The National Library, situated on the lush-green scenic Belvedere Estate, is the largest library in India by volume and is India’s library of public record. The library is designated and authorized to collect, circulate, preserve and protect all the printed materials produced in India. Before independence, the building was the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.
The seed of the National Library can be traced in the setting up of the Calcutta Public Library in 1836 at Esplanade Row. The library was a non-government institution and run on a proprietary basis. People contributed a surprisingly small amount of money like Rs 300 as subscription to become proprietors. Founder of Jorasanko Tagore family, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, who played a significant role in Bengal Renaissance, was the first proprietor of the Calcutta Public Library. Lord Metcalfe, the then Governor General, shifted 4,675 volumes from the library of the Fort William College to the Calcutta Public Library. This huge lot, along with the donation of books received from several individuals, formed the nucleus of the library. Both Indian and foreign books, especially books published from the British Isles, were also purchased for the library. The library used to receive donations, both from individuals and the government.
There is another part of the story. The Imperial Library was formed in 1891, by combining a number of Secretariat libraries in Calcutta. Among those libraries, the library of the Home Department was the most important one and perhaps, the best. It had a rich collection of books, which formerly belonged to the library of the East India College, Hertfordshire, UK (closed in 1858), and the library of the Fort William College, Calcutta (dissolved in 1854). However, the use of the newly formed Imperial library was restricted only to the superior officers of the Government.
In 1903, Lord Curzon, envisioned the golden idea of opening a library for the use of the general public. He observed that both the libraries, Imperial Library and Calcutta Public Library, were not really used to their potential, or rather under-used. So he decided to amalgamate the rich collection of both the libraries. The newly merged library, named Imperial Library, was formally opened to the public at Metcalfe Hall on Council House Street and Strand Road crossing, on January 30, 1903.
After independence, the governor of Bengal, Rajagopalachari suggested that the beautiful Belvedere Estate should be the ideal place to house the Imperial Library. The Belvedere, however, has a long history of its own. The earliest name associated with Belvedere House was Mir Jafar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Murshidabad, who was forced to quit his throne to Qasim Khan in 1760 and moved to Calcutta. During his stay, he built many buildings in and around his residential area, including the Belvedere House, which he gifted to Warren Hastings. However, Hastings returned to England after the Battle of Buxar in 1764. When he was away in England, two governors, Verelst and Cartier occupied the Belvedere. Hastings came back to Calcutta and to his favorite Belvedere House in 1772, as the Governor, with a Baroness Inhoff by his side.
During this period, the green spacious ground of the Belvedere Estate witnessed the historical dual between Hastings and his legal officer, Philip Francis, on the morning of 17 August, 1780. But that is another story. It is said that, Hastings sold the building to some Major Tolly during 1780s. It is also believed that Charles Robert Prinsep, who served as the standing counsel to the East India Company and then as the Judge Advocate General of India, lived in the Belvedere Estate for some time. After that, it became the official residence of the Viceroy of India.
According to the suggestion of Rajagopalachari, the library was finally shifted to the Belvedere, renamed as the National Library and its doors were formally thrown open to the public on 1st of February, 1953 by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the then Education Minister of India. Since the first public library in India was opened in Calcutta in 1836, it was justified that the honour of having a National Library should rest in the city.
The architecture of Belvedere House is simple, but graceful. The grand entrance opens into a spacious park peripherally wooded with subtropical trees. The original milk-white structure of the house with its doors and windows painted in green, was not at all altered or touched and kept as it was, during its adaptation as a library. The pillars of the stack room located in the basement hold up the superstructure of the building. Even today, some of the offices are still equipped with the ancient fireplaces, as dumb witnesses of their glorious past. The basement is occupied by movable stacks for storing a rich and valuable collection of books. The main reading room, once the banquet hall for the respected viceroys and their distinguished guests, is thirty-four metres long. The white ceiling of the hall is held up by classical Roman beams and brick vaulting and supported by Corinthian pillars. The pillars at the fringe of the room prop up a mezzanine gallery which is now used as Carrel. Alcoves underneath the gallery were previously used to store reference works, such as District Gazetteers. Apart from the dining table that was once used by the Viceroys, an ancient London-made grandfather clock still hangs on its wall, as another antique of the Colonial past.
However, the main building is now under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, as a heritage building. The daily operations of the National Library have shifted to the newly constructed multi storeyed Bhasha Bhavan about a decade ago.
The National Library is undoubtedly a magnificent jewel in the crown of Calcutta.