Some rare manuscripts may be secure in a bank vault but the Asiatic Society says it is not in a position to pay the high premium for its treasures
By Ketan Tanna /TNN
Mumbai: Talk about the Asiatic Society, Mumbai, and the first thing that comes to your mind is a priceless collection of rare manuscripts and books housed in a magnificent white edifice in the Fort area. But unfortunately the treasure trove of knowledge collected over 200 years in the library is uninsured. And in case of a calamity, there are chances that the collection may be wiped out without any compensation or reimbursement from any agency.
It is not that the society management is unaware of the problem, but there is precious little it can do. Said society chairman B G Deshmukh, “It is very hard to evaluate the true worth of the collection in the first place. Even if someone was to do it and come to an estimate, we are not in a position to pay the premium.”
For the past many years, the society has been facing a severe financial crunch, though Deshmukh’s tenure since 2001 has seen the finances stabilise to some extent. A large part of the Asiatic Society’s investment in UTI’s US-64 mutual fund took a beating when its net asset value (NAV) plunged. However, during his tenure, Deshmukh (a former cabinet secretary in the Central government) managed to get Rs 1 crore of the Rs 2 crore which was promised by the state for the library.
The money has been invested in RBI bonds. The society has so far received Rs 60 lakh of the Rs 1 crore allocated to it during the tenth five year plan. The recent bicentenary programme of the society added Rs 27 lakh to the corpus.
“(But) We need a large corpus to have adequate insurance. We are in a much better position now. The books and coins as well as manuscripts have been secured, so please don’t worry,” insisted Vimal Shah, the honorary secretary of the society. He, however, refused to reveal the plans that the society had in mind to augment its resources. “I can’t spill the beans now but we do have some schemes in the pipeline,” he said.
For the time being, two constables who guard the stamp office located on the same premises guard the Asiatic Society as well. Then there is one security guard on the payroll of the society and a watchman of the adjacent central library who keep an eye over the collection when the society closes for the day and during holidays.
As a precautionary measure, two parts of Firdausi’s Shahanama (1495); Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1350); Aranyaka Parvan Shadavashyakasutra with commentary by Merusun-dara (13th century) and the Kalpasutra manuscript have been moved to bank vaults.
The society has a rich collection of manuscripts in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Prakrit, Arabic, Persian and in numerous other languages. Then there is a collection of nearly 1400 maps, some of which date back to the 18th century, including the map of the west coast of Ceylon published by A Dalrymple.