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Sadharan Brahmo Samaj Library (Part – 1)

Gautam Neogy

Sadharan Brahmo Samaj was founded in Calcutta on 15th May, 1878. Presently it’s address is 211 Bidhan Sarani, Kolkata 700006. Although a religious organisation, the importance of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj library lies in the fact that over the last 125 years it has not only been at the centre of the cultural regeneration of Calcutta, but many of its stalwarts, empowered by liberal thoughts and rational ideas, have helped to play vital roles in national scenario. Pandit Shivanath Shastri, one of its founders, had published its fortnightly magazines, “Tatwa-Koumudi” in Bengali and ‘Indian Messenger’ in English, as the editor. In his magazine he wrote that “the religion of the Brahmo Samaj does not believe in alienating itself from humanity and be submerged only in the prayers.” This bold assertion makes Brahmo Samaj unique.

In consonance with this ideal, the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj library was established in 1879. Presently this library is housed on the first floor of the building adjacent to the Church or Samaj Mandir, at 211/1 Bidhan Sarani, Kolkata – 700006. This is one of those libraries which have survived over a century without government support. Not only because of it’s antiquity, the library is well known as a repository of a very rich and rare collection of books and journals from the past. It is unfortunate that the footfalls in the library do not match its importance. It is a very important resource centre and comparable to the National Library for all those who are interested in studying the social and cultural history of nineteenth century Bengal and the consequential changes the reform movements brought about in the twentieth century. I have not only gained from the invaluable collection of this library, I am glad to state with humility that I have also served as its honourary Librarian. It is important to mention that it offers an opportunity to go through its rare collection of books and documents for free and in such a peaceful environment that very few private libraries can offer. This library not only offers a collection of religious books, it is also a great repository of collections on history, philosophy, literature, music, autobiographies and biographies in Bengali and English along with many journals and rare magazines published in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The library seems to radiate an aura of the past.

The history of the evolution of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj library from its inception in 1879, and how it evolved into a free reading room for general public in spite of its being the organ of a religious body, are well documented in the Annual Reports of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, which are published in English. In 1879 the library had its humble beginning with two racks, stacked with religious books, placed at a corner of the prayer hall of the Samaj. Shri Durga Mohon Das presented the library with a set of Theodor Park’s Anthology edited by Miss Frances Power Cobb. Initially the library was open to the members of the Samaj. Initially it ran at very low key till it was revamped in 1894. In this connection let me quote from the History of Brahmo Samaj by Pandit Sivnath Shastri: ‘The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj Library, which has been in a moribund condition, was revived. From a corner of the in the gallery of the Mandir, it was removed to a rented house of its own, which also formed the official quarter of the minister of the Congregation. Nearly a thousand volumes of new religious books were added to the Library, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore coming forward with a large donation for that purpose. A reading room for the use of the members of the Congregation was also opened in the Library, which also served as the meeting ground for the members of Congregation, especially for new inquirers. On Monday evenings conversational meetings were held in the Library Hall, when the minister would be present to preside at the meetings for the discussion of important questions. These Monday meetings sometimes attracted upwards of seventy young men, many of whom became regular attendants and took an earnest part of the discussions. The Library also formed a general meeting ground for several other institutions. On the whole, the experiment of the reorganised congregation was in every way a marked success.’

There is no record of how successful the new library was. However, the person who was at the forefront of this library was a well educated person, a meritorious scholar in Mathematics from Presidency College, Calcutta, first Indian Rangler from Cambridge University – Ananda Mohan Basu. His untimely death on August 20, 1906, was an unfortunate blow to the library. Ananda Mohan  was not only a Brahmo leader, he was one of the founders of our freedom movement. When the resistance against the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon or the ‘Banga Bhanga Movement’ was at its peak, he was taken in a stretcher to a public meeting organised for laying down the foundation of the Federation Hall. He was in his death bed at the time and yet he inspired the audience with his motivating speech.

There are two phases in the initial organisation of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj library. Between 1879 – 1893 (First phase) it was basically a library containing publications on religious themes which were for the exclusive use of the Calcutta Congregation. Those who supported the library by donating funds for its development included personages like Anandamohan basu, Sib Chandra Deb, Mohini Mohan Basu, Umesh Chandra Dutt, Kalisankar Sukul, Dukari Ghosh, Dwarkanath Ganguly and Sivnath Shastri. In the second phase (1894 – 1924) the character of the library underwent a great change. By then the readership of the library had increased many folds. A reading room had been added and people who were not members of the Brahmo Samaj started visiting the library as many books, journals and periodicals in both English and Bengali had been added to the stock. The library had shifted to its own hall in a building adjacent to the prayer hall of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The library hall had become a centre for lectures and discussions on topics which were not religious but concerned with the social, cultural, political and educational and literary issues. The new members of the Sadharan Brhamo Samaj had become politically conscious and were dedicated to the cause of freeing India from the clutches of imperialism. Many authors and poets started gifting the first edition of their newly published books. Many erudite persons gifted their invaluable collections to the library. As a result this library became a centre of intellectual activities within a short span of thirty years from 1894. After this the history of this library can be divided in to two further stages; the third stage from 1924 to 1947 and the fourth stage since independence in 1947 till the present day.

The second phase from 1894 to 1924 happens to be the most important of all the phases. The importance of this stage lies firstly in the impressive list of persons engaged in building up this library, who were the widely revered for their noble contributions to society and the country and secondly the emergence of this library from that of a repository of religious documents to a truly public library. The third phase (1924 – 1947) happens to be important too as both the collection and readership increased greatly. Many important lectures and seminars were organised and the activities of the library diversified. Before the two aspects are discussed in details, it is important to delve into the history and background of the Brahmo movement.

Translation: Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee

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