SRINAGAR: American auctioneer, Sotheby sold a copy of the nineteenth century Quran written by a Kashmiri artist for more than Rs 1.29 crore (137500 British pounds). This is perhaps the highest ever sale of a rare copy of the Quran that fetched such a huge price.
The sale took place in October 2019, when Kashmir was passing through the communicate blockade. Though the price was too huge that it was perhaps impossible for a Kashmiri private collector to make a bid but the crisis was that nobody knew that such a major auction involving Kashmir’s glorious calligraphic tradition was on sale.
“This Qur’an is one of the finest manuscripts produced in Kashmir in the first half of the nineteenth century,” the auctioneer’s note reads. “Not only does it bear the names of two scribes who have been involved in copying it, but also the names of the binder and the patron. Dated Qur’an’s from Kashmir are rare, especially if decorated with such lavish illumination.”
Explaining the rare find, the Sotheby’s said that on f.534a, Muhammad Hasan has signed as the copyist of the Qur’an and Muhammad Isma’il as the copyist of the tafsir in the margins of the manuscript. “Each lacquer plate of the binding is finely decorated with a central panel with interlacing flower scrolls and plants, among which there is the signature of Aziz Mughul,” it said. “The name of the patron as well as the date 1246 AH/1831 AD are written in black along the outer border. It is interesting to note that along with his name, Muhammad Isma’il, the patron is named Tajir al-Isfahani (a merchant from Isfahan).”
It informs further that as a matter of tradition, Kashmiri Qur’ans are usually not signed and can be quite formulaic in their layout and decoration. But this copy was extensively and finely illuminated and must have been a commission by a Persian merchant who was resident in Kashmir in 1831.
The catalogue note further informs that when in 1831 the particular copy of the Qur’an was being copied, French traveller, Victor Jacquemont was in Kashmir. In his writing, Jacquemont has recorded that Kashmir “was a big centre for the production of the manuscripts” and there were “between seven and eight hundred copyists in the region”.
The auctioneer further said that a comparable copy of the Qur’an, although lacking both a date and the name of the scribe, was sold at Christie’s London, on October 6, 2011.
Hakim Sameer Hamadani, who has done his doctorate on Islamic architecture said that copying seemingly has been commissioned by the Iranian merchant Muhammad Ismail and who apparently has written the “tafsir on the margins of this mushaf”. For most of the last three centuries,
Iranian, Georgian and Armenian merchants involved in the lucrative Pashmina shawl trade were operating from Srinagar. “A graveyard in Hassanabad area was known as Iranian or musafir mazzar, where some of these Iranian merchants are buried,” he said.
Deciphering the Sotheby details, Hamadani, who is the Design Director at the INTACH Kashmir, said while Muhammad Hassan has been the calligrapher of the scripture, the naqashi (painted lacquered) binding has been done by a naqash, Aziz Mughal. “This is probably the oldest reference we have in Kashmir to a papier mache (naqashi) artist,” Hamadani said. “Even today in Srinagar, we find a few papier mache artists belonging to the Mughal (Mughalu) family who live in a mohalla which also goes by their family name: Mughal mohalla.”
Using Twitter to explain the binding of the rare copy of the Qur’an, Hamadani explains that the naqashi on the book cover is broadly based on two interlinked motifs: Gul-i Vilayat (the Persian/English flower) and Gul ander Gul (flower within a flower).
“The Gul-i Vilayat depicts rose along with a realistic representation of thorn, leaves and stem and is generally said to be inspired by English (or European models),” he wrote. “The Gul ander Gul is a more traditional representation of the Kashmiri rose – as a floral scroll, sometimes intermixed with a variety of other flowers like carnation, narcissus etc.” He sees the smaller margin of the copy as that of khatai-posh (aster).
“What can also be seen on the main margin is the presence of two paisley motifs on either side. Kashmiri artisan refers to it as badamdar (almond-shaped), given that in Kashmir the motif is believed to originate from a highly stylized version of almond (or some would say cypress),” according to Hamadani. “Badam is also a motif widely employed in Kashmiri Pashmina shawls, a reason why some refer to badamdar as shawl tarah (the shawl design).”
Traditionally, Hamadani wrote, most Kashmiri Quran mushaffs are written in naskh with the surah headings in thuluth. Sometimes, however, manuscripts also include Persian translation or commentary in nastaliq.
Studying the images of the rare copy of the Qur’an, Hamadani said that the pages are illuminating by incorporating text in a central medallion-like feature with quarter medallions at the corner is a technique known as chand dar (moon-style) which was employed in shawl designs up till mid-nineteenth century. “The overall dominant colour scheme in these illuminated Qurans is of blue, defined by red, golden and green colour. Generally, the Quran from Kashmir would be written in black ink, with the subtext (translation/tafsir) in red ink. We also have extant manuscripts written in saffron,” he said.
The manuscript is written on Kashmir paper, has 544 leaves plus 3 fly-leaves. There are 24 lines on every page, written in naskh in black ink within clouds against a gold ground, the Persian interlinear in red nastaliq, ruled in blue and gold, verses separated by gold roundels, surah headings in blue thuluth against a gold ground within a cartouche, the margins dense with commentaries in nastaliq within clouds against a gold ground.