Ten South Asian Treasures of the British Library

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Antonia Moon, John Falconer, Layli Uddin, Malini Roy, Nur Sobers-Kjan and Ursula Sims-Williams, introduced by Jamie Andrews

The British Library holds some of the world’s finest South Asian collections, across an extraordinary range of art forms, eras, languages and geographies. The collections include paintings, miniatures, drawings, over 80,000 manuscripts covering everything from history and poetry to medicine and religion, the writings and papers of diplomats, travellers and administrators, outstanding photography, some 600,000 printed books and periodicals, countless recordings and much more.

In a comprehensive session hosted by Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning at the British Library, six British Library curators gave an insight into the richness of the archives, highlighting 10 iconic treasures in the collection. Some of the treasures selected can currently be seen on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery, and others are online as part of the British Library’s digitised archive.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian and Turkic collections, led with a selection of the first 4 Treasures. Treasures 1, 2 & 3 were Zoroastrian riches, drawn from an exhibition held last year at the National Museum in Delhi in a joint NMD and British Library partnership. They included a 9th century prayer manuscript and a 17th century law book. Treasure 4 was Abu’l Fazl Bin Mubarak’s Akbarnama, a lavishly illustrated historical manuscript featuring 65 miniatures.
Layli Uddin, Project Curator of Two Centuries of Indian Print from mid 19th century onwards, selected Treasure 5. The British Library has an ambitious remit to digitise its south Asian collection of early printed books. This collection covers a range of subjects, from romance to law, animal biographies, poetry, stories and tales of love and war, sometimes lacking exciting pictures but always rare and often unique. Treasure 5 was a highlight and personal favourite: an early railway guide offering etiquette for railway travel as well as timetables and fares.
Joh Falconer, Lead Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photography Collections, announced that Treasure 6 was drawn from photographs from the East India Company. Dating back to the mid 1850s, this collection brings together commercial and private records to present a wide, diverse picture of the British company that became the force behind the British Empire in India. Highlights include The Lucknow Album, a resonant photographic record of the 1857/8 uprising, along with photographs of court figures and dignitaries.

Malini Roy, Curator of the British Library Mughal Empire Exhibition, chose the Dara Shiloh albums, paintings and calligraphy as Treasure 7. Treasure 8 was the beautifully colourful, Gentil Atlas album with its maps of the Moghul Empire.
Antonia Moon, Lead Curator India Office Records, designated the India Office records (the whole collection stretches for 14kms) as Treasure 9. This is an unparalleled collection, from log book recordings of voyages taken by company ships, political and military maps, to moving WW1 letters home from Indian soldiers on the Western Front. This vast and wonderful collection is being digitised and due to be online next year.
Nur Sobers-Kjan, Lead Curator of the South Asia Department, described Treasure 10 as a history of a love story and a spiritual quest. The Pem Nem is an Urdu manuscript dating back to the late 16th century, and rumour has it that the first letters of this romantic correspondence were delivered between the lovers by tortoise. A unique text, there is nothing else by this author in the British Library collection.

– By Paula Van Hagen

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