Did you know that Tamil was the first Indian language to go into print? Come October, the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani, Chennai, is gearing up to open a Museum of Print Culture that aims to showcase the over 400-year-old history of Tamil print culture.

Through this museum, the library aims to build awareness about the milestones in Tamil print culture and how it has transformed society. The museum plans to carry all the significant print Tamil literature from the beginning of its evolution, says Sundar Ganesan, Director of Roja Muthiah Research Library.

The first ever printed book in Tamil was the abridged version of the Holy Bible – the prayer book called Thambiran Vanakkam was published in 1578. Other significant works published in Tamil include the first edition of Tirukkural, printed in 1812, which incidentally the library possesses. It also has the first edition of Tolkappiyam (an ancient grammar text), and other Sangam literature texts.

Chicago to Chennai

The Roja Muthiah Research Library has interesting origins. It was founded in 1994 to preserve the Tamil literary works collected by Roja Muthiah, a signboard artist who hailed from Kottaiyur. Upon his death in 1992, his family sold his treasured collection — there were some 50,000 books and an equal number of fascinating historical items like old film songbooks, invitations, drama notices, and so on — to the University of Chicago. The university, in collaboration with the Mozhi Trust, decided to preserve these collections, setting up the library in Mogappair.

History of Roja Muthiah Research Library  History of Roja Muthiah Research Library  

Later, the University of Chicago raised funds to maintain the collections from the Ford Foundation, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Subsequently, a new trust called the Roja Muthiah Trust came up. The University of Chicago moved out of the MoU and gifted the collections to the Trust.

A Knowledge Campus

Today, the library has grown its collection to nearly 5 lakh books, and it is digitising them to make them more accessible to the public. The library also has two research centres for Tamil studies: one is called the Centre for Antiquity, and the other is the Centre for Modernity. Going forward, the library aims to set up a Tamil Knowledge Campus, which will focus on bringing all Tamil-related literature works under one roof, says Ganesan. The campus will have two sections: one predominantly focussed on academic research and another on public outreach activities.

Tamil has a long and layered history; the Library hopes to take visitors on a journey from the past to the future.