'In The City: A Library' is a nostalgic take on the disappearing library culture of Mumbai
In the City: A Library features pictures of old books taken at People’s Free Reading Room by Chirodeep Chaudhari with words by Jerry Pinto
When you enter the room where photographs from the exhibition In the City: A Library are displayed, you will be reminded of the dusty shelves of the rare books section of your college library.
There are pictures of old books, tattered books, books with creased and yellow pages, and books whose pages are torn or chewed off.
Featuring photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhari and supplemented with words written by Jerry Pinto, this exhibition tries to capture the culture of visiting and cherishing public libraries – a culture that they think is rapidly disappearing, as well as the interaction of books and time.
Each of the books on display, whether in physical form or in pictures, has character, as if they have lived lives of their own. There is one section where Chaudhari has placed photographs of books with old-style hand-punched bus tickets placed on their pages. When asked why he decided to combine these two elements, Chaudhari says that the bus tickets were already placed inside the books. “The people borrowing these books probably used the bus tickets as book marks. I just opened the books to the page where I found these tickets,” he explains.
Chaudhari spent 15 months documenting the books in The People’s Free Reading Room in Dhobi Talao. In the process of documenting this space, he took some 900-odd photographs. He decided to undertake this project because his close friend and partner in this project Jerry Pinto was granted access to this South Bombay library.
One of the photographs features a copy of Richard III with a dried flower in it. On another wall are pictures of books with handwritten letters in them. On the last page of one book is a letter seeking a passport to go overseas, written by someone who wanted to join the merchant navy. On the same wall are photographs where personal messages scribbled in by readers have been documented. In one of them, a reader strongly recommends homeopathy, and in another, a cheeky reader has left behind a mathematical problem for the next reader to solve. In a third, one reader has written an elaborate critique of the book The 13th Hour, calling it “juicy baloney”.
There are also pictures of library cards – small sheets of paper filled with details of who has borrowed a particular book, when they borrowed it and when they are expected to return it. You can tell that these cards belonged to books from the same library because of the consistency in the librarian’s handwriting.
"Books have a certain place in our civilisation," say the words written on a wall meant to explain why Chaudhari and Pinto put together In the City: A Library. “Books have always interested me, and so have old illustrations; this is what draws me to books with hand-drawn figures. Books are filled with information, which is why when a book is lost or not read, that bit of human memory is lost. As the number of people who visit libraries increasingly reduces, a kind of amnesia begins to set in,” Chaudhari laments.
When asked to compare the library culture in Mumbai today to that when he was young, Chaudhari says that he thinks the patrons of these spaces are different now. He is of the opinion that previously, these spaces attracted readers. “For over a year, I noticed that the library mainly attracted only students, and these students weren’t really reading the books as much as using them to pass their exams,” he says.
He adds that never once did any of the people in the library come up to him and ask him why he was documenting old books. “I think this is indicative of a lack of curiosity in books, and otherwise too,” he says.
Some of the noteworthy pictures from this exhibition are the one of the book about Templars with the letter written by a child to a father about a vacation in it, the one of a stack of old books placed on a round vintage table and the one of a copy of Kim by Rudyard Kipling, flanked by books written in Gujarati.
What makes the last photograph particularly striking is that there is a Nazi symbol on the inside of the cover; an insignia that Chaudhari tells me Rudyard reduced in use after the negative connotation it gained after Hitler’s rise to power. He chose to place books written in Gujarati below it and around it because there was a stack of books written in this language lying around.
In the City: A Library is open to viewing till 8 April, 2017 at Project 88, Colaba.
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