An estate of the mind
THERE is something quite irresistible about old libraries. It is not the smell of leather on antique volumes alone; not the ageing glaze on wooden floors and ceiling-high shelves; nor even the hushed silence broken only by the occasional rustle of leaves that one hears. It is all these things; but, more than that, it is the overwhelming presence of so much learning in one place, of minds that brushed against the grain of their own times, that gives them that air, I think. In them, one has the sensation of being in the midst of an estate of the mind.
The Huntington Library,
in San Marino near Pasadena, is a place that few aficionados can speak
about without passion. [To be in it, said one, is "like being
invited to tour a snake-free Garden of Eden furbished with a grove of
trees of knowledge."] Even during the lifetimes of Henry Edwards
Huntington, and his wife, Arabella, who founded it together, it had
become a destination for scholars from all over the United States, and
beyond. Today, as a repository of culture in the western world, it is
spoken of in the same breath as the British Museum, the Pitti, the
Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, even the Library of Congress. There is
certainly little that rivals it on the west coast; and when one adds to
the treasures that it holds the fact that it is situated in the midst of
idyllic gardens, on a 207-acre reserve in a residential neighbourhood,
one knows that one is in a place that is very, very special.
About five lakh people visit the Library and the attached gardens each year. Not all of them are scholars, but even of scholars and researchers, the Library receives close to 2000 in an average year. The figures of the holdings of the Library are staggering in themselves: it houses six lakh rare and reference books; there are 17,000 drawings and paintings by British artists in the Galleries that form parts of the Library; 16,000 atlases, maps and ancient charts are on its shelves; there are 50,000 items belonging to the John London collection; one thousand letters of Charles Dickens; eleven manuscript volumes of books written and illustrated by William Blake .... The list is endless. But, with all this, the library is not a dead place, a catacomb of sorts for old learning and contemporary but lost-to-the-world researchers. It is alive, and throbs with activity, for it has a remarkably full agenda. Which includes: children's workshops; annual fellowship grants to scholars; months-long special exhibits, some of them costing a million dollars or more to research, organise and produce; concerts of chamber music; lectures by academicians, scientists, philosophers, and historians. Two years ago, when Jane Goodall came to lecture, the audience ran into seven thousand persons.
When one sees and reads about all this, one's mind turns, inevitably, to the treasures that lie in our own land. To take a few examples: consider the great Jaisalmer bhandara; the Oriental Libraries in Adyar and Mysore and Bankipore; the Asiatic Societies in Bombay and Calcutta; the National Library in Calcutta; the National Archives in Delhi; and, now, even the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. What materials lie there, and with what neglect we keep them, or how little we make of them. The more one pursues this thought the greater is the sadness that descends.
Among the great attractions for visitors to the
Huntington Library are the four art galleries attached to it, and the
magnificent gardens surrounding them. The galleries are serene and composed in
appearance, with works accompanied by texts that are filled with information
without being dense and inaccessible. The fondness of the founders, the
Huntingtons, for Britain is reflected especially in the Huntington Gallery,
which boasts of some of the best known among British paintings, including works
by Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. One can take these in, and/or roam the
gardens outside. For there are so many of them, each carefully planned,
meticulously laid out: Japanese, Australian, Palm, Rose, Subtropical, Desert.
But truly unusual is the Shakespeare Garden in which are featured plants
mentioned in the bard's plays. The textual source of each allusion is quoted on
a signpost placed nearby. Thus, from Hamlet comes: "There's
rosemary; that's for remembrance"; from Coriolanus, "The
tartness of his face sours ripe grapes!"; from Love's Labour Lost, a
toast to comely lasses: "Fair ladies mask'd are roses in their bud".