The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, February 2, 2003

The story of a centenarian
Bhavana Pankaj

IF you live to be hundred, you are old...really OLD! And hoary. Also happy. You hobble down the cobbled lane of nostalgia, aching to hear ancient sounds echoing in the nooks and corners of memory. Words unsaid, tears unshed, laughter and loss, gambles and glory... all come surging. You cry. You also celebrate. Motilal Banarsidass or MLBD, the internationally renowned India's biggest Indological publishers, are doing just that celebrating their 100th birthday.

The party began in 1903. When Lubbi Bai gave Rs 27 to her husband Motilal Jain, she did not know she was knitting a dream in each of those woolen socks she made to earn that. Nor did Motilal, when with that money he converted a little library into a book store at Said Mitha Bazar in Lahore. He belonged to a family of jewellers in Amritsar. But acute recession in his trade had this deeply religious book-lover sell Sanskrit books. Soon after he moved from selling to publishing as his sons Banarsidass and Sunderlal Jain joined him in forging the foundations of MLBD.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the house imported rare Indological books from Germany to sell in the local market. Along with the then state-of-the-art mono-press, MLDB had by the 1940s acquired a formidable reputation as publishers of books on Indology and Oriental literature.

With the passing away of Banarsidass and, subsequently, his father, it fell upon Sunderlal to steer the MLBD ship. His young nephew and Banarsidass' only son Shantilal was to join him in the venture. And these two men, body and soul, became the life-force of the publishing house.


The wheel of time creaked again. And a whole edifice fell in its aftermath. The fires of Partition, along with lots else, licked MLBD. The homeless family fled to Varanasi. In those despairing, dark times the uncle-nephew team dug in its heels. Help came from Patna where MLBD had set up their first branch office while they were still in Lahore. Life, as it always does, began again. That was 1947.

A decade later, Sunderlal Jain now called Lalaji brought MLBD to Delhi. Dr A.S. Altekar, chairman of the All India Oriental Conference held in 1958, inaugurated the brand new headquarters on Bunglaw Road a sprawling office on the ground floor and a splendid home on the first. Just the way the late Motilal Jain saw it happen in Lahore in 1903.

Four and a half decades down, MLBD boasts of nearly 5000 titles in the fields of Indology, Oriental research, Sanskrit, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain studies. Be it reprinting a 1920s version of the controversial tome on ancient Hindu law the Manusmriti running into 10 volumes or a whopping 100 volumes of the 18 Mahapuranas rendered in English; the 50-part sacred books of the East edited by Max Mueller or the ancient Sanskrit lexicon Shabdakalpadrum (published at the instance of Drs S. Radhakrishan and Rajendra Prasad respectively), MLBD has been the proverbial mint of Indology.

Other than English and Hindi, the house has published books in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Apabhransh and Tibetan, and more recently, Vedic mathematics in Marathi, Gujarati and Oriya.

Since most of their market is overseas, many of their books have been published in Spanish, Dutch, Italian, German, French, Korean and Russian.

Hundred years of world-class writing, exacting selection, editing and production standards, ideas and men have changed things at MLBD. "Readers, reading habits, the business...a lot has changed. We are also addressing this new reader who is interested in spirituality, alternative healing, yoga and other new age areas under New Age Books. But we remain dedicated to the cause of our founder-father the revival of the Indian tradition through books on art, culture, philosophy and ancient esoteric sciences," Narendra Prakash Jain, MD and fourth-generation MLBD-ian.

And so, even as there are umpteen books on Ayurvedic cooking, remedies and beauty care, on the goddess tradition and such like subjects for women, children and the youth, Goswami Tulasidasa's Ramacharitmanas is, perhaps, one of the most brilliant jewels of MLBD. The first copy of the book, published with the original text and Hindi and English translation by Dr R.C. Prasad, was presented to President R. Venkataraman in 1989. Manas Sangam, one of India's most prestigious institution, honoured MLBD for it. More honours followed with the Padmasha for Lala Santilal Jain capping them all in 1992. As with the brightest of jewels, the story goes that the publication of Ramacharitmanas in this form was the result of a dream of Shantilalji.

Today, MLBD celebrate their centenary year with organising seminars and lectures, honouring their staff at their seven branches in India as also some of their top authors. They also plan to announce scholarships and schemes for young, interested authors. The fourth and fifth generations for the Jain parivar have joined their skills and savvy to realise the dream that got a life in Varanasi's Kachori Gali. The old building where Lalaji set up business in India in 1948 still stands there to tell the story.