The University of Chicago Magazine December 1995
Return to December 1995 Table of Contents

"This is an exceptional collection, and we want to see it remain in South India for the scholars who most often consult it," says James Nye, bibliographer of the Southern Asian Collection of the U of C Library, who helped make the arrangements leading to Chicago's purchase of the collection. But because the materials are also valuable to scholars outside India, says Nye, the University plans to store in its own microfilm holdings a significant portion of the 100,000 rare books, journals and newspapers, and thousands of clippings accumulated by Muthiah in his lifetime--a project expected to take seven years to complete.

Within his library's eclectic range of subject matter--including medicine, folklore, religion, cinema, and women's studies--and materials, such as theater playbills and popular songbooks, Roja Muthiah attempted to capture the essence of his people. Scattered worldwide, about 60 million people speak Tamil. The majority are concentrated in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu ("Land of Tamil"), with its capital of Madras, where the new 6,000-square-foot Roja Muthiah Research Library now stands. About 230 miles to the southeast is the small Tamil community of Kottaiyur, where Muthiah lived and where he hoarded his literary treasures.

Muthiah was a businessman and artist who inherited his love of book-gathering from his father. Even as a young man, he was engrossed in his search for materials to make up the collection. Book-dealers were a source of much of those materials, but Muthiah also made weekly arrangements with area scrap-paper dealers to sort through their rubbish in search of literary treasures.

C. S. Lakshmi, a feminist scholar and Tamil author, first learned of Muthiah's private library in 1972 through a colleague to whom she mentioned her interest in women's issues. Muthiah, she was told, had developed a collection on women unavailable anywhere else in India--but he carefully guarded his library and was not eager for people to know of its depth.

"Muthiah was a very private man," says Lakshmi, speaking by telephone from her home in Bombay. "If you asked him if he had such-and-such a book, he would say `No, I have nothing on it.' But then, after talking with you more, he would show you where it was. He had no catalogs when I met him, just groups of books organized in the shed and the garages."

Lakshmi eventually gained Muthiah's trust, and for two weeks was allowed to study his materials, then located in a 24-by-12-foot concrete shed outside his house. Each day, she would arrive at 7:30 a.m. and stay until 5 p.m. to pore through the dozens of pamphlets, magazines, and books about women.

"But of course he had no photocopying machine," says Lakshmi, "and I had to copy everything by hand. He noticed I was not stopping for lunch, so he sent his daughter out in the afternoons with buttermilk so I would have some nourishment."

Despite his eccentricities, Lakshmi believes that Muthiah was "very foresighted. I think he realized that this material would be valuable someday, although he himself had not really read it."

Muthiah used to lecture his wife and children, "A book lost is a loss to the nation" --a sentiment that may explain his drive to maintain his library, even at the expense of his personal health. In order to keep the paper of his books and pamphlets from being devoured by insects, he used a powerful pesticide. Some five years before his death in 1992, Muthiah learned of the damage the poison was doing to his body, but he persisted in collecting and caring for his collection. Facing death, he desperately sought a buyer for the literary menagerie he had spent a fortune to amass.

When notice of the library's sale was published in a Tamil journal, C. S. Lakshmi--by that time a visiting scholar at the U of C--pointed out the fact to James Nye, describing her contact with Muthiah some 20 years earlier. Intrigued, Nye investigated the possibility of buying the library. Immediately, he and other South Asian scholars at Chicago became convinced of the collection's value, and raised nearly $1 million for its purchase, microfilming, and cataloging--with funding help from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several foundations.

Among the U of C students taking advantage of the material is Sarah Hodges, AM'94, a third-year graduate student in history who is working on the history of women and medicine in late 19th- and early 20th-century India--particularly on the beginnings of the Indian birth-control movement. "The Muthiah collection is very valuable to me because of its range," says Hodges. "I would say it has an incredible register--from high literature to pamphlets." Hodges plans to visit the Madras library next fall on a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for a firsthand look at the collection.

"For my work, this is extremely useful because it helps me see what is going on in the landscape of popular beliefs, a viewpoint that supplements official records," she says. By studying the materials, Hodges hopes to be able to explore the relationship between private activism and popular practices, since birth-control efforts in India up until 1951 were nearly exclusively run by private organizations, not the colonial state.

As the value of Muthiah's library--and the University's efforts to catalog and microfilm its materials--have become more widely known in the Tamil-speaking world, an appreciation has grown for the need to gather and preserve other Tamil collections. "A number of people have expressed interest in donating other materials to the collection," says James Nye, "which will benefit the University as it gains microfilm access to them." Meanwhile, the U of C is working with the mozhi trust to distribute a Tamil dictionary that will eventually be posted on the World Wide Web, along with a catalog of the Muthiah Library's holdings. (The URL is

Such uses of his library might surprise Muthiah, but the fact of its use would no doubt make him very pleased. The happy conclusion of his life's work even has a satisfying epilogue: With money realized from the sale of the library, his family was able to celebrate the weddings of Muthiah's son and daughter in suitable fairy-tale style.



Go to:Return to December 1995 Table of Contents