I distinctly remember it was the month of May, and Chennai was experiencing the ‘Agni Nakshatram’ phase. A time where temperatures soar and the land gets parched. After lunch, my father was regaling us with his college days antics when the talk slowly drifted toward “a place in the city that has the power to magically transport you to the bygone eras”. I recall the intrigue that sparked within me hearing those words. That was my introduction to the Madras Literary Society. Built almost two centuries ago, the library stands today as a proud repository of the history, heritage, and architecture of our country.
In writing this article, I wish to bring alive some of the magic I experienced during my weekend visits to the library.
Established in the 1880s, the library – one of the largest lending libraries in South Asia – is a treasure trove of manuscripts, written masterpieces, fiction, and non-fiction amassed over decades.
For a bibliophile, being at this library is akin to a child being in a candy store. It would be difficult to decide which book to pick and which one to leave for another visit; when you can stop your head from swerving around to soak it all in, of course. From Aristotle’s Opera Omnia to Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and scores of books in Indian regional dialects, the library is home to more than 85,000 books.
But that is just one feather in its crown.
Madras Literary Society – An Architectural Marvel
Nestled in a green compound, the library greets you with a looming Gulmohar tree before the imposing structure attracts your attention. The exposed ochre-hued brick façade gives the building an almost a palace-like feel.
Upon entering the arched doorway you will find yourself in a well-lit hall lined with rows of 28-feet-tall bookshelves that kiss the high ceiling.
Such high ceilings, I wonder? “Primarily to bring in enough light, give ample ventilation, and also accommodate the books, which are in two-level towering shelves made of wrought iron. There is a pulley in between the shelves, to transport books from the high shelves,” intones Thirupurasundari Sevvel, the Honorary General Secretary of the library, and an accomplished architect who told me some of the fascinating nuggets about the elements of architecture and design woven through the building.
One of the highlights of the place – the pulley system, carting books from one place to another will catch you unawares. When I showed a picture to one of my kids, he exclaimed, “Just like Hogwarts!”. I smiled, seeing in my little one hints of the same fascination I had for the library as a child.
The library, among the many admirers who have been also charmed by its sheer quaint air, also boasts of having hosted illustrious visitors like Subhas Chandra Bose, Annie Besant, and Dr S Radhakrishnan.
It is always alive with people, readers, students, travellers — all gravitate toward the building, just like magic. Until the pandemic struck, that is. Would you believe that the library, until the lockdown, had never been closed even for a day since it was established in the 1800s?
I asked Thirupurasundari what, according to her, makes this library so special.
Three Key Ingredients of a Good Building Structure
According to Thirupurasundari, there are three key ingredients needed for a structure to work – Climatic adaptability, acoustic features, and the lighting, and the library has them all!
“You see, the design of the building with its double-layered windows, and Madras terrace roof, not to forget the lime plaster finish, provides ample natural ventilation and lends it climate-adaptive properties,” she tells me.
She further says that even small things like the placement of the mike can make a difference to the acoustics inside the building. As for that, Assistant Librarian Vinayagam takes meticulous care of the arrangements and mike placements during public gatherings or seminars.
I personally feel what makes this space truly special are the people who have been working to keep it going – the Head Librarian Uma Maheshwari who has been with the library for over two and a half decades, Vinayagan who has been employed for over 17 years or Marthamma who has been taking care of the library for four decades. I am sure they all have their own stories to share about the visitors, the books, and the nooks and crannies at the library.
“They are the pillars on which this structure stands tall,” shares Thirupurasundari with a smile.
Whether you appreciate literature or are an ardent admirer of beautiful buildings, you can spend hours at the Madras Literary Society, doing so much or just about nothing. Plan a trip to the library when you are in Chennai next and just soak in its rich history.
If the article has kindled an interest in you, then you can follow the Madras Literary Society on Instagram, Facebook, or reach out via e-mail at – firstname.lastname@example.org. You could volunteer to help around at MLS as well!
Cover Photo: Mohammed Rafiq
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)