Tucked away in the quaint little town of Thirukokarnam in Pudukkotai, a two-storeyed building painted with large Tamil fonts on its entrance, which reads ‘Gnanalaya’ (place for knowledge), has garnered much attention over the years for being a treasure trove of books in Tamil Nadu. This is probably one of the few places where one can find a rare photocopy of the first ever published Tamil book, Thampiran Vanakkam (1578), the first edition of Arignar Anna’s take on British revolution -Makkal Karamum Mannan Siramum (1968), a clipping of the first set of Bharathiar poems – Thanimai Irakam (1904), letters written by Rajaji, and poet Bharathiar’s daughter Thangammal, among others, all under one roof.
Gnanalaya, a private library and research centre that boasts over 1,20,000 Tamil and English books, were collected over a period of 60 years by Krishnamurthy. “My father served as the District Board Education Officer, which gave me an opportunity to get access to hordes of books on Tamil scholars, literature and culture, apart from the academic texts. The importance of books and reading was instilled in me at a very young age. But it was during college that I started to collect books.”
One of the main attractions at Krishnamurthy’s library is the collection of first copies of renowned authors. From the first edition of Bharathi Dasan Kavithai (1938) which is the only edition that has Periyar’s Paraaturai, to Justice Ramanathan’s Sirapurai, he has painstakingly preserved these treasures. “My interest in book collecting started due to the love for first editions of regional literary pieces, as they comprise worthy dedications and appreciations along with the main content of the book, which the subsequent editions slash out due to various reasons,” he says.
He has travelled to and continues to do so to places like Tiruchy, Tirunelveli, Nagarcoil, Kumbakonam and even Moore Market in Chennai, in search of books. Apart from Tamil literature, the research library also has an assortment of books in English and other languages.
Krishnamurthy has witnessed the transition in Tamil literature and reading in general, over the years, with the advent of digital media. “Books as recent as 60 years old have not been reprinted, so, where is the hope of reviving older publications that recorded the achievements of an earlier generation? How many people know about great musicians and cultural icons of those days? This generation seldom values the richness, beauty and diversity of Tamil literature, which is very sad. Digital media has sure had a negative impact.”
The book collector also attends literary events across the country to share his wisdom and knowledge on books of yore. When we ask him on how he plans to pass on this legacy to the next generation, the librarian says, “I plan to document my extensive renditions on every book and leave them in front of each rack for visitors to appreciate and cherish literature. But I strongly feel that to pass on the legacy, people must first visit libraries and inculcate the habit of reading. Tabs, laptops and e-books have actually reduced the value of such places. I’m not completely rubbishing the contribution of technology but like they say, too much of anything is good for nothing,” concludes Krishnamurthy.