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The estate of the last eccentric

The estate of the last eccentric
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First Published: Fri, Mar 18 2011. 08 17 PM IST

All that glitters:(clockwise from top, left) Digby (Courtesy Robert Skelton); a mother-of-pearl pen box from Gujarat; a Bidri ewer; a bird-shaped brass ewer; an engraved iron catch. All circa 16th-17t
All that glitters:(clockwise from top, left) Digby (Courtesy Robert Skelton); a mother-of-pearl pen box from Gujarat; a Bidri ewer; a bird-shaped brass ewer; an engraved iron catch. All circa 16th-17t
Updated: Fri, Mar 18 2011. 08 17 PM IST
Born in Jabalpur to a colonial-era judge and a vagabond painter, Simon Everard Digby spent months reading on art and history in the museums and libraries of Mumbai and Kolkata. He was a voracious collector of books and artefacts.
A polyglot who spoke Hindi, Urdu and Persian, he wrote numerous articles on medieval India’s Islamic past in books with titles such as Sufis and Soldiers in Awrangzeb’s Deccan and War-horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate.
In 2010, when he died of pancreatic cancer at his rented Delhi apartment at 78, he was cremated in the city according to his wishes.
Next month, Christie’s is all set to auction several objects that the British scholar collected over a lifetime. “The Digby Collection offers the opportunity for buyers to acquire some very rare, ‘best of type’ works of art, something that the market is always hungry for,” says Sara Plumbly, Islamic art specialist, Christie’s, London. The collection is expected to realize £309,000-460,000 (around Rs 2-3 crore), which will go to the Simon Digby Memorial Scholarship Fund.
“Simon was fabulously eccentric, indeed almost a Dickensian one-off,” says British author William Dalrymple, who knew him. “He was the sort of independent scholar who no longer exists.”
All that glitters:(clockwise from top, left) Digby (Courtesy Robert Skelton); a mother-of-pearl pen box from Gujarat; a Bidri ewer; a bird-shaped brass ewer; an engraved iron catch. All circa 16th-17th century, between €5,000-170,000 (Photographs courtesy Christie’s).
When he was terminally ill in December 2009, Digby asked his friend Richard Harris—who retired as regional manager (South Asia) for the BBC World Service in Delhi—to come to India to help him. But a visa delay, swine flu scares and ill-health forced Harris to mourn his friend’s death in England.
In Delhi this month to sort out the loose ends of Digby’s life and work, Harris has a lot to accomplish. “Simon left the responsibility of his legacy to the three of us,” says Harris, referring to Dominic Omissi, a schoolteacher who met Digby while he was doing his PhD on colonial literature, and Colin Perchard, who was the director of the British Council in Delhi. “We decided that the most fitting memorial would be a scholarship fund to encourage the study of subjects dear to Simon’s heart,” says Harris, adding, “He had collected thousands of objects and we decided to sell them in order to put the money into the fund.”
Plumbly says the top lot in the collection, and one that has generated excitement in the market, is a fine Gujarati mother-of-pearl overlaid qalamdaan (pen case) dating to the late 16th or early 17th century.
A carved Indian ivory powder horn.
But the Christie’s catalogue only skims the surface of this informed historian’s unique collection. “Take a particular water vessel that was one of Simon’s most treasured possessions,” says Harris. “Indistinguishable from similar vessels produced in brass foundries across India, Simon found a small inscription on the base in Persian. From these words, he was able to tell that this vessel had been made in the Deccan in the 18th century and had ended up in the hands of a Malay Muslim sailor who, from his name, must have converted from Christianity. Then, Simon could continue about the Indian Ocean trade in the 18th century for many hours.”
Not everything Digby acquired was bought in India. In 1985, he inherited a house in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, from relatives. Jersey was a popular retirement place for ex-colonials from India. Many of these families had artefacts that might have been in their families for many generations. As this generation faded away, several objects ended up in auction houses in Jersey and other places in the UK.
“Simon was one of only few people who knew what these things were and what their significance might have been,” says Harris. “He bought objects at reasonable prices because the fashion for Indian decorative objects had passed away. Now, with well-informed collectors, their value has once again been restored.”
Digby never married and he only held one job in his lifetime: as keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford during the 1970s. “He lived on a series of small legacies from a dwindling community of aunts and uncles,” says Harris. He spent half the year in India and the other half in the UK, but attended academic events throughout the world. “His intoxication came from listening to bhajans or qawwali or from the pleasure of sharing his life with his many friends. He loved the area around the Sufi shrine at Nizamuddin,” says Harris. “In another time, he would surely have been recognized as a Sufi or a yogi. In his own time, he was considered an eccentric.”
The auction will be spread over a number of sales. While the top 50 lots from the collection will be sold on 7 April at Christie’s King Street location, a further 37 will be offered the next day at South Kensington. The last group will be sold in early October. “He was not concerned with the superficial beauty of the pieces, but of what they could tell us of the people who made them and used them,” Harris adds. The answers to those questions can be found in Digby’s writings.
One of the tasks Harris has in Delhi is to discuss the reprinting of some of Digby’s books and the printing of those which have yet to be published. That legacy will perhaps be cheaper to buy.
mayank.s@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 18 2011. 08 17 PM IST