Dey, secretaries Prabir Mondal (58) and Biswanath Ganguly (72) look after the library.

Even though the library has 500 members, but they are not regular ones. People who visit this library are mainly researchers, who look for rare references for their projects. Apart from that, the place stays empty most of the time. Instead of readers, termites walk through the pages of these rare books and it is very sad that there is no restoration process in progress to save these books.

“Back then we had many running members in the library, and a monthly subscription used to cost Rs 2 back then and now it has been increased to mere five rupees, but we still have five hundred members. But, the reading habit has changed over the years and due to digitization, coming to the library has decreased, because Google has the answer to everything and books are available in e-version nowadays,” said Dey.

It is heartbreaking to see that most of the rare books are wrapped under cobweb coating and termites have made it their home. Looking at tomes, you will probably question the literary culture of Bengal that the city boasts about.

The topmost floor of the library has a rare collection of books and you will find bundles of them on the floor. Why? because they didn’t find shelter in the racks? These books go untouched year after year and due to negligence, water drops from the ceiling fall directly on the books, destroying them and fungus have taken shelter- they lay on the ground damaged and torn, in heaps throughout the room.

The ample space in the library is now being utilized by CINI, an NGO which has come up with a noble initiative to teach the unprivileged children- kids from the red light area, street children and provide them with better future.

Last year, we made an application to the government as the rare books are getting destroyed due to lack of maintenance, but there is no response yet,” Dey added.

Chaitanya Library

The rare collection of books on the floor as they didn’t find a place in the shelf and most of them damaged due to the broken ceiling and rainwater seeping down in this section of the library. Books are damaged due to dampness, layers of dust and rest are termite-eaten

The current members of the library are planning to make it an education library and digitalize the whole thing because the maintenance cost of these books is huge and there is no yearly government grant to save these books from getting destroyed. But, after many requests, there is a government grant of 3 lakhs, which the library gets at an interval of 2 or 3 years and it hardly helps in the restoration of the books.

On asking if there is any way that the library can get back its lost glory, Ganguly says, “if we turn this into an information center, install computers to keep track of books, the fate of this library will change for sure. Apart from that, we were thinking of opening a cafe in the courtyard of the building so that we can raise money from there. This may also attract more readers who can enjoy books with a cup of coffee but when we approached the government officials, the idea was rejected completely as they thought the security of the place will be compromised and the books might get stolen.

But, here is the funny part- the books are so damaged, that without restoring it, they can hardly be read by someone, forget about stealing it!

Like other heritage buildings in the heart of the city, Chaitanya Library too looks elegant and reflects the city’s love for literature, but the fragile condition of books will leave you in utter shock. Due to negligence and lack of manpower, termites have made it their home.

What does this treasure-house hold?

In 1889, 959 books were purchased when the library was in its nascent stage- 503 Bengali books and 456 English books were issued.

A year later in 1890, 244 English books and 6565 Bengali books were issued out of 6565 Bengali books, 4534 were fictions and 1112 general literature, 1070 Poetry, 219 History, 709 Biography, 249 Natural Science, 156 Mental and Political Science, and 203 miscellaneous books.

  • In 1890, 6665 books were bought
  • In 1892, 2232 books were bought
  • In 1893, 2500 books were bought
  • In 1897, 10,690 books were bought

In 1890, the donors were:

  • The Hon’ble Justice G.F Norris 21 Volumes of books
  • Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore 10 volumes of books
  • Maharaja Kumar Binoy Krishna Deb 4 volumes of books
  • Babu Ramanath Ghosh 21 volumes of books and 8 magazines
  • Homeonath Mukherjee– 2 Newspapers and 1 magazines
  • Upendra Nath Mukherjee- 2 Volumes and 24 newspapers and few magazines

And this is how, over the years, the number of books in the library started to increase.

Some Old books:

  • Kolkata Rahoshho by Pal & Company
  • Tajjob Bepaar by Amrito Lal Basu(1292 Bengali Year)
  • Neel Darpan by Dinobondhu Mitra(1786 Bengali Year)
  • Padmavati by Michael Madhushudan Dutta(1238 Bengali Year)
  • Chatrapati by Girish Chandra Ghosh (1314 Bengali Year)
  • Bharat Chandra’s Granthaboli – published in the Bengali Year 1296
  • Traknath’s Granthaboli – published in the Bengali Year 1306
  • Kalidas’ Granthaboli – published in the Bengali Year 1302

Books on Poetry such as:

  • Abokaash Rajoni by Nabin Chandra Sen (1291)Bengali Year
  • Bhagna Hriday by Rabindra Nath Tagore (1803)
  • Chitrangada by Rabindra Nath Tagore (1299) Bengali Year
  • Tillotoma Sambhava Kavya by Michael Madhushudan (1861)
  • Kobitaboli by Hem Chandra Bandhopadhyay (1286) Bengali Year

The collection of rare books on Kolkata such as:

  • Kolkata Rahoshyo– Hari Lal Bandhopadhyay (1320 Bengali Year)
  • Kalikata Sekaler O Ekaler– Harisadhan Mukhopadhyay

Saving the past for the future

During its early phase, since 1889, Rs 320 as a donation came for the library for its smooth functioning. In 1895, Rs. 417 came as a donation. In 1965- Rs. 100 came as a donation. Now the scenario has changed. It runs on the money collected as a donation from group theatres. Sometimes grants were given by filmmakers while shooting films like Chaar Adhyay, Kalbela, Bomkesh Bakshi.

Today this library holds approximately 1, 50,000 books and 27,000 periodicals. The books were purchased as well as donated by people to keep the library going. After publishing the 13th catalog, the printing process stopped because the members were out of funds.

National Archive of India once donated Rs. 30,000 for the restoration of books of the library. No other grants have been received other than this for the restoration of books. There are currently no financial resources for the restoration of books through binding.

The books in this library want to feel safe in their home. We don’t know yet that is it because of lack of will or capacity of knowledge that a city which boasts of its literary and cultural heritage, is failing to save its history for future.