you enter the Asiatic Society library at Fort, you get the feeling of
stepping into another era: a gentler, slower dimension of Time, when
the eminences frozen in marble Juggannath Sankershet, Sir
Bartle Frere and Sir John Malcolm among others in the
librarys foyer, were men of moving flesh and blood.
It was an era when horses
and handsoms still clip-clopped in the streets of Fort; a time when
the banks girdling the Town Hall library were yet to be set up and
other venerable old buildings of Mumbai Victoria Terminus and
Rajabai Tower did not exist.
Reality however brings
you back to the present with a start. As you go towards the foyer
from the Reserve Bank side, you can see police billets in the
basement. The stamp office is housed below the library and the cops
are on duty day and night to guard the treasury. A locker-room smell
of sweat and shirts pervades the area. You notice, however, that the
sentries are armed, not with lshapore semi automatics, but with World
War I vintage Enfields.
Outside, the area is
dominated by banks. These massive mansions are the financial nerve
centres of India. But how nouveau riche this area is, can be gauged
from the fact that while the Town Hall was built in 1833, the RBI
skyscraper and the Mumbai Stock Exchange skyscraper (designed by an
Indian disciple of the world-renowned Finish architect Alvar Alto)
came up in the 1970s.
Again, one consolation
here is the recently rejuvenated Horniman Circle garden opposite the
stately stone steps leading up to the imposing ionic-columned façade
of the Asiatic Society.
Resurrected at a cost of
40 lakhs in 1986 by the Tatas, the garden was originally known as
Elphinstone Circle garden, and was first laid out by the Mumbai
Municipality in 1869. It was later named after Benjamin Guy
Horniman, the legendary editor of the Mumbai Chronicle, founded by
Phirozshah Mehta in 1912.
Next of the Horniman
garden the 159-year-old Gujarati newspaper, Mumbai Samachar, is till
going strong unlike the Chronicle which closed down in the early
thirties. Incidentally, the Samachar is almost as old as the Asiatic
Society building which was designed by Colonel Cowper and completed
in 1833 after 12 years at a cost of Rs. 656669.
The new Horniman garden
is luxuriant, bursting with lawns, exotic plants, pathways lined with
hundred-year-old hardwoods and cool founded replete with a recent
metal sculpture by B. Vithal. The ornamental grills fencing the
garden were originally imported from England.
As you climb the curving
stone steps towards the reception of the Asiatic Society library you
feel you are ascending into loftier, ethereal regions. Its the
change in lighting which plays this trick on you and also affects you
sense of time. The large circular skylights overhead are responsible
for this marvelous effects. Even when it rains or gets dark, the
light merely becomes more translucent. And at nigh it becomes
Dante, the Italian poet
who wrote the Divina Commedia surely had such a light in mind when he
wrote his classic. Nor is this a tenuous connection. Dantes
manuscript of the comedy, written in 1307, is one of Asiatic
Societys most valuable possessions. The other, even more
precious is the stone coffer containing copper, jade, silver and gold
caskets and gold flowers bearing fragments of Gautama Buddhas
begging bowl. These were excavated in 1822 by Bhagwanlal Indraji.
Despite the dark,
varnished wood paneling, the library is also suffused with natural
light throughout the day. Set on a high basement-cum-pedestal, it
harbours at its heart a large hall surrounded by ionic columns. The
library is ventilated by tall windows and doors which lead on to
balconies and provide a commanding tree-top view of the thoroughfare
outside. The spacious aspect is subtly offset by rows and rows of
volumes about 225000 of them quietly ageing on the
shelves set all around the walls.
The old worldly ambience
produces a sense of relaxation so profound that many readers
invariably fall asleep on the cushioned club chairs set in the
periodical room! Entrance to these hallowed portals is restricted to
members only. Outsiders can avail themselves of the general reading
rooms and reference section from 10 a.m. to 5.45 p.m., free of
The Asiatic Society began
its life as the Literary Society of Mumbai on 26th
November 1804 in what is now the Haffkine Institute at Parel.
Seventeen prominent citizens including the Governor Johathan Duncan,
resolved to promote usually knowledge particularly such as was
more immediately concerned with India. Later it moved to its
present quarters and merged with it to become a Mumbai branch of the
Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Today, however,
more than the Society, it is the Asiatic library that is well known
among citizens. In 1950, it was established as the Central Library
for the state of Maharashtra. Although in recent years the resources
of the library have been severely strained because of its
awesome ambit and responsibilities, it sir still one of the handful
of superlative libraries in the country.