Simon Digby, Historian

Via Naim Sahib comes the sad news that Simon Digby, 79, passed away in Delhi. Anyone who has touched any scholarly/popular work on medieval to colonial India – esp. aspects of religion and art – has seen the fruits of his amazing intellect reflected in those works.

I will try and find a full biography but let me note the following from on-line sources:

SIMON DIGBY is a former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and a former assistant keeper in the Department of Eastern Art, the Ashmolean Museum. He continues to serve as honorary Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, a position he has held since 1971. The foremost British scholar of pre-Mughal India, he has written numerous foundational essays on Indo-Persian Sufism as well as contributing to The Cambridge Economic History of India, volume 1.

In 1919 the Royal Asiatic Society established a formal lecture in the name of Sir Richard Burton, the British traveller, scholar and translator. In 1923 it decided to bestow a medal upon the lecturer. The recipient of the medal is required to have been not just a dry-as-dust scholar but someone who has actually engaged, as Burton did, with Asian societies in the field. Among recipients of the medal have been St John Philby and Freya Stark, both renowned for their Arabian explorations, and more recently W.G. Archer, the Indian Civil Servant who collected Indian village songs and tribal art as well as introducing courtly traditions in the visual arts to the general public, and David Snellgrove, the scholar-traveller in the Hindu-Buddhist worlds of South and Southeast Asia. In 1999 Simon Digby, the scholar of Indian Sufism, was the Burton lecturer.

And his list of publications.

A great loss.

update: More details on his life and times appear in Indian Express: After a lifetime loving India, historian Digby breathes his last: in Delhi (pdf). He was truly the last great orientalist (it is high time to reclaim that word from Said).

update 2: My thanks to Prof. Shahid Amin for sending in the photograph/pdf from Indian Express.

update 3: Photograph from Indian Express, Jan 15th.

update 4: An obit in Telegraph India by Rudrangshu:
Mukherjee: “Simon was one of the last of the truly amateur scholars.”

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17 thoughts on “Simon Digby, Historian”

  1. Sad News, remembered reading his ‘War-horse and Elephant’ as a grad student and enjoyed his essays on religion in the Deccan.

  2. Sad news indeed. He could walk into a monument in Delhi and date it by the rhetoric of its Persian inscriptions and put scholars everywhere in awe of himself by his knowledge of sources in Persian, Hindi, Urdu and Nepali. He must be one of the last of those Brits who “stayed on” in India. Well, almost.

  3. He was an original. We are diminished by his passing and shall not see his like again. He was born in India and now he has died there. He preferred being in India to being anywhere else. According to his friend Richard Harris, he will be cremated tomorrow or Thursday and as he requested his ashes will be “immersed in the flowing water of a river”. The world won’t be the same without him.

  4. It has been confirmed that Simon’s mortal remains are to be cremated at the Lodhi Road Electric Crematorium at 12 noon IST on Thursday January 14. The ashes will be immersed on the same day.

  5. i was at his funeral in delhi. an eminently well attended affair, which in its own way reflected the eclectic diversity of simon digby’s passions and friendships.

    he was truly the last great orientalist, a word which really does need to be reclaimed.

  6. I just wanted to add a few thoughts of my own on Simon Digby. I got to know him some time in the late 1980s or about 1990 in Delhi. I think it was initially through Muzaffar, since he used to visit Muzaffar and Rizwana regularly in Dakshinapuram. I remember having a discussion on Mutribi Samarqandi’s text with him, and Simon’s extempore recitation of Persian verses on the subject of khatt-i-sabz (“down just appearing upon the cheek”), a subject that features in Mutribi’s encounters with Jahangir. Simon was of course a marvelous eccentric. He collected material over a very curious range of subjects and had the most amazing memory. David Shulman recalls (as a Ph.D. student at SOAS) being guided by him over the premises of the Royal Asiatic Society and being given the most precise explanations of every conceivable object, nook and cranny. He also collected objects, manuscripts, pan-holders and so on. I never visited him in Jersey, but Muzaffar (who has) remembers the dazzling array of objects as well as the fact that he began each morning listening to qawwali and bhajans.

    We once went on a trip to Senji fort in Tamilnadu – David, Narayana Rao, Simon and I – in January 1997 while on our way from Chennai to a conference in Pondicherry (where he presented his great paper on Lodi-period historiography). By the time we got to the fort, it was almost dusk and the chowkidars warned us to be careful. But Simon scuttled off with his stout walking stick and we could hardly keep up with him. All of a sudden, he disappeared from sight and there was a loud crash. Simon had fallen into an underground granary. The distressed chowkidars shone their torches down and there he was, sitting up and blinking at the bottom of the treacherous stairs. “Mein bilkul thik hun”, he insisted, refusing to acknowledge that they only spoke Tamil in those parts. And off he was a few minutes later. I have a very funny photograph from that visit that shows him peeking out mischievously from behind a temple pillar between Narayana Rao and me.

    In the late 1990s, we spoke briefly of collaborating on travel accounts, which Muzaffar and I were also working on by then. But eventually that turned out not to be feasible. Simon wanted to publish annotated translations and we were after something else. Eventually, we decided on a sort of division of labour. One of the last offprints he sent me was his translation of the Hajj sections of Bayazid Beg’s account from the late sixteenth century. He was going to publish his translation of Azfari’s travels, and so we decided to stay with the sections of the Waqiat-i-Azfari having to do with Delhi and Lucknow.

    Simon had an acute sense that there were very few people in the British academy who shared his interest in Persian and vernacular materials for historical (rather than purely literary) purposes. By the 1960s, almost everyone there in history was working exclusively on English-language materials. He could really find kindred spirits there only amongst the art-historians. This was one of the reasons – besides a common interest in Aurangabad – that he took greatly to Nile Green and kept in touch with him in recent years. He therefore gravitated from the late 60s to people elsewhere, Marc Gaborieau in Paris, Yohanan Friedmann in Jerusalem, John Richards and others in the US. In India, he was for a time close to Iqtidar Alam Khan to whom he dedicated his ‘Warhorse and Elephant’ (if I am not mistaken). It was his only full-fledged attempt at a monograph so far as I know. His preferred mode of expression was the essay, and he also liked to return to his essays, and polish them, once, twice and thrice. He had done extensive revisions to his Dattu Sarvani articles from the mid 1960s, amongst a whole host of other things by him that await publication. I hope his many friends – Shahid Amin, Muzaffar Alam, Sunil Kumar, and so many others – will collaborate to bring these out.

    Just some thoughts. I think Shahid and others will write at greater length.

  7. Professor SIMON DIGBY
    born in Jabalpur MP on 17/10/1932
    Passed away in Delhi on 10/01/2010

    He sent me this bibliography some time ago. Have there been any articles or publications since 2001? I agree with Anand about the reclamation of the word ‘orientalist’. How else can you describe a man with such a range of knowledge?

    Select Bibliography

    1 Sufis and Soldiers in Awrangzeb’s Deccan, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2001.

    2 Wonder Tales of South Asia, Jersey, Orient Monographs, 2000.

    3 War-Horse and Elephant in the Dehli Sultanate, Oxford, Orient Monographs, 1971.

    4 Toy Soldiers and Ceremonial in Post-Mughal India, Oxford, The Ashmolean Museum, 1982 (with James Harle)

    5 The Royal Asiatic Society : its History and Treasures, Leyden and London 1979. (edited with Stuart Simmonds)

    Contributions to standard works:
    Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition:
    Humayun
    Isfahsalar in India
    Kafur, Malik
    Salar Mas’ud

    The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. I, ed. Raychaudhuri and Habib, Cambridge 1982:
    Pt I, Ch.III, 1. Economic Conditions before 1200, pp. 45-7.
    Ch. III, 4. The Currency System (1200-1500, pp. 93-101.
    Ch. V. The Maritime Trade of India (1200-1500),pp. 125-59.

    ARTICLES

    The Indo-Persian Historiography of the Lodi Sultans, F. Grimal, ed., Les sources et le temps, Pondichéry, Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient, 2001, pp. 243-61.

    Beyond the Ocean: Perceptions of Overseas in Indo-Persian Sources of the Mughal Period, Studies in History, New Delhi, 1999, 15.2, n.s., pp. 247-59.

    Before the Babas came to India : a Reconstruction of the Earlier Lives of Baba Sa’id Palangposh and Baba Musafir in “Wilayat”, Iran XXXVI, London 1998, pp. 139-64.

    Tulsipur Fair,or the Boy Missionary : a Model for Kipling’s, Kim, Indian International Centre Quarterly, New Delhi, Spring 1998, pp. 106-25.

    Travels in Ladakh 1820-21 : the Account of Moorcroft’s Munshi, Hajji Sayyid Najaf ‘Ali, of his Travels, Asian Affairs, London, XXIX, Pt III, Oct. 1998, pp. 299-311.

    From Ladakh to Lahore in 1820-1821 : the Account of a Kashmiri Traveller, Journal of Central Asian Studies, Srinagar, 1997, 8,1, pp. 3-27.

    Illustrated Books of Omens from Gujarat or Rajasthan, ed. J. Guy, Indian Art and Connoiseurship : Essays in Honour of Douglas Barrett, Delhi 1996?, pp. 343-360.

    The Arabian and Gulf Horse inMedieval India, Furusiyya I, Riyadh, pp. 162-7.

    Anecdotes of a Provincial Sufi of the Dehli Sultanate, Khwaja Gurg of Kara, Iran XXXII, London 1994, pp. 99-109.

    To ride a Tiger or a Wall ? Strategies of Prestige in Indian Sufi Legend, Callewaert and Snell, ed., According to Tradition. Wiesbaden 1994, pp. 99-129.

    Some Asian Wanderers in Seventeenth Century India, Studies in History, 9, 2, n.s., New Delhi, 1993, pp. 247_64.

    The Mother-of-Pearl Overlaid Furniture of Gujarat : an Indian Handicraft of the 16th and 17th Centuries, in Skelton et al., ed., Facets of Indian Art, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992, pp. 213-22.

    Flower-Teeth and the Bickford Censer : the Identification of a Ninth-Century Kashmiri Bronze, South Asian Studies 7, 1991, pp. 37-44.

    The Sufi Shaykh and the Sultan : a Conflict of Claims of Authority, Iran XXVIII, London 1990, pp. 71-81.

    The Naqshbandis in the Deccan in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century A.D.: Bâbâ Palangposh, Bâbâ Musâfir and their Adherents, Naqshbandis, cheminement et situation, Istanbul/Paris 1990, pp. 167-207.

    Hawk and Dove in Sufi Combat, Pembroke Papers, Cambridge, 1990, I, pp. 7-25.

    An Eighteenth Century Narrative of a Journey from Bengal to England : Munshi Isma’il’s New History, Shackle, ed., Urdu and Muslim South Asia : Studies in Honour of Ralph Russell, London, SOAS, 1989, pp. 49-66.

    The Sufi Shaykh as a Source of Authority in Medieval India, Purusartha 9, Paris, 1986, pp. 57-77.

    Tabarrukat and Succession among the Great Chishti Shaykhs of the Dehli Sultanate, Frykenberg, ed., Delhi through the Ages, Delhi 1986, pp. 62-103.

    When did the Sun Temple fall down? [written with J.C.Harle], South Asian Studies, 1985, I, pp. 1-7.

    The Tuhfa i nasa’ih of Yusuf Gada : An Ethical Treatise in Verse from the Late-Fourteenth-Century Dehli Sultanate, ed. Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority : the Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, Berkeley, California 1984, pp. 91-123.

    Qalandars and Related Groups : Elements of Social Deviance in the Religious Life of the Delhi Sultanate of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Friedmann, ed., Islam in Asia, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 60-108.

    Coinage in the Reign of Sultan Feroz Tughluq _ a Literary Reference, Numismatic Digest, Bombay Dec. 1980, IV, Pt II, pp. 26-31.

    Early Pilgrimages to the Graves of Mu’in al-Din Sijzi and other Indian Chishti Shaykhs, Israel and Wagle ed., Islamic Society and Culture : Essays in Honour of Professor Aziz Ahmad, New Delhi 1983, pp. 95-100.

    The Broach Coin-Hoard as Evidence of the Import of Valuta across the Arabian Sea during the 13th and 14th Centuries, JRAS, London, 1980, 2, pp. 129-38.

    Muhammad bin Tughluq’s Last Years in Kathiawad and His Invasions of Thattha, Hamdard Islamicus, II, 1, Karachi 1979, pp. 79-88; reprinted in H. Khuhro, ed., Sind through the Centuries, Karachi, OUP, 1981, pp. 130-38.

    Popular Mughal Illustrations of Omens, in [Falk and Digby], Paintings from Mughal India, London, Colnaghi, 1979,pp. 13-19.

    A Shah-nama Illustrated in a Popular Mughal Style, Simmonds and Digby, ed., The Royal Asiatic Society : its History and Treasures, London 1979, pp. 111-15.

    The Tomb of Buhlul Lodi, BSOAS, London, XXXVIII, 3, 1975, pp. 550-61.

    ‘Abd al-Quddus Gangohi (1456-1537 A.D.) : the Personality and Attitudes of a Medieval Indian Sufi Shaykh, Medieval India : a Miscellany, III, Aligarh 1975, pp. 1-66.

    The Waterseller’s Pilgrimage, Lycidas 3, Oxford 1975, pp. 20-21.

    A Qur’an from the East African Coast, [Art and Archaeology Research Papers], London, 1974?, pp. 50-55.

    More Historic Kashmir Metalwork?, Iran XII, London 1974, pp. 181-5.

    The Bhugola of Ksema Karna : a Dated Sixteenth Century Piece of Indian Metalware, AARP [Art and Archaeology Research Papers], London, December 1973, pp. 10-31.

    The Fate of Daniyal, Prince of Bengal, in the Light of an Unpublished Inscription, BSOAS, XXXVI, 3, 1973, pp. 588-602.

    A Corpus of ‘Mughal’ Glass, BSOAS, XXXVI, 1, 1973, pp. 80-88.

    The Coinage and Metrology of the Later Jams of Sind, JRAS, 1972, pp. 125-34.

    A Medieval Kashmiri Bronze Vase, [Art and Archaeology Research Papers], London, December 1972, pp….

    Anecdotes of Jogis in Sufi Hagiography, Proceedings of the Seminar on Aspects of Religion in South Asia, cyclostyle, London 1970.

    Iletmish or Iltutmish? A Reconsideration of the Name of the Dehli Sultan, Iran, VIII, 1970, pp. 57-64.

    The Literary Evidence for Painting in the Delhi Sultanate, Bulletin of the American Academy of Benares, I, 1967, pp. 47-58.

    Dreams and Reminiscences of Dattu Sarvani, a Sixteenth Century Indo-Afghan Soldier, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1965, II, 1, pp. 52-80; II, pp. 178-94.

    Pir Hasan Shah and the History of Kashmir, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1964, I, 3, pp. 3-7.

    A Seventeenth Century Indo-Portuguese Writing Cabinet, Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay,, 8, 1962-64, pp. 23-8.

    Saki Nama : A Poem by Hafiz translated into English by Simon Digby, Thought, New Delhi December 27 1958, p. 13.

    Some Notes towards the Classification of Muslim Copper and Brass Work in the Museum, Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, 1955-1957, No. 5, pp. 15-23.

  8. I met Simon on a train going from Pakistan to Iran in 1965 and we both watched the goings on every time the train was stopped for ‘inspections’ by various ‘authorities’. He explained that the ‘authorities’ were selling the clothing back to those who were wearing more than they needed. Apparently they were taking the clothes to Iran to sell for a profit and the ‘inspections’ were in fact a local and unofficial tax’.
    Upon arrival in Esfahan we spent some time going around the historic buildings and he translated old old old bits of engraving here and there. I was impressed – so much so that I began to learn classical Greek a few months later in Greece. (eventually an A level)

  9. I first met Simon when I was an undergraduate student at the Chelsea School of Art in the early 1970’s. Despite our moving in completely different worlds he became and remained a dear and treasured friend. He could be as exasperating as anyone I have ever met, but he was always generous to a fault and excelent company. I miss him greatly.

  10. I got to know Simon when he was in his last year at Trinity Cambridge where he was reading history. He told me that his tutor told him that he had a chance of getting a first class honours degree if he stopped “messing about learning Arabic.” Simon paid no attention to his tutor and continued with his Arabic. When Simon got his first class degree in history his turor was so angry that he cut him when he passed him in the street.
    I knew little of his academic side but he was a wonderful friend. He was an affectionate and amusing friend and the most unselfish person I have even known. I shall miss that braying voice and his extraordinary laughter. He used to stay sometimes with us in London, always bringing an original and fascinating present such as a little silver box with a cabochon amethyst on the lid or a Russian wooden box with unused Victorian stamps and an ancient ‘thruppenny’ bus ticket. He was the only Englishman I knew who noticed any jewellery one was wearing. And he made the best duck pilaf I have ever eaten. Once I asked his advice for buying a carpet. Instead of overwhelming me with art-historiacl details he said typically: “It’s very easy to choose a good carpet; if you like it you’ll get it right.”

  11. I lived in Simon’s home on Burchington Rd, London for about 2 years from 1977 – 1979. I was responsible for taking care of Simon’s rooftop appartment. I lived downstairs. I throughly enjoyed spending time in Simon’s apartment, looking through all the wonderful books, manuiscripts, and enjoying the wonderful art he had around the apartment. Simon travelled allot and I took care of his mail while he was away. He called me one day and asked me to look for a book that was somewhere in his living room, I found the book on the floor by the telephone. Simon called me back to see if I had found the book, I told him I had and he told me that someone would call me and arrange to pick it up. A few day’s later the book was picked-up by a very well dressed woman in a very fancy car. When Simon returned a month or so later he told me the story about the book. I loved Simons stories and enjoyed when he had friends visit. I also made a trip to Jersey and visited him in the house owned at that time by his aunt. The visit to his aunts house was majicial, a wonderful day. I was so sad to read of Simon’s death today. However, I was glad to know that Simon had known for such a short time that he was ill. I know how much he loved India and hope that he is at peace. thanks for the memories Simon. Lorcan G. Brogan

  12. A great man and lover of art, men and women, about whom it can be said “avulsus a latere nobis, tamquam impedimento conjugii, cum qua cubare solitus eram, cor ubi adhaerebat, concisum et vulneratum mihi erat, et trahebat sanguinem.”

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