In 1996, photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri first visited The People’s Free Reading Room and Library in Dhobi Talao. The reading room dates back to 1845 and stocks books, magazines and newspapers from the British era. A colleague of Chaudhuri’s at The Sunday Observer (where he worked) used to go to the reading room every day at lunchtime. Curious about it, Chaudhuri decided to see the place for himself. “I remember seeing old bookshelves and bound volumes of Punch magazine,” recalls Chaudhuri.
In late 2015, Chaudhuri’s friend, author Jerry Pinto became a trustee at The People’s Free Reading Room and Library. Thanks to the access it provided, Chaudhuri decided to visit the place again and click some photographs. “Twenty years had passed, and yet, everything was the same. The cupboard and the magazines were still at the same spot, but with a few more layers of dust,” says Chaudhuri.
At the time of the visit, neither of them planned to extensively document the space. “On the first evening that I visited, all I did was pull out books and look at them. The library has 40,000 books and it seemed intimidating. Every time we opened a book, a layer of dust would come out of it,” recalls Chaudhuri.
It would take some more visits for the duo to hit upon the idea for a project. Over the next 18 months, Chaudhuri shot 2,500 images of the library while Pinto wrote about the space (they were assisted by a Vedika Singhania, a Social Communications Media student at Sophia College). “Jerry and my roles were not limited to writing and shooting. We collaborated on many levels and gave each other suggestions,” says Chaudhuri.
This week, a selection of 26 images of the reading room will be displayed at Project 88 gallery in Colaba. Titled In the City, a Library, the exhibition is part of Focus 2017 — an annual festival featuring exhibitions and events dedicated to photography.
The images steer clear of depicting the space, focusing instead on the books. Some images showcase quirky illustrations, while others depict books that have been damaged over time. “The drama in a space like this lies in the books — the material they are made of, the illustrations and typography, the condition they are in and what they contain (tram tickets, bus tickets). It is also a challenge to shoot books — flat, rectangular objects — in a unique way. In the process, I have shot 900 variants of books,” says Chaudhuri.
During the process of research, the team stumbled upon diverse finds. Along with tomes on philosophy, literature and geography, they found curious books dedicated to ears and fetuses. They also found a book by Rudyard Kipling with a swastika symbol imprinted inside. “Kipling was fascinated with all things Indian and hence, the swastika. However, once he realised its Nazi association, the symbol was discontinued,” says Chaudhuri.
The project raises questions about the relevance of libraries in a digital era. “In the entire time that we shot in the library, not a single person asked what we were doing,” says Chaudhuri.
In the City, a Library will be on display till April 8
At Project 88, BMP Building, Colaba
Call 2281 0066