Pages From The Past

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    When the 12th volume of the French Encyclopaedia was ‘lost or mislaid’, an advertisement was published in a local newspaper on October 8, 1802. To reunite the tome with its rightful owner, a handsome reward of two gold mohurs was offered. There is no record of whether it did the trick, but the notice is a precious nugget from Mumbai’s past. More importantly, it was published in the Bombay Gazette (est. 1789), one of the first English language newspapers in India.

    Both the advertisement and the edition of the Bombay Gazette in which it was published are on display at an exhibition at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Mumbai – ‘Exhibition of Rare Books on Indian Wildlife, Art, Culture and Heritage’. The exhibition is open to the public from 11 am to 7 pm, from January 3 to 6, at Hornbill House, the headquarters of the institution in Mumbai.

    The BNHS is a lesser-known gem of this city. Located in the bylanes of Fort, it is one of the oldest and largest organisations in India dedicated to conservation and biodiversity research. It is also a repository of some of the rarest books in India.

    Established in 1883 by eight like-minded individuals interested in studying and protecting the environment, the BNHS founding fathers were an eclectic mix of British and Indian individuals who recognised the need to study and preserve India’s biological diversity.

    The BNHS has a played a significant role in the preservation of Indian wildlife, natural habitats and forests by actively advocating their preservation and contributing significant research in understanding it. The institution has a close connection with the hornbill, which appears on its logo. The story goes that the logo was inspired by a Great Hornbill named ‘William’ who lived in the society’s premises from 1894 to 1920!

    Nirmala Barure, the librarian at BNHS, walked us through the exhibition and showed us some of the exceptional books in the collection. She also enlightened us about the subtle difference between a ‘rare’ book and an ‘old’ book. An old book is not necessarily rare as it might have many subsequent editions and many copies of the book may have survived. A ‘rare’ book is one which, besides being old, doesn’t have many surviving copies, says Barure, guiding us on an exhilarating tour of the exhibition.

    Many of the books on display are from the collection of Evans Fraser, who had a book store at Flora Fountain. He donated the books to the BNHS library in 1925, when he decided to return to the United Kingdom. Besides nurturing his passion by collecting books, Fraser also wrote on Indian wildlife, Western India and Bombay.

    Some of the books at the exhibition have been donated by Dr Ashok Kothari, who was Chairman of the Library and is a patron of the institution. He picked up some of these treasures in places as far as Kolkata’s crowded streets and even London’s old bookstores.

    The exhibition has on display 32 of the rarest and oldest books in the BNHS collection. Although most texts are in European languages since they were written by Europeans, the library also has some books in Indian languages like Syr-e-Parind in Urdu, which was published in 1897.

    Some of the most fascinating books on display are:

    Birds of Asia, by John Gould

    John Gould (1804-1881) was one of the most prolific and successful ornithological artists of the 19th century. He was fascinated by the diversity of the exotic, colourful bird species in Asia, and conveyed his enchantment through books that contain lithographs with original hand-colourings. The subjects of the plates are trogons, kingfishers, sunbirds, woodpeckers, partridges, parrots, parakeets, pheasants, and many other birds from the country.

    Scenery, Costumes And Architecture, Chiefly On The Western Side of India, by Robert Melville Grindlay

    Robert M Grindlay served the British East India Company from 1804-1820. A self-taught amateur artist, he made many sketches and illustrations that recorded the landscape and life of early 19th century India. These illustrations were published and copied in engravings like this book. Interesting, he went on to establish ANZ Grindlays Bank.

    Oriental Memoirs (Vol. I-IV), by James Forbes

    Born in London, James Forbes travelled to India in 1765 as a writer for the British East India Company and lived here until 1784. He was a prolific writer and artist and filled 52,000 manuscript pages with notes and sketches concerning all aspects of Indian life, its wildlife, flora and architecture.

    In 1781, he visited the Taj Mahal and became one of the first Europeans to sketch the monument. He wrote Oriental Memoirs, based largely on his notes and sketches. The book remains a universally valued document of the culture, flora and fauna of India at the time.

    Memoirs Of A Map of Hindoostan by James Rennell (1788)

    This is the oldest book in the BNHS library. Major James Rennell was an English geographer, historian and a pioneer of oceanography. Rennell produced some of the first accurate maps of Bengal at one inch to five miles, as well as accurate outlines of India and served as Surveyor General of Bengal. Called the ‘Father of Oceanography’, he was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1830.

    Life In Bombay And The Neighbouring Out-Stations by R Bentley, 1825

    This book recounts the author’s arrival in India, and his encounters with the harbour, the houses of Bombay, domestic arrangements, morning visits and evening drives across the Esplanade, the Breach, Malabar Hill and so on, along with his travels to ‘outstations’ such as Mahabaleshwar, Khandala, Poona, and Karli. Backed by illustrations, the book is a descriptive narration of the author’s day-to-day impressions of Bombay and its outstations.

    Ballads Of The Marathas, translated by Harry Arbuthnot Acworth, 1894

    The author delves into the early history of the Marathas and the poetic literature of the people, when ‘Maharashtri’, the precursor of modern Marathi, was in vogue. “The only important literature in Marathi is its poetry. There is no prose literature worthy of the name,” he wrote in 1838, going as far back to Mukundraj, whom he calls the ‘oldest Maratha poet’.

    These are only some of the priceless exhibits that will delight you at the exhibition. The books are being conserved with the aid of grants from the Ministry of Culture and National Archives of India, with 85 books conserved to date and 40-50 lined up for the current year.

    As part of the conservation process, these tomes are stored, round-the-clock, in a climate-controlled environment at 55 per cent relative humidity and 24o Celsius. Currently, these books cannot be accessed for reference owing to their fragility but about 80 per cent of them are available online, on open source websites. The BNHS is in the process of creating an institutional archive by conserving and digitising the books that are not available to the public so that these too can be accessed online.

    Barure says the BNHS library has one of the best collections of books on the environment, ecology and the life sciences, and is open to everyone. She invites all students, researchers and members of the public who are interested in these subjects to visit the library

    The story of a city is told though many reminders of its past – its monuments, art, artefacts and, in this case, rare books and manuscripts. Each of them offers clues to a city’s history and helps us better understand its present. The BNHS exhibition offers some fascinating insights in this journey and is a rare opportunity to view some remarkable exhibits.


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