Thursday, 1 May 2014


"Old residents of Calcutta will, I have no doubt, welcome the transformation of what was a citadel of power into an abode of learning.” So said Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, then Education Minister to the Government of India on the 1st February, 1953 as he threw open the doors of the Library to the public.

As a “Citadel of power into an abode of learning” many references exist, through nothing definite seem to be known of  the exact date when it was build nor of its original owner. As far back as 1762 Rev Long alluded to it as “Warren Hastings’ house at belvedere in the rural solitude at Alipore.” In the same year in minute, in the records at Fort William refers to “Mr. Hastings’ house purchased for reception of the Nawab”. It was in fact, for the Ex-Nawab MirJaffar Ali Khan, nominated by the British, who, old, feeble and ill, requested permission to reside in Calcutta. His stay resulted in the area being named Alipore.

 Originally the grounds covered an area of “72 bighas, 8 cottahs and 4 chattaks of land” but as successive ownership accrued, it diminished considerably in size. Some of this owners from 1780 were Major Tolly, whose name is associated with Tolly’s Nullah. Mr. Nicholas Nugent, General Sir Edward Paget, Commander –in Chief of India, (1822-1825) Mr. Sambhu Chandra Mukherjee and Mr. Charles Robert  Prinsep, The Advocate General. Finally the East India Company in 1854 purchased it at a cost of Rs.80000. From 1854 to 1912 it continued to flourish as a “citadel of power” being the residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. During their terms of office several Lieutenant-Governors made substantial additions to Belvedere House.

  Electric lighting was introduced by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, while Sir Andrew Fraser build the fabulous ball-room and super-room below it. Varandahs were added, archways created, no effort being spread to make this Stately mansion fit for luxurious living. Today, the palace still remains build in a free Italian Renaissance style of architecture and situated in a spacious and beautifully wooded enclosure. Its main entrance is through a lofty triple-arched gateway, surmounted by the figure of a Royal Bengal Tiger. The drive sweeps round to a flight of steps to the main entrance.

As “an abode of learning” the inscription above the main entrance from the pen of Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the nation, records:-“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

 The National Library as it exists today owes its inception to  Mr. J. H. Stocqueler (pseudonym of Joachim Heyward Siddons), editor of The  ENGLISHMAN, who was responsible for convening a public meeting at Town Hall on 31st August 1835 for starting the Calcutta public library. The meeting was presided over by Sir John Peter Grant, a Judge of the Supreme Court. Mr. Siddon was the first Secretary of the Library while Prince Dwarkanath Tagore became the first proprietor.

  The newly formed Library was first housed in the residence of Dr. F. P. Strong, Civil Surgeon of the 24 13 Esplanade Row and was opened to the public on the 21st March, 1836. In July, 1841 it was shifted temporarily to Fort William and again in June, 1844 to the first floor of Metcalfe Hall on Strand Road. In 1873, it is decided to set up a council composed of the proprietor and subscribers. The Council consisted of 14 members. Raja Ramanath Tagore was one of the Vice Presidents. The first Indian presedent, Maharaja Narendrakrishna was appointed in 1877. In 1890 The Calcutta Public Library was transferred to the Calcutta Municipality.

A  year later another public library was established, i.e. the Imperial Library at Esplanade, which was restricted only to Government officers of the superior cadre. The Imperial Library was formed by amalgamating a number of secretariat libraries like the library of the Home Department, East India board in London, etc.

The Lord Curzon , who first conceived the idea of amalgamating the Calcutta Public Library with the Imperial Library. This was finally achieved and opened to the public on the 30th Januaary,1903 at Metcalfe Hall from which date it was known as the Imperial Library, run by the Home Department, Government of India on the advice of the Governing Council. The first librarian was John Macfarlane who was previously as Assistant librarian of the British Museum. 

The library continued to expand until, during the Second World War, war exigencies made it necessary for a temporary transfer to private accommodation in the Jabakusum House at 34, Chittaranjan Avenue in February, 1942. The next, and most important development in the history of the library occurred in 1948, after Indian Independence, when it was renamed The National Library and action was taken to shift it first form Jabakusum House to the  Esplanade premises and,  later in the year, to Belvedere. On 1st February, 1953, the celebration of the Golden Jubilee saw a distinguished gathering present, when Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Education Minister of the Government of India, declared the Library open to the public “as an abode of learning”.

 Research  -Santanu Roy.

  Picture Courtesy -  Santanu Roy & Abhijnan Basu.        

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