Roja Muthiah Chettiyar began collecting books in the early 1950s when he moved to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) from Kottaiyur village to start a signboard business known as Roja Arts. At first, he bought books from Chennai’s Moore Market to inspire ideas for his signboards. However, he soon fell in love with the books themselves and began to collect them in large quantities. After his entire collection was stolen twice from his Madras flat, he moved to his ancestral home in Kottaiyur permanently.
Over the years, Roja Muthiah scoured book stalls all over Tamil Nadu for treasures until his library outgrew the house. He rented two sheds on nearby streets in the village that were soon filled to capacity. Roja Muthiah is said to have spent sixteen hours a day among his books. His daily labour was these hours spent reading the books he purchased, indexing, cross-referencing, and finding space to store them.
Until his premature death on June 4, 1992, Roja Muthiah could be found reading, compiling, and writing with the help of his daughter and two assistants, amidst heaps of books, clippings, journals, and artworks in his house. Ironically, it was his lifelong effort to preserve the life of his library that shortened his own life, as every month he dusted his shelves as well as his lungs with insecticide. In the last years of his life, his health fading, Roja Muthiah worried that his death would mean the demise of his collection as well.
However, Roja Muthiah’s collection did not come to a closure with his death. C. S. Lakshmi, a visiting Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Culture and Consciousness, who had used Muthiah’s collection for her research on women in India, knew from previous discussions with Muthiah that he was concerned about the future of his library. Hearing of his death, Lakshmi informed friends at the University of Chicago Library, which launched a global effort to preserve Roja Muthiah’s library.
The effort began with letters back and forth between the University of Chicago and Roja Muthiah’s family. Four trips from Chicago to Kottaiyur and Chennai followed the letters. All of these activities were guided by a Steering Committee of scholars including Prof. A. K. Ramanujan, Prof. Norman Cutler, Prof. Arjun Appadurai, Prof. Ralph Nicholas, and others at the University. As the library is an important cultural resource that is invaluable to Tamil scholars, all those involved were committed to keeping the library in Tamil Nadu.
On 23 April 1994, the library, carefully squared into waterproof boxes, was loaded onto four lorries and a trailer. The convoy brought back the literary treasure from Kottaiyur to Mogappair in Chennai where the library was functioning till 2005. In March 2005, the library was shifted to its present campus in Taramani, where the State Archaeological Department was functioning earlier. The building belongs to the Department of Public Libraries, and has been leased out to RMRL. The RMRL Trust maintains this rare collection in collaboration with the University of Chicago and reaches all corners of the globe.
From 1994-2004, MOZHI Trust collaborated with University of Chicago in the project. In 2004, a new public trust named the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust was formed to manage the library and provide support for its development. An MoU has been entered between the University of Chicago and the RMRLT to preserve and maintain the collection.
A number of other collections have been added to the Library (see Collection for more information) The scope of the collection has been widened and now the library has started acquiring and building an audio collection in addition to the print material. The Library now holds an impressive collection of 4,00,000 items. In the year 2007, RMLT set up the Indus Research Centre by the advice of Padma awardee Shri Iravatham Mahadevan. He served as the Honorary Consultant of the Centre till December 2011. Currently this position is occupied by Shri R. Balakrishnan, retired from the Indian Civil Services. Mahadevan passed away on 26 November 2018 (read obituary here).