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Storied books

Storied books

In 1785, Thomas Daniell, 36, and his nephew William Daniell, then a boy aged 16, travelled to India where they would spend the next nine years. The elder Daniell, a landscape painter by profession, had found it difficult to establish himself in England and was drawn to the East by stories of the wealth and fortune available to travellers who ventured to the British Empire's provinces there. He obtained permission from the East India Company to travel to Calcutta to work as an engraver, with William as his assistant. The Daniells crisscrossed India in palanquins, bullock carts and horseback, and upon their return to London in 1974, produced a series of aquatints that were subsequently regarded as the finest illustrated work ever published of India, covering Mughal architecture such as the Jama Masjid in Delhi, mountain landscapes such as those seen in Garwhal along with views of Madras and Calcutta. According to British auction house Christie's, "The Daniells tapped a vein of nostalgia among colonial administrators, curiosity among European travellers (both active and armchair), and pride among the British for victorious military campaigns there." Oriental Scenery, the Daniells' collection of 144 aquatints across six parts, was the marquee piece in a recent auction of antiquarian books held on August 16 and 17 by Storyltd.com, a platform for fine art and collectibles based out of Mumbai. The six-part series in two volumes sold for Rs. 12 lakh and was part of StoryLTD's first online auction of antiquarian books. The auction recorded sales of over Rs. 86 lakh, with 31 of the 51 lots finding buyers. The collection of books on auction, ranging from the 17th century, was curated around the theme of the British Raj in India and several titles contain accounts of travellers in this period who produced lavish colour illustrations and recorded local subjects, sceneries and events. Other high sellers in the auction were Portraits of Princes and People of India, an important work by English poet and novelist Emily Eden, where she documented the lives of Indian rulers and their families when she accompanied her brother, Lord Auckland, to India when he was Governor General from 1836 to 1842. Another book, titled Recollections of India by Charles Stewart Hardinge, contains lithographs along with descriptive texts from Punjab and Kashmir as well as portraits of rulers during the time. Other titles sold include Costumes of Hindostan and General Views and Special Points of Interest in the City of Lucknow, making it a pretty eclectic range. According to a spokesperson from Storyltd.com, the auction of antiquarian books took about a year to curate and follows on from three other collections of books that have gone up for auction in the past year. "The books were collected from antique book dealers and individual collectors across the country. We first put up a call for antiquarian books (books over a 100 years old) a year ago, and we decided that we needed to have a filter because many of the books were very randomly themed. The selection of the British Raj as the time period allowed us to curate an excellent collection," he said. The business of buying and preserving antique books is still a nascent one in India but Storyltd.com hopes auctions such as these will allow more people to engage with history in this particularly enjoyable manner. "While some of the books are priced high, we have tried to make a lot of the tiles affordable to people who want to own such vintage works," the spokesperson said. The prices are decided along with dealers and collectors after comparing prices at which the titles have been sold in auctions abroad, and also looking at the condition of the books. StoryLtd.com has an exhaustive online catalogue for all the books that went up for auction but it cannot compare to an actual physical viewing of the books at their office in Mumbai's Prabhadevi area. Hidden within the pages of each beautifully-bound manuscript are snippets of conversation and information that provide a window into the perspectives that once informed conversation in another time. A book called The Campaign in India, from 1859, for instance, provides a grandiose description of the quelling of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, detailing the exploits of a small and resolute force who fought to maintain the rights of the sovereign and the honour of England as "a remorseless, treacherous and rebellious foe sought to uproot the British Power in India and by acts of deliberately planned ferocity and fiendish cruelty strove to destroy every European and Christian in the Land." One of the more fascinating books on display was a two-volume set documenting the experiences of Fanny Parks (nee Frances Susanna Archer) over her 24 years in India, titled Wanderings of a Pilgrim. Her husband, Charles Crawford Parks, worked for the East India Company as a civil servant in Calcutta and then moved to Prayag near Allahabad. Following their move, Parks and her husband travelled extensively across the sub-continent, visiting Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore), Meerut, Delhi, and the Himalayas. According to the book's description, she "came into her own as a robust and intrepid explorer, as well as a thorough and competent ethnographer of Indian culture," and her fluency in Hindustani helped her form friendships with local women such as the ex-queen of Gwalior. Consider this exchange when the two are speaking of the severity of laws with respect to married women and the fate suffered by widows both in India and in England. "The fate of women and of melons is alike," she remarks. "Whether the melon falls on the knife or the knife on the melon, the melon is the sufferer." This is just one snippet but goes to show perhaps what a dream such books are for bibliophiles and history buffs. Not much is known yet about where you can find or buy them, but auctions such as this could be a good place for budding antiquarians to start.

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