Thursday, March 01, 2007

Raza Library

Just when you begin wondering aloud whether this muddy and squelchy excuse for a road is the ‘only way’ to a heritage site which houses over 17,000 rare manuscripts, 80,000 printed books, 5000 miniature paintings and so much more… you are confronted by it’s scholastic silence and without completing your question, you shut up.

It is right in the heart of Rampur, you can’t miss the Rampur Raza Library which stands in all its magnificence in the Rampur Fort. Nawab Faizullah Khan who ruled the state from 1774 to 1794, established this library with his personal collection at the Tosha Khana in the fort. But it was Nawab Hamid Ali Khan who constructed ‘Hamid Manzil’ an Indo-European style palace in Rampur fort which has housed the Raza library since 1957.

Hamid Manzil, which was constructed by a one Mr. Wright, has interiors that are said to match those of Buckingham Palace. “These chandeliers, which are around a century old, have never had a fused bulb”, says Zubair Ahmad who’s face lights up as he shows you precious manuscripts that lie open in glass cases. Zubair has worked at the library for over eleven years and has volunteered to guide one around the library. With pride he points at the canopies that line the pillars, “All gold. This was the darbar hall where the Nawab invited his foreign guests and that was where his throne stood”, he says while standing right in front of a painting of the grand Nawab Faizullah Khan.

The Arabaic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish , Pushto, Hindi etc manuscripts stare at you in silence, challenging you to read only their labels and admire the craftsmanship of each calligrapher and artist. In of the cases the gold borders of an 1860 AD nikaah nama catches your eye. It declares a mehar of twenty lakh for Jahan Ara Begum’s wedding with Qasim Ali Khan Bahadur in Lucknow. A blown up photograph of the Bhagwad Gita in Arabic which the library stores is on display as well. There are seventh and eight century AD Korans written on parchment paper in early kufic script. The unique “Shahrul Kafia of Raiz ud-Din” which bears notes by Emperor Shah Jahan in his own hand as well as the signature and seal of Aurangzeb lies amongst the many treasures in the library.

“Many Turkish and other foreign scholars visit the library for research work. There is a hostel for them in Rang Mahal,” hurries Zubair who is constantly checking his watch as the library closes at 5 p.m. “We’re open every day of the week from 10 to 5 except on Fridays”, he says before explaining what each of the Greek figures that surround us signify. “This here is bravery,” he points at a soldier trudging forth in white marble. “Each figure is made of one single slab of marble and has no joints”, he declares. We bid the line of miniature portraits of the Rampur Nawabs farewell as we leave the Darbar Hall and proceed to the restoration laboratory, a proposition that Zubair is most excited about.

While ascending the stairs to ‘the laboratory’, one expects stacks of brown withering books lying about and gnomes with large spectacles at work, but the laboratory has three neat desks with cheerful young workers carefully poring over what seems like some extremely delicate specimen. “This is a Diwan –i-Hafis which is over a century old”, says Lalit Pathak. A statement you’re used to hearing when you’re at the library where nothing except the latest editions of the TIME and other magazines in the general reading room are new.

“These pages have been eaten away by the strong animal fat based binding substance. I’m using acetate to wipe the last traces of it away,” says Pathak. Quickly he produces ‘before and after’ pictures of a much damaged Koran that he restored. “Once I restored it for the Nawab, it was buried in the graveyard,” he remembers. The bottles of chemicals that line the neat shelf are all new, not a speck of dust anywhere. Zubair, who ushers around the lab says “This painting here, look again”. Looking through a magnifying glass it all becomes clear. The tall painting of what looked like a Mughal plant is full of over a thousand verses from the Koran, beautifully fitted in each corner of its stalk, leaf and tendril.

The restoration laboratory was developed by Dr. WH Siddiqui the Director of Rampur Raza Library. A distinguished archaeologist, art historian, epigraphist and numismatist the unassuming and smiling gentleman has been restoring and computerizing the library since he joined in 1993. “Have you seen the restoration laboratory?” he questions before anything else. Satisfied with the positive affirmation, he continues “Only people who are proficient in Persian, Arabic and Urdu can do justice to the translation of these texts”.

While leaving the library one remembers reading what a scholar once said of the library, “…I have also seen the libraries of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Europe. And I can say that this library is richer than any one”. The richness rubs off on you and suddenly the muddy and squelchy road lined with meat shops seems like a faraway memory.