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For the people, by the people: Revisiting Andhra's glorious library movement, and its largely disappearing remnants

Sai Priya Kodidala
·6-min read

In this series, The Telugu Archive founder Sai Priya Kodidala traces Telugu socio-political history through literature and art. Read more from the series here.

***

In the 1940s, Subbarao Hotel in Hyderabad's Gowliguda invited its customers with a unique price board. It read "Chai - ana, Dosa - ana, Pustakam - ana". One could pick any book, priced at one ana (6 paise), to accompany a hot sip of Irani Chai. Far away, in the picturesque waterways of the Krishna river, boats carried books for passengers becoming floating libraries during one hour rides. Youth carried Granthalaya Yatras, taking mobile libraries from one village to another. In the absence of an existing library network, the Andhra library movement introduced books in any and every public space available €" even hotels, boats and under trees. Elite and common people came together with a single aim, in poet Chilakamarti Lakshmi Narasimham's words, "like air, water and sunlight, knowledge should be free and accessible to one and all".

The birth of the library movement was a culmination of multiple cultural and political shifts in the early 20th century. In Madras, Telugus were fighting for a separate Andhra state from the Madras Presidency. In the neighbouring Hyderabad State, unrest against the Nizam's rule was growing. The Vande Mataram movement strengthened public resolve for self-rule. Across regions, Telugu as a linguistic identity and its assertion was taking shape. Gidugu Ramamurthy was advocating for vyavaharika bhasha, spoken Telugu unshackled from the influence of classical Sanskrit in usage till then. These shifts placed the importance of a literate and empowered public at their centre. It took a natural turn towards a literary movement, to print and to propagate ideas, set up public libraries and thereby spread the joy of reading and the purpose of thinking.

Initially, the efforts were scattered and few. In 1886, a school teacher in Vizag set up the first library in Andhra. In 1901, Sri Krishnadevaraya Grandhalayam was set up in Hyderabad. By 1905, there were barely 20 libraries in the region. These sporadic events were given impetus through a series of conferences bringing together people from Coastal Andhra, Rayalaseema and Telangana regions. Educationists, leaders, researchers and businessmen such as Iyyanki Venkata Ramanayya, Pathuri Nagabhushanam, Suravaram Pratap Reddy. Consequently, Andhra Pradesh Library Association was established in 1914. Andhra Jana Sangham was formed in 1921 by Madapati Hanumantha Rao and Burgula Ramakrishna (who later became Chief Minister of the Hyderabad State) to bring a social and cultural consciousness among the people.

If India were to achieve freedom, they believed, knowledge must be within the reach of every person. But how effective can any library movement prove to be when the public has historically lacked access to basic literacy and education, let alone comprehensible books in Telugu? This changed two things for the movement. One, it was important to bring out literature in Telugu that is lucid and understandable. Two, efforts must be made towards adult education. Book publication became part of the freedom movement. Publishing enterprises such as Vignana Chandrika Mandali and Ana Granthalamala came up to fill the gap.

These publications, however, became a threat to the governments. Gadicherla Sarvottama Rao, a leader in the library movement and editor of a weekly Swarajya, was convicted of sedition for his articles by the British Government. In the Hyderabad state, the Nizam government introduced 'Gasti Nishan 53' in 1929 making conducting library activities difficult. Few public libraries were set up in Secunderabad where the Nizam had no jurisdiction including the Sri Krishnadevaraya Andhra Bhasha Grandalayam in Sultan Bazar (Residency Bazar). Lacking any support by governments, the establishment of libraries was initially taken up by individual private citizens. But they truly became public libraries when people took ownership by collecting funds for their upkeep at the village level, during festivals, funerals, or the sale of new harvest or cattle. Unlike in other regions, the library movement in the Telugu regions was one for the people and by the people.

Need for a revival of the library movement

It was the strength of the library movement and its philosophy that contributed to the Madras Public Libraries Act 1948. After the formation of (united) Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh Library Act 1960 came into place making Andhra Pradesh one of the few states to back its public library movement through a legislation. Public libraries were formally set up in every single village across (united) Andhra Pradesh. Today, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are one of the very few states to collect cess for libraries. But the current state of affairs fails the vision of a once glorious people's movement. There are barely 1,600 public libraries in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. If the library movement set up libraries as centres of a cultural awakening, its remnants are largely disappearing in our landscape. Six years after the bifurcation, Andhra Pradesh is yet to have its own State Central Library. In fact, between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the government did not budget for a State Central Library. In the years that it did budget, ie Rs 3 crore in 2018-19 and Rs 87 lakh 2019-20 and 2020-21, no money has been spent towards this end so far.

Those which exist are in dire need, struggling to find any support from the current governments as shortage of funds, staff vacancies, and decaying infrastructure plague the system. The magnificent 129-year-old State Central Library (Asafia Library) in Hyderabad can be found scarcely populated with many seated outdoors due to lack of sufficient lighting. One can expect to see men reading newspapers and students preparing for competitive exams on poorly maintained premises. At the Tagore Memorial Library (also the Krishna District Library) in Vijayawada, books lie in dust and unorganised, not very different from piles of decaying books dumped on the loft about to be discarded. With no index or a catalogue, simple tasks such as searching for a book can be daunting. Functional washrooms are rare, making them inaccessible, especially for women. "If there are no new books in a library, isn't it a museum?" Dr Raavi Sarada, Secretary of Andhra Pradesh Library Association remarked in a recent interview. She adds, "Library should be for everyone, children to old people, especially women, catering to everyone's needs. Libraries need a catalogue card or digital, computerisation, staff and the capacity to purchase new books." But walk into a public library today in these two states, what we meet is the graveyard of our histories and aspirational future both.

A public library in a country like India is not just a centre with a catalogue of books, magazines and newspapers. It is an extension of intellectual progress the society aspires to achieve. In many areas, it creates space for farmers to assemble, for women to register for a microfinance scheme, or even the state to administer a polio drug or facilitate voter registration. At a time when education in the Telugu states is largely dominated by a rampant corporatised coaching culture, it would be our failure to not provide a vision to increase readership €" one that is affordable, accessible and meaningful to the general public. While the state of apathy and lack of ownership from both the governments and the public is worrying, the legacy of a glorious library movement must become the foundation, once again. As an old Telugu saying goes, "Look at the library and judge the village"; a strong public library system reflects well on a society.

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Read more on Arts & Culture by Firstpost.