Atop an idyllic green hill overlooking Gokarna beach in Karnataka, a 90-year-old priest and former theatre costume designer carefully dusts the 30 bookcases and assorted boxes that house his collection of 1 lakh religious and secular texts.
It’s a library that Ganapathy Vedeshwar has painstakingly built up over 74 years, from one small shelf to a 5,000-sq-ft building on the two hectares of prime, ocean-view property, owned by a trust established by his late father-in-law, a Vedic scholar.
Housed within are books in 40 languages, including English, French, German, Urdu, Gujarati and Kannada, on subjects ranging from art, culture and philosophy to the Vedas, Upanishads, sociology and poetry.
Some are manuscripts and palm-leaf books nearly 600 years old.
Also on the shelves at Vedeshwar’s free and open to all Study Circle Library is a collection of 5,000 coins and stamps from around the world.
“People tell me I am sitting on treasure worth several lakhs, but I have never had it evaluated,” says the smiling nonagenarian who leads a frugal life with his son, daughter-in-law and two-year-old granddaughter, in a home with no TV, computer or music system. “I would never sell anything from my collection. To my mind, it doesn’t belong to me but to the people, for whom the library was built.”
Though Vedeshwar founded Study Circle Library at age 16, his first, informal circulating library was born of his efforts among his schoolmates when he was nine.
“Back then, Gokarna was a backward village. The only time we had a chance to buy books was during the annual Mahashivratri festivities,” says Vedeshwar. “I used to save money through the year to buy books then.”
Greedy for more, Vedeshwar urged his friends to not throw away any of their books but rather to hand them over to him so that everyone could access them. Thus, at age nine, Vedeshwar gave the village its first-ever library, a children’s library that came to be called Bal Sangha.
Still chasing an insatiable thirst for more books, he began writing to luminaries and publishing houses across the country and around the world — including then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and India’s first president Rajendra Prasad — soliciting donations for his library.
Astonished, many responded in kind, sending him boxes of assorted tomes, some of them inscribed with messages of encouragement.
One letter reached acclaimed art critic Herbert Read, a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, who agreed to be nominal director of the library and helped Vedeshwar get books from a number of art institutes based there.
Lately, the library has once again been receiving international attention, this time from scholars and bibliophiles. Last year, renowned French architect François Roche created a permanent abstract structure of metal and rock, a kind of ‘open-air reading room’ on the hill, dedicated to the story of the library and its founder.
During his visit, Roche also created a short film about the library, which is currently being screened at an exhibition titled ‘The Philosopher, The Believers and Z’Shell-ter’, at Studio X, an architectural thinktank in Mumbai.
The French involvement began in 2002, when performing artist Elias Tabet stumbled upon the Study Circle Library — then crammed into the Vedeshwars’ one-bedroom home — and initiated a 10-year campaign in France to collect the R40 lakh required to build a standalone structure for the collection.
Roche’s partner, Camille Lacadée, also an architect, got involved in the project and volunteered to help set up the library. She and Roche then decided to create the film and open-air reading room.
Ironically, Vedeshwar’s fellow villagers neither support nor visit the library.
“In the internet age, I don’t think youngsters are keen to visit a library,” says Shridhar Reddy, 53, an Ayurvedic chemist and local resident.
Adds local priest Ravi Suri: “The 200 Brahmin families in Gokarna have enough books in their homes. They don’t need to go to a library.”
While this approach to his life’s work saddens Vedeshwar, his son says the family tries not to let it discourage them.
“We have been laughed at for being obsessive, even mad,” says Aryama, Vedeshwar’s son. “It doesn’t bother me. Our greatest reward is to see students from Goa, Bangalore and Mangalore come all the way to our town to visit my library for their research assignments.”