Kutub Khana – The Sharfabad Bedil Library

Reading room1Tucked away modestly in the bustling centre of Karachi’s Sharfabad area is a treasure trove for Urdu researchers, readers and enthusiasts; the Sharfabad Bedil Library. Established in July 1974 through the singular efforts of Dr Mohammad Zafeer ul Hasan Azeemabadi, this reading centre hosts a collection that ranges from rare books and journals to contemporary publications and newspaper archives.
The library is named after the poet Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) whose impact on Rekhta influenced many great poets in the centuries to come, including Ghalib and Iqbal.
In Ghalib’s own words:
tarz-e-Bedil mein Rekhta Kehna
Asad Ullah Khan Qayamat hai
Situated on the second floor of the Sharfabad Community Centre, the library initiated its collection with 300 books and journals that were contributed by Dr Azeemabadi’s circle of literary friends. Now expanded to over a hundred thousand in number, the collection is a valuable resource for researchers and students of MPhil and PhD.
The library was formally created as a Trust in 1993 with Dr Azeemabadi nominated as its Chairman for life. In 2001, Dr Azeemabadi stepped down from his post because of illness. The library is managed by a board of members but the main spirit behind its strength is the presence of the Library in-charge Muhammad Zubair. It would be safe to say at this point that without Zubair Sahab’s tireless efforts to maintain and organise the collection, the library would not have been as invaluable as it is today. With bare minimum resources at hand, (the library does not own a computer) Zubair Sahab has meticulously catalogued every entry by hand and is essentially the human cataloguing system for the collection. Any request for a book by title, author or journal number will have Zubair Sahab whisking into the resource room to bring you the text within minutes. Should the library not have the requested item in store, he makes extraordinary efforts to locate the item in libraries in Karachi or other cities of Pakistan.
The Bedil Library’s collection has been built over time through personal contributions from patrons and supporters. Stumbling upon books that dated to 1913, I asked Zubair Sahab how the library acquired these. He explained that many contributors brought their books with them when they migrated to Pakistan and these books were passed on to the library after the demise of their owners. Often practical reasons also contributed to the collection. Moving house, migrating, a lack of storage space were just some of the factors. Apart from random contributions, the library has been fortunate to receive books and journals from prominent literary figures. These collections are stored in dedicated shelves labelled with the contributors’ names. Apart from adding to the richness of the library, these collections also reflect the contributors’ reading choices and inclinations. For this reason, Zubair Sahab keeps these contributions intact, despite the fact that one may find certain books in duplicate in other shelves.
Perhaps the most valuable asset in this category is the individual collection of Professor Mohammad Hasan Askari, who has donated his entire personal library to Bedil. Marked with his own handwriting and annotations, this collection occupies about six cupboards in the resource room.
The library consists of three rooms in the main reading section. The modestly sized entrance and reading room with plenty of natural light and breeze has shelves along its walls and a large working table at its far end. This room holds books from individual personal collections as well as a cupboard dedicated to Indian publications in Urdu. The second and larger resource room stores the remaining collection which includes journals and rare books. It is here that the library stores the complete or near complete archives of innumerable journals including Adab e Lateef, Adabi Duniya and Saqi. (Saqi was launched in Delhi by Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi and its first issue dates to January 1930).
The third inner room serves as a storage space for newspaper archives. The earlier dated ones have been bound and the remaining await cataloging. Zubair Sahab informed me that the library holds archives for the newspaper Jung from as far back as the early sixties.
The reading room receives readers on a daily basis and numbers vary from day to day. Despite its limited working hours (4pm to 7pm), it has a steady stream of regulars everyday. A hand written notice congratulates individuals who have recently completed their doctoral studies. The space provides a hushed and serious atmosphere, signifying the awe and reverence it inspires. An adjacent room serves as a lending library and includes books and magazines of interest for students and children. This section receives about fifty to sixty visitors per day and its collection is updated on a regular basis.
For a space of such academic significance, it is bewildering that it maintains it reputation despite its lack of resources. As mentioned earlier, it lacks basic amenities such as a computer and a photocopier and has fast run out of shelves and cupboards to store its valuable collection. The floor of the inner resource room is strewn with books waiting to be catalogued and stored. Newspaper archives remain tied in bundles as they queue up for binding. There are however, efforts being made to support the library as patrons and well-wishers have stepped in to contribute towards its needs. While Zubair Sahab delightfully looks forward to these facilities, he continues nonetheless, indefatigable and unwavering in his commitment to this enterprise.
For first time visitors, the experience of encountering such a wealth of knowledge can be overwhelming and breath-taking. Nevertheless, the Bedil library welcomes novices and aficionados alike, making room for every individual’s quest for knowledge and endeavour towards scholarship.
(1) Bagh e Bedil, 17 Feb 2010, http://kafila.org/2010/02/17/bagh-e-bedil/, accessed 10 June 2015

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Zambeel Dramatic Readings aims to present texts in Urdu and English rendered in their dramatised form, to create a dynamic collusion between literature and performance. Referencing traditions of storytelling and the contemporary form of the radio play, our works traverse time and geographical boundaries to interpret and enliven narratives through sound and recitation.
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