Reinventing the Asiatic

 In Urban Conservation (Asiatic Society)

By Alpana Lath Sawai The institution makes itself more accessible by carefully preserving and digitising its catalogue, revamping its reading rooms and offering novel ways to engage with the public

Deep in the bowels of Fort, hidden in plain sight, stands The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, one of Mumbai’s most popular selfie points. There are always at least a few couples and groups clowning around on its expansive stairway. The relative passivity of the structure does not give away the flurry of activity inside. Multitudinous processes are underway deep in the basement of The Asiatic’s library.

There are books and maps to be saved for the present and also for the future. A rare copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy holds pride of place as does a first folio by Shakespeare, dated 1623. There are books in Sanskrit and other ancient and modern languages. The icing on the cake is yet to come — all of this is scanned and can be accessed online. “We want to bring more readers into our fold. So, we have put everything online. For a small membership fee, anyone can read online books, manuscripts and newspapers dating back two centuries,” says S G Kale, president of The Asiatic library.

The Asiatic’s online sub-portal has over 20,000 books, newspapers, manuscripts, maps, journals, government publications and reports. Of these, 15,000 are classified as rare and so access to them would not have been possible but for the efforts of the library to preserve them digitally.

Kale says the work of ushering the library into the modern age began in 2015, when the state Government presented it with Rs 5 crore for modernisation. Renovation work began in earnest; hands were hired to digitally scan and store the library’s treasured collection of literature. A climate-controlled section was created in the belly of the building to work on the rare books and maps in the library’s possession. Then, as the funds began to dry up, work began to slow down.

At about this time, the Rotary Club of Bombay (RCB), which has several civic and community service activities under its belt, decided to join the heritage and culture preservation space. Natasha Treasurywala, chair of the Urban Heritage Committee of RCB says, “The library was in urgent need of repair and its president, Mr Kale, was open to our involvement.”

It started by fixing the Central Hall, a reading room where the paint was peeling off the walls and wooden panels needed urgent restoration, as did a central chandelier. Next, it was the turn of the Durbar Hall, outside which a green room is being built so that it can be let out for board meetings and small performances. RCB then undertook renovation of the basement where dying books and maps could be rescued and resuscitated by trained professionals.

One of these was Amalina Kohli Davé, trained in the restoration of paper from 1400-1700s. She gave The Asiatic library a proposal to work on its collection of maps and was accepted. Backed by the RCB, resources were hired to work on reconstituting books to a usable state and Davé trained them. She says, “I have seen a lot of libraries around the country but I have yet to see one doing this level of conservation work. There are libraries which have spaces dedicated to maps but the work they are doing in the name of conservation — adding simple glue and butter paper — actually damages the maps further. We started work in this laboratory last year.”

Davé picks up maps delicately —much like a skilled surgeon handling a casualty — pointing out the various damages to it, by insects, the folding of paper, ageing and often the harm caused by previous attempts at preservation and restoration. There are books awaiting their turn, with glorious full-colour drawings made by early geologists, and animal and bird watchers who made trips to the Indian subcontinent to capture its natural offerings.

In a separate enclosure, Sunil Bhirud, the library’s conservation supervisor, works with three others. The process of saving a book requires very specialised skill and knowledge of the effect of various chemicals on paper. Books are unbound, cleaned and glued back together. The best quality Japanese tissue paper is used to hold pages that are falling apart. Suitable paper and chemicals are imported to give the books a longer shelf life.

The library has an Adopt-A-Book offering; they recently had a sizeable donation through the Rotary Club of Bombay that helped restore 650 books. There are other individuals who adopt books they have an affinity towards. For as little as Rs 7,500, anyone can save a book.

Says Kale, “We have become quite active with our Facebook posts and are reaching out to more people online to let them know of what all is being done here. We hope to bring more people in. That way there will be more funds to save these books.”

Meanwhile, there are books sitting silently on shelves in the library’s basement. The shelves are very modern, donated as part of a corporate CSR activity. But their holding cells are old, from The Asiatic Society’s earlier avatar as Town Hall. There is an air of pathos here. It is not new for books to be jailed — knowledge was always considered a dangerous thing — but there aren’t many takers. Hopefully, with the concerted and renewed efforts of The Asiatic library and the Rotary Club of Bombay, that will change.

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