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Posted at: Oct 29, 2017, 1:27 AM; last updated: Oct 29, 2017, 1:27 AM (IST)

Reading in a strawberry farm

Bhilar, a sleepy Maharashtrian hamlet known for its berries, has earned the tag of India’s first book village

Neha Kirpal

Amid the backdrop of misty mountains, deep valleys, blue waters and green trees, imagine a village full of books. For bibliophiles in the country, this is no longer a dream. The government of Maharashtra recently declared Bhilar, a sleepy hamlet spread across 2 km in Satara district, India’s first book village or Pustakanche Gaon.

Inspired by Britain’s Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town known for its bookstores and literature festivals, Bhilar is traditionally popular for its strawberry farms. Located midway between the picturesque hill stations Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, the village produces around 100 tonnes of strawberry every year, earning an annual profit of Rs 50 crore through its local produce.

Spread across 432 hectares, Bhilar houses about 3,000 people in 620 homes. Unlike in the Welsh town where there are multiple commercial premises, what’s unique about this indigenous village is that about 25 premises, including temples, schools, cottages, lodges and homestays, host the mini libraries. Every house maintains books in a different genre. The government has provided a red beanbag, a rotating 16-pocket wire bookstand and a metal bookshelf with glass doors for one to see the titles.

What’s on offer is every literary connoisseur’s dream — over 15,000 rare and out-of-publication periodicals, novels and reference books about Maharashtra and Marathi culture written by prominent authors. The books, magazines and newspapers across 25 diverse genres (history to poetry, politics, culture, literature, religion, environment, autobiographies, biographies, festival specials, and more), can be read free of cost. Visitors can pick up any book and use the comfortable reading areas (made available by house owners) to curl up and read their favourite works. Most houses have a verandah and the government has placed garden furniture (a huge table with an artistically decorated umbrella and four chairs) for those who prefer reading in natural light.

The walls of each of the 25 ‘reader hotspots’ depict graffiti with various literary themes. Graphics have been created as per the genre of book placed in the house. The government launched a crowdsourcing campaign to invite about 75 artists from across the state to create the murals. The campaign took shape in the form of a three-day painting camp through Swatva, an informal WhatsApp-based artist and art-lovers’ network. A first-of-its-kind initiative in the country, the concept was proposed by Marathi Bhasha Department and Rajya Marathi Vikas Sanstha.

The government is hoping that the village will promote the culture of reading and boost literary tourism in the town. Talking about the initiative, the minister of Cultural Affairs and Marathi Language, Vinod Tawde said, “Although an international concept, we are giving it a very Indian look and feel. The project is aimed at promoting a book village or town of books. We eventually want to make it a main tourist hub like Hay-on-Wye. Not just this, the goal is also to promote Marathi language. The best part is that the people of Bhilar have understood the concept of creating a book village very well, hence it became very easy for us to implement it on ground.”

Future plans for the village include expanding the collection to Hindi and English books as well. “We also plan to organise literary events, interactions with eminent authors and poets and book-reading sessions,” said Tawde. These festivals will also comprise presentations of essays and poems by students, teaching workshops and exhibitions, he added.

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