The National Library of India, situated on the lush-green scenic Belvedere Estate in Alipore, consisting of the Belvedere House and the 30-acre (12 ha) grounds surrounding it, is the largest library in India by volume and is India's library of public record. Popularly known as the National Library, it operates under the Department of Culture of the national government and is designated to collect, disseminate, and preserve all printed material produced in India, and all foreign works published about the country.
Long before the existence of the National Library, the Calcutta Public Library, said to be the seed of the National Library, was founded in 1836 in a building situated on Esplanade Row. It was a non-government institution and entirely run on a proprietary basis. Any interested person could become a proprietor by contributing a paltry sum of 300 Rupees as subscription, payable at a time or in three equal installments. Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, one of the first Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs and the founder of the Jorasanko Tagore family, who played a significant role in Bengal Renaissance, was the first proprietor of the Calcutta Public Library. Lord Metcalfe, the then Governor General of the British India, took personal interest about the library and arranged to shift 4,675 volumes from the library of the Fort William College to the Calcutta Public Library to enrich its collection.
This huge lot, along with the books donated by several individuals, formed the nucleus of the library. Apart from that, necessary arrangement was made to purchase Indian and foreign books, especially books published from the British Isles, to enhance the collection and quality of the library. The library used to accept and receive donations, from both individuals and the government. The Calcutta Public Library is regarded as the first public library in this part of the world and during the first half of the 19th century, such a well-organized and efficiently run library was rare even in the western countries.
Apart from the Calcutta Public Library, the history of the National Library of India is linked to another library, formed 55 years after its inception. In 1891, the Imperial Library was formed, by combining a number of Secretariat libraries in Calcutta. Among those Secretariat libraries, the library of the Home Department was perhaps the most important and the best, as it was enriched with the collection of books, which formerly belonged to the library of the Fort William College, dissolved in 1854, along with the valuable collection of the library of the East India College, Hertfordshire in UK, closed in 1858. However, the use of the newly formed Imperial library was restricted only to the superior officers of the Government.
It was Lord Curzon, the then Governor General and Viceroy of India, who conceived the idea of opening a library for the use of the general public in 1903. He rightly observed that none of the libraries, the Imperial Library and the Calcutta Public Library, were used to their full potential, or rather under-used. To solve the dual problem in a single action, he decided to amalgamate the rich collection of both the libraries and open it for the mass.
As decided, the newly merged library, named Imperial Library, was formally opened to the public at Metcalfe Hall, at the crossing of Council House Street and Strand Road, on 30 January 1903. Much later, after the independence of India, the governor of Bengal, Rajagopalachari suggested that the beautiful Belvedere Estate, with its huge lush green area, should be the ideal place to house the Imperial Library. Accordingly, the library was shifted to the Belvedere, renamed as the National Library and its doors were formally thrown open to the public on the 1st day of February 1953 by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the then Education Minister of India.
It must be admitted that, the Belvedere was the right choice for the National Library of India, which is a magnificent jewel in the crown of Calcutta. The history of the Belvedere House has a long history behind it, which probably dates back to 1760, when Mir Jafar Ali Khan was compelled by the British East India Company to abdicate his throne at Murshidabad to Qasim Khan and decided to move to Calcutta, to settle within the safety of the Company’s fortification. During that time, he built a number of buildings in the area and presented the Belvedere House to Warren Hastings. Interestingly, the famous duel between Hastings and his legal officer, Philip Francis, took place on the grounds of the Belvedere Estate in the morning of 17 August 1780.
It is believed that Hastings sold Belvedere House to a Major Tolly in the 1780s and after his death in 1784, his family sold the property in 1802. Charles Robert Prinsep, who served as a standing counsel to the East India Company and then as the Judge Advocate General of India, lived in Belvedere Estate for a few years. After that, it served as the official residence of the Viceroy of India until the construction of the Government House, present Raj Bhawan, in the early nineteenth century. In 1854, as the Governor-General moved out, Belvedere housed the Lieutenant Governors of Bengal until 1912, when the capital moved from Calcutta to Delhi and the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, upgraded to a full governor, shifted to the Government House.
The grand entrance of the graceful and dignified milk-white Belvedere House opens into a spacious park peripherally wooded with subtropical trees. The tall and majestic pillars of the stack room, located in the basement, hold up the superstructure of the building. Even after the lapse of more than two hundred and fifty years, some of the offices of the library are still equipped with the ancient fireplaces, as the dumb witnesses of their glorious past. The basement of the building is used for storing a rich and valuable collection of books.
Classical Roman beams and brick vaulting, added to the Corinthian pillars, support the white ceiling of the hall. The pillars at the fringe of the room prop up a mezzanine gallery, which is now used as Carrel for the readers. Alcoves underneath the gallery were once used to store various reference works, such as District Gazetteers. The main reading room of the gorgeous library, which was once the banquet hall for the respected viceroys and their distinguished guests, is thirty-four metres long. Apart from the huge 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.
The National Library, considered as a treasure trove with its magnificent collection of invaluable books, is often visited by famous scholars from abroad. As the main building of the library is declared as a heritage building and is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, the daily operations of the National Library had shifted to the newly constructed multi storey Bhasha Bhawan about a decade ago.