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Posted: Fri, Mar 18 2011. 8:17 PM IST

The estate of the last


eccentric
Christies will auction medieval India scholar
Simon Digbys private artefact collection next
month
Mayank Austen Soofi
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 Indias Islamic past in books with titles such as Sufis and Soldiers in
Awrangzebs 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, Christies 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, Christies, London. The collection is expected to realize 309,000460,000 (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.
When
he
was

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All that glitters:(clockwise from top, left) Digby (Courtesy Robert


Skelton); a mother-of-pearl pen box from Gujarat; a Bidri ewer; a birdshaped brass ewer; an engraved iron catch. All circa 16th-17th
century, between 5,000-170,000 (Photographs courtesy Christies).
terminally ill in December 2009, Digby asked his friend Richard Harriswho
retired as regional manager (South Asia) for the BBC World Service in Delhito
come to India to help him. But a visa delay, swine flu scares and ill-health
forced Harris to mourn his friends death in England.
In Delhi this month to sort out the loose ends of Digbys 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 Simons 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.
But
the

A carved Indian ivory powder horn.


Christies catalogue only skims the surface of this informed historians unique
collection. Take a particular water vessel that was one of Simons 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.
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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 Christies 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 Digbys
writings.
One of the tasks Harris has in Delhi is to discuss the reprinting of some of
Digbys 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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