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A tryst with Sakoontala: Rare books, maps and manuscripts will be auctioned at an online bidding by Prinseps Auction House

Title page of Monier Williams’s ‘Sakoontala’

Title page of Monier Williams’s ‘Sakoontala’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

This collection of rare books can change the way you view history. And it is up for grabs at a forthcoming online auction

A curious scene unfolds in the frontispiece of an 1855 edition (printed by Stephen Austin, “[b]ookseller to the East India college) of Sakoontala; The Lost Ring — Monier Williams’s English translation of Kalidasa’s classic Sanskrit drama. In the black-and-white sketch, in the middle of a recognisably Indian landscape with banana groves and ancient Southern style temples, a distraught-looking king enfolds a woman in his arms while a young boy clutches his leg. With his bearded face and spiked crown, the raja here could have been, say, King Arthur.

The woman’s dress is also anomalous: she wears a sari with chemise. In the 19th century, most Indian women did not wear blouses with their saris until Westernised ladies like Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s elder brother, popularised them.

So the scene here imagines Sakoontala being performed in Williams’s contemporary times in India. Indeed, in the book’s last page, the translator mentions a production of the play at Grand Road Theatre in Bombay on February 3, 1855 that, according to him, proves the “popularity of the Sakoontala with the Hindus of the present day”.

Time capsules

All this makes this particular edition a time capsule, and as such a connoisseur’s piece. But you can get it for a price when it goes under the hammer on September 4 and 5 in an online bidding organised by Prinseps Auction House in Mumbai. Also on offer is an array of antique books — most of them over a 100 years old — maps and manuscripts procured chiefly from the collection of the Bengaluru-based rare book collector, Sunil Baboo.

The book auction will be followed by an auction of prints September 11-12; its centrepiece is a work signed by Abanindranath Tagore (he usually didn’t put a signature on his prints) and gifted to Rabindranath’s son, Rathindranath.

Map showing Tipu Sultan’s terrirory in 1792

Map showing Tipu Sultan’s terrirory in 1792  

One of the highlights of the auction is a first edition copy of The Works of Sir William Jones (1799), written by his wife, Lady Anna Marie Shipley Jones. Incidentally, this six-volume work on the philologist who established a connection between Indian and European languages and founded The Asiatic Society of India also contains his translation of Shakuntala.

Indian global

The auction house takes its name, among other sources, from James Prinsep, yet other linguist and Orientalist whose work on ancient Indian lineages gave a firmer shape to William Jones’s research (trivia alert: Prinsep is related to Virginia Woolf on her mother’s side). Together with Jones, Prinsep had taken Indian history and languages to the world: in choosing this name, the auction house is underlining the “global nature of the company,” says its founder, Indrajit Chatterjee. Prinseps had set a record with its very first online auction in October 2017 when it had sold Gaganendranath Tagore’s book of political satire and lithographs, Realm of the Absurd, for ₹19,80,000. Chatterjee says they zeroed in on Baboo this time because of the collector’s remarkable eye for detail and talent for spotting hidden gems of history.

For instance, featuring in this lot is a page from The London Chronicle of April 9-11, 1782. The news it records seems humdrum till you come to the section titled ‘East India Affairs’ — here you read that “the Lord Advocate of Scotland” is briefing Parliament about a major threat to British power in India in the shape of the “powerful and formidable prince” Hyder Ali.

Sunil Baboo

Sunil Baboo   | Photo Credit: K.Bhagya Prakash

Baboo, a lively raconteur, says his eclectic collection has been inspired by his reading of history. Books recording incidents as they happened often contain a take on events that can be quite different from the later-day history book versions. He cites American author Charles Ball’s 1860 book, The History of the Indian Mutiny, which discusses the rebellion just three years after it took place.

Ball quotes the Nawab of Bareilly inviting Indian princes to unite in the fight against the British, where he says in a proclamation, “Should the Hindoos join them [Muslim princes], the Mussulmans will look upon the flesh of cows with the same horror which they feel at seeing pork.” For most of us associating Bareilly with violent communal riots during the Mutiny, here’s a new point to ponder.

No stock villains

One more highlight of the auction lot are two maps of the ‘Lands of Tippo Saheb,’, by Captain Colin Mackenzie. To compare the map from 1792 showing Tipu’s dominion when his power was at its peak with the one from 1799, when Tipu had been killed in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War after being made to accede large parts of his territory to the British, is to realise how much his dominion shrunk in just seven years.

And yet, as Baboo points out, there are no stock villains in the land of literature. For every machinating colonial lord there was someone like William Jones who became one with his adoptive country, imbibing the best of its culture and rejecting the drivel.

The Picture Story of Fifty Years, 1900-1950 by R. H. Poole (1950) is another book which captures history being made, this time through images. From 1939 there is Hitler reviewing the march of his victorious troops in Warsaw on October 5. Meanwhile in England, schoolchildren are being evacuated from the cities to the relatively safer countryside.

The dislocation has begun: we see children walking with loaded suitcases in a London station with not many adults around. On a cheerier note, there is a photograph of “Mrs.” Lambert Chambers playing the women’s final at the 1911 Wimbledons, which she won. She wears an ankle-length white skirt and a full-sleeve white blouse with tie.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 4:57:29 PM |

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