Last year in November, when a team of archaeologists stumbled upon what appeared to be a mysterious room in the 250-year-old National Library building, there were all kinds of speculations about what the “secret chamber” was meant for. Did it hide some treasures from the past? Was it once a torture chamber? Or was it a sealed tomb? The 120 square foot room had no entrance, no trap door. Six months later, the team’s finding have revealed no such fascinating story.
The “secret room” turned out to be “a block stuffed with mud, perhaps constructed by the British architects to strengthen the base of the building,” says Tapan Jyoti Baidya, superintending archaeologist, Kolkata Circle. The discovery had excited architects because the building where the National Library is housed has a history which goes back to the days of the Raj.
Located on Belvedere Road, it was built across 30 acres by Mir Jafar, the nawab of Bengal, in the 1760s. He later gifted it to Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India. In 1780, Hastings is said to have sold the building which later went on to become the official residence of the Lt Governor of Bengal.
“People say there is a secret underground tunnel that connects the heritage building to Fort William, but we have not come across any such tunnels so far,” says Baidya. “Maybe an excavation of the library compound could unearth some interesting findings,” he adds.
Once called the Imperial Library, it was opened to public in 1891. Years later, Lord Curzon merged it with the Calcutta Public Library, founded in 1836. The merged entity opened to the public on January 30, 1903. After Independence, it was named the National Library and placed under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The heritage wing of the library is now getting a facelift. The Archeological Survey of India, which has undertaken the task of conservation, expects to get the work done by 2014.
The library has meanwhile been shifted from the heritage building to a new building called “Bhasha Bhawan”. “We have undertaken a rapid conversation initiative to upgrade the library and also physically restore printed materials,” says Swapan Chakravorty, director general, National Library. “We have been able to digitise catalogues and also use technology like micro filming to preserve old and rare documents,” he adds. The library has acquired a hybrid camera which can microfilm and digitise documents.
The Central government sanctioned Rs 135 crore for institutes of national importance in the state, part of which is being spent on upgrading the National Library, which is the biggest public library of India. It has collection of over 2200,000 books, besides newspapers and rare manuscripts.
There are books available in almost every Indian language. There is a separate language division which processes information for readers in their native languages. The library has enough to keep children busy as well. There is a separate division for young readers which offers both information and recreation.
“The library possesses almost all printed material published in England from the 17th century onwards,” says Chakravorty. “Following a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Culture and its British counterpart, we have organised a joint workshop with the British Library on a collection of early Bengali printed material (from 1778 to 1914) available in Indian and British archives,” he adds.
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