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Treasure trove of Indology

The Motilal Banarasidass (MLBD) firm is the best bet for anything pertaining to the history, philosophy, religion, literature, art and aesthetics of India, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.



R. P. Jain at the helm of MLBD — publishing since 1903 — Pic. by S. R. Raghunathan

FROM COURT jewellers once trusted with the Kohinoor to publishers who focus on our culture — it has been a long and fulfilling journey for this family.

Those interested in Indology make a beeline for their bookshops. The Motilal Banarasidass (MLBD) firm has completed more than 100 years of publishing.

Its outlets across the country could be the best bet for anything pertaining to the history, philosophy, religion, literature, art and aesthetics of an ancient civilisation.

``Our ancestor, Lala Bute Shah was the chief jeweller of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. When the king wrested the Kohinoor diamond from Shah Shuja, Bute Shah was entrusted with the job of testing its purity," says R. P. Jain, director of the Motilal Banarasidass publishers on a visit from Delhi to their branch at Mylapore (24982315). Varanasi, Patna, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata are the other cities where the firm has bookstores. Rajendra Prakash Jain is one of five brothers who, along with their mother, now manage the business.

The publishing chapter of the family began in 1903 when their great-grandfather Lala Motilal who was deeply interested in heritage and spirituality, started a bookstore with his choice collection of Sanskrit books in Lahore. He named it after his eldest son Banarasidass. In 1937, a branch was started in Patna at the suggestion of Rajendra Prasad, a family friend who later became the first President of India. After Banarasidass's death, his only surviving brother Sundarlal Jain took over the business and steered its affairs with a dedication that saw it grow vastly. Sundarlal was joined by his young nephew (Banarasidass' son) Shantilal who was conferred Padmashri in 1992 for his contribution to the field of Indology. Shantilal's sons are now in charge.

But the path was not easy. ``The publishing house at Lahore was reduced to ashes during the Partition and the family had to start anew," says R. P. Jain. This they did by moving to Varanasi in 1948 and luckily they had a base in Patna as well. ``Varanasi, the traditional seat of learning proved to be a propitious choice and things steadily looked up after that. Business grew but not overnight. It is a business that by its very nature cannot grow fast." But he agrees that in the niche area they are in, the growth is slow and steady.

Sixty per cent of sales are direct export. ``We have franchisees in the U.K. and the Netherlands and there is demand for our books in Europe and the U.S. as well as in South East Asia," says Mr. Jain. ``Out of the remaining 40 per cent, ten to 15 per cent are indirectly exported as booksellers buy the books and then export them. There is a niche market for our books on Buddhism in Japan, Thailand and other countries," he explains.

``Our books on astrology and Ayurveda are very popular," he continues. ``Ayurvedic Beauty Care," ``Ayurvedic Cookbook" and ``Ayurvedic Diet" are constantly in demand.

``Now our best seller is the series on Vedic Mathematics," informs Mr. Jain. Now, what is Vedic Mathematics? ``India has such a rich tradition in Mathematics," he says. ``The ancients knew how to solve complex problems through simple means. The late Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, the Sankaracharya of Puri, established the system after a deep study of ancient Vedic texts. In Vedic maths, there are 16 simple sutras (formulae) and 13 sub-sutras. The books on Vedic mathematics are very well received in Britain and the U.S.," he explains.

``In Britain, Vedic Maths has been introduced in some schools. But here there is a controversy. Scientists have said `it is neither Vedic nor Maths.' But they have not understood it. They have closed minds on the subject," he regrets. ``Generally, whether it is Ayurveda or Yoga, the concept has to travel to the West, become popular there and then come back to us. Only then will we welcome it," he says.

The Shri Jainendra Press in Delhi sees a steady stream of publications which are sought after by students, research scholars, professors and others interested in Indology. Among Banarasidass' prestigious publications are 100 volumes of the Mahapuranas, ``Sacred books of the East" in 50 parts edited by Max Mueller, the ``Ram Charit Manas" with Hindi and English translation, the Manusmriti in ten volumes and the Sanskrit lexicon.

Are only older people interested in these books?

``No," he replies. ``We have many young people too both within the country and abroad who seek them. We have a regular clientele of 20,000 and have published 5,000 books in these 100 years."

Do college and university libraries stock them? ``Their main problem is shortage of funds," he points out.

Seminars, workshops and lectures on heritage are conducted regularly by the publishers.

``We have arranged a series of meditation sessions in various cities in the coming year. They will be conducted by Roy Eugene Davis from the U.S.," says Mr. Jain. But why an expert from the West ? ``He is a direct disciple of Paramahamsa Yogananda and the sessions held in 2002 were very popular."

The Motilal Banarasidass firm (mlbd@vsnl.com, www.mlbd.com) does not live in the past and lose sight of the new. Linking the past and the present are their New Age books — on alternative therapies — parapsychology, meditation, spiritual health and reiki and their New Age music CDs.

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