Tomes of history

From information on bygone cultures to native castes and tribes of India, the grandeur of our country lives in antique books

Tomes of history
A picture may say a thousand words, but a book contains a million, maybe more! Words spark off our imagination, give them wings and they come flying out each time we open our favourite book. Hence, it is no surprise that certain individuals would want to preserve history forever right in their own homes in the form of books — antique ones, at that.

Upon walking just a little further down the bustling stores of South Extension market in New Delhi, one might chance upon a nondescript house that is home to thousands of rare, antique books. Southex Books & Prints, a family-run business of antiquarian rare books, prints and maps, is as subtle as it gets. As Rajiv Jain ushers one into a room full of old books neatly stacked in wooden shelves emanating a musty smell, it is indeed humbling to stand among such a vast repertoire of history. “Rare books are the finest proof of a bygone era. Globally speaking, antique books account for five to six per cent of the turnover in auctions worldwide — second only to painting auctions, as stated by well-established auction houses like Christie’s. The share of Indian books in this category is a mere one per cent,” Jain says. He adds, “The number of dealers of antique books in India has dwindled to just six from 5,000 registered dealers that were there in British India. So that is how the market for antique books in India is at the moment.”

Jain’s collection spans almost 500 years — from 1630 when the first printed books on India appeared in English to 20th century masters like the signed first copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and his complete collection of poems.

It is quite futile to note down titles — there are far too many to even count! Rajiv with his brother Sanjiv and daughter Rashi, run the company, which was started in 1984. “I have been building my collection for around 30 years, but the number of sole collectors of books in India has gone down as availability of rare books is very less, there is no awareness regarding them and our libraries are in a bad shape,” Jain laments. And he couldn’t be more right. “The state of Delhi libraries is quite bad,” Anis Azmi, secretary of Urdu Academy, New Delhi, tells FC Roar. “Most good libraries are outside Delhi — with the exception of Hardayal Public Library, (known as the Harding Library earlier) which still has rare books on display. There is Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Pune, Darul Musannefin library in Azamgarh and Raza Library in Rampur which house ancient manuscripts, shahi farmans, Mughal court orders and 200-250 types of Bhagwad Gita. However, in this day and age, it is very difficult to find antique or rare books in libraries of India,” Azmi adds.

And the problem just doesn’t end there. “On top of all this, the Indian government has levied 10 per cent tax on import of antique books — this is a very retrograde step as there is no better record of the past other than antique books,” Jain tells FC Roar. But being seated in Rajiv Jain’s room, surrounded by these humongous pillars of our history, one doesn’t feel like the art of maintaining and appreciating rare books is on its way out.

Southex Books basically deals with books that cover the wide span of the Indian subcontinent — a “greater India” encircling Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, areas of the Indian Ocean as well as parts of South East Asia. The Jains cater to an exclusive clientele, which include high-end private collectors like the Imperial Hotel as well as government institutions like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) — whose core collection of rare antiquities has been sourced from the Jain's family archive.

The highlight of Jains’ collection are plate books that were printed between 1760 and 1850, an era known as the “golden period” for books in India. Jain says his firm specialises in these books. “Indians were not in the habit of recording histories — the British brought in the system of recording. Europeans considered India very exotic and the British urged and suggested the maharajas of princely states to have intellectual outlets — to allow them to record things that intrigued them about India as company heritage. Hence, a lot of professional artists were sent to India to go and reproduce our methods of transportation, customs, festivals, flora and fauna on books. Some of the major artists who came to India and drew extensively were John Zoffany, William Simpson, Francois Balthasar Solvyns, JB Fraser, and Henry Salt.”

Jain says that around this time, Industrial Revolution had taken place in Europe and the process of printing and multiplication of books had completely evolved. First, the artist would use a device called the Camera Obscura, for graphical representation and correct dimensions to capture what he wanted. Paintings could now be replicated as blocks were made more easily, hence gradually, lithographs started getting printed, as the engraver would engrave the illustrations on plates for printing. “Only 250 copies of an illustration could be made before the plate was exhausted,” Jain says. “The United Kingdom became the world’s mecca for printing — where different artists from around the world congregated. Around 5,000 books were made on India in this period. A lot of them were travelogues,” he adds.

As far as the prices are concerned, after much persuasion, “from a few thousand to a few lakhs”, is all Jain will reveal to us. “A book’s price is determined by its rarity and desirability of the buyer,” he adds. The “condition of the book” is obviously also a determining factor, Jain often gets a buyer who would want an odd copy or two, but he prefers putting together a collection before offering it to the buyer.

Diljeet Titus, founder of Titus & Co Advocates, based in New Delhi, is also an avid collector of books who has managed to amass quite a few rare antique titles in a matter of five years. “Five years ago, I stepped foot into the world of collecting antique books and in those years I have acquired number of wonderful books. It is very difficult to find rare books in the Indian market,” Titus says. “Because of the hot and humid weather in India antique books gets damaged. Since the time I started collecting rare and antique books on India, I have met a few collectors who have been collecting books for the past 10-15 years,” he exclaims.

When asked about his most prized possessions, Titus says that among his collections, “The People of India, consisting eight volumes, is one of the most-prized collectibles I have. This is a limited edition published in 1872 — about 100 copies of the book were printed. It was the first study by the new imperial government of every type of Indian caste and sub-caste and has original photographic plates.” Titus reveals that he paid Rs 8.5 lakh for the eight volumes when he bought it two years ago and that it would probably have doubled since only around 27 copies have survived out of the ones that were made.

Of course, if one simply cannot afford these rare gems of Indian history, there are a lot of pocket-friendly options for a layman to resort to. The Qutub Khana Anjuman in front of the main entrance of Jama Masjid, offers old Hindi and Urdu books on sale. Also, for the slightly more niche crowd, one can go and wander the lanes of Hauz Khas Village for nostalgia in the form of semi-old copies of Encyclopaedia Britannica, stocked by Kusum Jain, who runs a store called Cottage of Arts & Jewels in the locality. “I’ve seen more antique book stores shut down than open in the past 25 years due to change in reading habits and interest of people,” says Aniz Azmi. “Riyaz Book Depot in Hyderabad and Siddiq Book Depot in Lucknow still sell vintage Urdu and Hindi books. The Sunday book bazaar of Darya Ganj in Delhi is being held since the time of the British and continues as a tradition,” he adds. “One can sometimes find rare pieces of Indian history wandering through piles of old books there.”

There are a lot of impressive volumes in Jain’s collection — an illustrated book, Six Principal Ragas With a Brief View of Hindoo Music by Sourindro Mohun Tagore (a relative of Rabindranath Tagore) printed by the Calcutta Central Press Company on Council House Street in 1877, is one such example. The book was gifted to the Duke of Albany by Tagore in 1878. He also possesses a small part of Solvyns’ work — 66 Prints of the Hindoo of the East With Their Respective Profession, is one of the earliest illustrated volumes made in 1799 by the Belgian coach painter. His collection of British, or East India Company Art includes 80 plates of A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountain by John Gould, several original prints of Thomas and William Daniell’s Oriental Scenery, Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalayas by Edward Dalton Hooker and many more.

There is a lot of love, patience and care that one needs to put in to ensure one’s rare books do not suffer the hardships of time. “A lot of books—leather and cloth — need nothing more than a good spiffing to shine on the shelf,” Titus tells FC Roar. “I spend a lot of time in unscuffing leather, unfading old 19th century book cloth and getting library markings off, and out of, books—all of which is done on my table in my office room. Simple restorations like fixing pages that have come off or torn bindings can also be done. However, at times there are books, which need intensive attention, in such cases I call for professional help,” he adds.

Rare books are delicate things, and need to be kept in an air conditioned room where the humidity does not exceed 60 per cent and temperature stays below 32 degrees celsius for them to last, Jain recommends.

Diljeet Titus is very careful when it comes to ensuring a long life for his antique books. “I store my books in a dry place,” he says. “I keep my books standing upright. Extremely heavy books, however, are stored flat as being upright can put too much weight on their spines, which will eventually lead to a broken spine. I remove all paper clips, memorabilia, bookmarks and other items from the books. These can cause damage to the pages and spine. I never use household cleaners on my book covers. I store the books away from the sun. I use only acid-free products when repairing or protecting my antique books,” he adds. To ensure the rare books get the best possible value, the Jains have their own book restoration service under which they undertake de-acidification of the paper, cure brittleness, clean stains and fungus, and restore the binding.

In this day and age of the economic downturn, recession has impacted art valuations and collectors worldwide, Jain says rare books are still a good investment. “Since the number of copies of antique books are decreasing, the rate of return that one gets on antique books is more than the inflation rate, hence it is a good investment option for a collector,” Jain comments.


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