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THE ISMAIL MERCHANT COLLECTION
When I first met Ismail Merchant in 1961 he had not become a collector of any of the kinds of objects being offered in this sale of his belongings. He would have claimed, 'Oh, I'm a collector of people!' He surely was that, an avid collector of people who felt warmly about him and would become the enthusiastic supporters of his films and other projects. He never forgot a name or face, never failed to write down a telephone number, and later, when he began to buy works of art, this served him as well as it did in the financing and promotion of our movies.
I suppose he picked up the collecting virus from me. When that happened he plunged into the market without hesitation, as with everything else he did. He was never a timid buyer. There are people who form collections, but when faced with a one-time opportunity to buy a truly great piece for just that little bit (or even a great deal) more, pull back and buy a second or third choice because it is cheaper, while the great piece vanishes. That was never Ismail's way. The covers of auction house catalogues seemed especially to beckon to him; several of the lots here first came to his notice on the full color covers advertising some earlier auction. Or he would wander on his way to his office in Soho along Bond Street and find himself in an auction energetically bidding for something that had just caught his eye (but he was too busy to examine): a Chinese vase, a kilim, a sideboard, a large oil painting of Rhett Butler embracing Scarlett O'Hara, with Tara in the background. Once we were making a film in New York called Jane Austen in Manhattan. We took our cameraman, Ernest Vincze, into the back of the main salesroom at Parke Bernet, where a sale of carpets was going on, in order for him to assess the lighting requirements for a scene we had arranged to shoot there in a few days. While the cameraman checked the light with his meter, I saw with dismay - ours was a very low-budget film - that Ismail had raised his hand and was bidding insistently for a striking Russian rug with a mad floral design run amok. He kept waving his hand in the air till he had gotten it - he had no paddle - after which one of the courtly African-American gentlemen wearing a formal black suit, who worked at the old Parke Bernet, came up with a little pad for Ismail to sign his name on. Fortunately, that rug is not included in this sale; it is under my feet as I write these notes.
He really began as a collector in Bombay while we were planning and then making our first feature film, The Householder, in 1961. There was an old furniture market, deep in one of the Muslim quarters called Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market), the source of the Shisham and brass inlaid card table. On first going there I was surprised to see that there was a lot of early furniture. It was not the heavily carved early Victorian kind you see so much of in India, but classic revival in style - distant cousins of the furniture you find in plantation houses in the American South, and like that, made of rosewood, and solid, not veneered. I liked this very much. Ismail would bargain for me with the shopkeeper, while in the back, workmen could be seen busily scraping the original finish off the oldest and best pieces with knives, stripping them down to the raw wood. This was years before the present trade in old (and reproduction) nineteenth-century Indian furniture got going, years too, when prices in Chor Bazaar were very low.
In amongst all this furniture, and like it, dusty from the road alongside, all sorts of old export china were displayed: plates and platters, bowls and teapots, in the patterns once popular in India and Persia. Overhead hung glass chandeliers in red and green, with matching prisms and tall shades for candles. To send such things to America then was next to impossible. Ismail soon began buying porcelains and silver. Much of this had originally come from the mansions of rich Parsees which were being pulled down in order to build apartment towers on Malabar Hill, at a time in India when only foreigners treasured Victorian things. When we came home with big hallmarked George IV serving spoons and showed them to his mother and grown-up sisters, they looked at him unbelievingly: 'Why is Baba bringing home these old British things?'
There are civilizations like the Egyptian, the Greek and Roman, the Chinese, which preferred to sit upright on chairs. There are others, equally ancient, which preferred to curl up on cushions piled on carpets and mats spread on the floor. India is one of these, so is Persia, and in its own way, Japan. So when Ismail began to furnish his quarters in India with uncomfortable, straight-backed chairs, his family did not much support his new enthusiasm. They preferred their low takht, a platform covered with sheets and piled with white bolsters on which one can nap, sleep, take tea, fight, do business, and talk comfortably on a cell phone. As it turned out, the antique chairs were for the few foreigners who couldn't bring themselves to sprawl on a takht. Ismail himself was always the most at home there.
When Merchant Ivory began spending more time in England in the early 1980s, Portobello Market replaced the Chor Bazaar as a place to shop. It was there he started buying antique Kashmir shawls. By then these were virtually unobtainable in India. The violent climate and every kind of insect bred of that had destroyed almost everything long ago. But for a couple of centuries English families with ties to India had carefully put things away, and now they were coming out of storage and into the stalls of the Portobello Market. In time Ismail began to buy shawls at auction in London, not to wear, but just to have, or on occasion to present: to some great maestro of Indian classical music for instance, who might wear this gift while playing in concert.
Ismail always claimed to be descended from Pathan raiders. Whether that was true or not, his acquisitions were all highly portable: valuables that could be gathered up in minutes. - Carpets and costly shawls and tent hangings, silver, rugs, miniatures, jewelry of course. He could not pass a jeweler's anywhere in the world without pausing to look into the window closely. He did not buy it for himself; he wore no jewelry except a watch, but to dispense to the many women in his family and sometimes to friends. He made an exception for the jeweled buttons, set with diamonds or emeralds, that he wore on his sherwanis at film festivals, and which, too often, he forgot to remove when he sent such coats to the cleaners. Or when he forgot them in a suitcase in the back of a taxi, so that they had to be replaced the next time he went to a city like Jaipur.
Over the more than forty years of our association Ismail's various collections grew. Often he did not tell me that he had bought something; it would just appear one day. When he did tell me, he rarely mentioned the price. If I asked, he would make it sound as if it had been nothing at all, or on other occasions he would inflate it ten times. So I was rather astonished when recently, with the help of Christie's experts, the contents of the London and Paris apartments were all tallied up. And unworthily, I looked more closely at certain objects, about which I had shown little curiosity until then, wondering. He had paid all that for such and such? (Then why did he yell at me for paying whatever I had to pay in order to get something I wanted?) We look at things in our homes for years without really seeing them I think, without taking the time to imagine, to probe what it was our partners or our parents saw in these long familiar objects, which often possess unnoticed qualities and style. It was sometimes that way with me, I'm sorry to say, I who have always prided myself on how deeply and, I thought, intuitively, I appraised the valued possessions of this world, both mine and others'. But the range of my taste had often been narrow; I had sometimes judged Ismail's acquisitions dimly, too hurriedly. And as a fellow collector had not encouraged him to express his enthusiasms, explain his choices, exult in the particular beauties that had attracted him and caused him to shell out quite a lot of money sometimes. An example of this is the 18th-century figure of Garuda. One day it turned up in Orchard Court in London a bit like an orphaned child, I suppose. I must have scarcely looked at it. That is because I've never much liked Indian sculpture depicting deities that are half-human, half-animal. But over time the touching, the very human, the very vulnerable expression on the creature's face slowly revealed itself to me, along with the sturdy, muscular, and charming pose of the child deity's body. But by then the history of the piece had been lost and along with it the opportunity to congratulate Ismail on this acquisition, which I now see was unique, a precious thing.
THE LENS OF AN ASSURED EYE: THE ISMAIL MERCHANT COLLECTION.
For Indians such as myself the films of Ismail Merchant opened up a world far beyond the cinematic adventures of our favourite Bollywood movies. Instead of predictable blood rivalries, antipathetic mothers-in-law and forbidden marriages, we tasted a diet of subtle flavours, universal themes explored through obscure characters in very particular circumstances: an art dealer hoping to acquire miniature paintings from a maharaja and his sister, a nostalgic Indian princess living in a London flat, a hopeful English woman visiting India who falls in love with an Indian film star and a memsahib who loses her heart to a raja. The dialogue between India and the West ran as a common thread through these films, which articulated the mutual fascination between the two cultures through personal perspectives. For myself, the works of Merchant Ivory resonated deeply, evoking an interest in the encounter between Britain and India that went on to inspire my own academic interests. The visions of India conjured up in these films were matched by those which Ismail Merchant and James Ivory set in the West, creating moments of beauty unequalled in the history of cinema, of Lucy Honeychurch in a field of barley or of the first hot-air balloon rising over Versailles.
The diversity of Ismail Merchant's Collection encapsulates his artistic vision. From the fine gilt-heightened detail on the bullock-drawn carriage of Prince Mirza Babur delineated by a Fraser Album artist circa 1815, to the bold and monumental composition, recorded on a grand historical scale in August Schoefft's 'Thugs of India', we find again this dialogue between cultures. A Shisham card table with intricate brass inlay purchased from the Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, and the hot colours of Kashmiri shawls cross shores and sit alongside a fine pair of 18th-century Italian mirrors formerly in the collection of Paramount Pictures and French Empire candelabra similar to a pair in Malmaison. Once housed in his London, New York and Parisian homes, many of the pieces graced the hallowed halls of cinema history by appearing as stars in their own right as props or interior decoration in films such as Heat and Dust,The Golden Bowl,Surviving Picasso and Howards End.
The Collection incorporates works of art distilled and directed by the lens of an assured eye and brought together from around the globe.
Dr Amin Jaffer.