Finders Keepers

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A glimpse into the minds, habits and tics of those who keep for keepsake

In 1917, Yusuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III, the melancholic prince of Hyderabad, slid into depression after losing the prime ministership of the Nizamdom. The family physician, Dr Hunt, sent in by a concerned mother, suggested that he take up a hobby—perhaps collecting artworks, as Europeans did to save themselves boredom. The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad bears testimony to how seriously the depressed royal took his doctor’s advice. Known to be one of the largest private collections in the world—including artworks, curios, metal ware, textiles and rare manuscripts, among thousands of other objects—it was once housed at the now decrepit Dewan Devdi, the doors of which were always open to antiquarians, art dealers, booksellers, jewellers and others with curious things to offer.

Why do people collect things? What motivates them? What explains the need to collect and possess, hoard and arrange, guard and display such stuff, and that too with a passion that borders on the obsessive all so often?

The philosopher-writer-critic Walter Benjamin, a lover of books, explored the equation between collectors and objects in his writings, particularly in Illuminations. Describing the relationship as ‘a most profound enchantment’, he characterises the associated feelings as childlike and ‘not born out of greed or covetousness’. Often quoted in such studies, Benjamin says, ‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.’

Dr Suresh Chandvankar, a physicist with Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and a collector of audio recordings and machines, ascribes it to an ‘inner passion’. He traces it back to his primary school years, when he was “fascinated with the object that emanated sound when the turntable, sound box and needle were in motion; and sound stopped when these objects were motionless”. As honorary secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, Dr Chandvankar has an abiding interest in preservation (and some archiving as well). Each object, he maintains, has its own narrative of acquisition and preservation, and a collector’s link to a particular object can be highly personal, often mystifying to others.

That childhood fascinations tend to express themselves in such ways is widely corroborated. Think of security blankets. The psychoanalyst Werner Muenster-berger, in Collecting: An Unruly Passion, argues that children often look for ‘a tangible object’ to deal with anxieties and fears, particularly of being left alone.  These ‘compensatory objects’, he posits, are ‘self healing attempts’, and infants then tend to ascribe magical powers to these possessions, be they dolls, toy cars, teddy bears or blankets: ‘So long as he or she can touch, hold, possess and importantly, replenish, these surrogates constitute a guarantee of emotional support.’

This act of a child (and collector) dreaming ‘his way not only into a remote or bygone world but at the same time into a better one’ is one of active imagination, a highly creative way of relating to surroundings. It is this exchange between imagined worlds and real ones that Shahid Datawala, a product designer/photographer and inveterate collector of bric-a-brac, discusses with me when I pose the question to him. While recently watching a Japanese film wherein a character remembers his father giving him a rock, Shahid recalled a beautiful stone that he had picked up as a young boy from the street during a Muharram procession in Kolkata. Sure enough, it was tucked away amid the many things Shahid collects—razors, blades, typewriters, machinery, kettles, film strips and others with an ‘inherent beauty’ and visual/sensory appeal. Confessing to some form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Shahid candidly offers that collecting is a way of “drawing attention to yourself”, a response to not getting enough attention from those around.

A collector since he was five, Shahid began with marbles, matches and stamps, much like other children his age, but it was a work project in Jodhpur over a decade ago that intensified his quest, at times bordering on a sort of mania. He readily admits to a nebulous boundary between a mere passion (‘a mildly hallucinatory state’ as Muensterberger puts it), and an intensely obsessive condition, wherein the compulsion to collect and possess is accompanied by volatile states of thrill, anxiety and sometimes disappointment at not having made a suitable acquisition or of having been cheated. Many collectors recall a ‘first object’ as the ‘fount and origin of mania’.

William Davies King, the author of Collections of Nothing, recalls boyhood troubles and his sister’s cerebral palsy as contributing factors in shaping his collector’s mindset. At the outset of the book, a misery memoir of sorts, writing of his estrangement from his wife (relieved to have ‘collecting out of her life’), he describes the things he is picking up from their marital house as ‘a singular multiplicity of diverse collections of nothing’, adding that ‘my collecting continues to be oppressive to others and myself’. Leaving behind a collection of ‘naturally sculpted beach boulders’, he ironically admits that his passionate collecting of nothing ‘sounds like a cry for help’. The ‘mysteries of desire’ are articulated in collecting, says the author, who writes evocatively of his habit of collecting broken chairs: ‘I liked their handicapped look, their pathetic failure to function: fractured legs, bombed out seats, arms akimbo, and always that headless, blank look.’

Manoj Sonalkar is a very different kind of collector. A software developer and resident of a middle-class housing society in Pune, where he lives with his parents, Manoj began collecting matchboxes from an early age. His father, then a smoker, used to bring back contributions to his young son’s collection while touring. With firestarters, triangular boxes, flip-tops, cylinder boxes and commemorative specials, Manoj has an eclectic, thematically arranged ‘mid-size’ collection of around 20,000 pieces, built up over the years, often exchanging pieces with other collectors around the world.

Far from the impassioned stereotype, Manoj represents the archetypal sensible, well-adjusted member of society who is arguably only enlivening his life with a ‘hobby’. But the collection’s significance is also reflective of a subtle cultural pride tempered with a humility that marks those who shy away from narcissism, public displays of emotion and theatricality—manifest traits in many collectors. His father collects coins and currency (which I am shown). His mother, who is locally known for her food carving skills and whose work Manoj dutifully photographs (I am shown a vegetable elephant), collects small brass and copper utensils. And his sister hoards coins with the idea of leaving a legacy for her grandchildren. Manoj’s polite, abstemious manner is reflected in yet another interesting fact—he has never struck a match from his vast collection.

The history of collecting makes a fascinating read in itself. Philipp Blom, in the engaging To Have and To Hold, takes the reader through an ‘intimate history of collectors and collecting’. Ulise Androvandi (1522–1605) of Bologna, who wished to write a complete encyclopedia of nature, wrote a 7-volume Dracologia, a ‘scientific’ Latin treatise on lizards and other reptiles. It was during this period, early Renaissance, that the studiolo began making an appearance in Italy. A custom-made chamber filled with various objects, the studiolo served as ‘a perfect combination of private study, library, museum and miniature art gallery’ reflecting the class and taste of the owner (similar to the later ‘cabinets of curiosity’). Such curiosity in naturalia was frowned upon by the Church—St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas believed it would lead the faithful astray. But interestingly, as with Androvandi, for princes, regents and the curious alike, the wondrous things of the world were there to be preserved, for, in doing so, there was a symbolic conquest of mortality. From Prince Rudolph II, the anatomist Frederik Roysch who conducted public dissections of criminals in the theatrum anatomicum (operation theatre) to collect body parts, Guilio Camilio, the only person to try collecting the world through allegorical representation, to the ‘American Eclectic’ collector-tycoon Pierpont Morgan, the author explores several extraordinary accounts in this fine book.

Pre-literate people often collected skulls (as do some Melanesians), hair, nails and other body parts. Their belief in the mysterious life force Mana, said to reside in skulls, mentioned by Blom, is also examined quite intriguingly by Muensterberger, who describes these ‘sacramental practices’ as related to a deep seated, primitive desire to ‘grasp and to hold’. Such means of relieving anxiety tend to transmute in the minds of religious believers who invest objects (relics of the Catholic Church) with divine powers. Relics then become ‘silent witnesses of eternity’.

Such fetishes of devotion are seen today in collectors of pop and cinema memorabilia. In remembrance of those past (Elvis, Princess Diana, etcetera), pop relics generate an illusory presence of contact and memory that has more than just symbolic value, as Blom explores; it is through this communion with memento mori that the devout are able to transport themselves to fictionalised worlds and thereby achieve communion with their idols.

SMM Ausaja is a film historian and prominent collector of Hindi film memorabilia. He believes there has been an institutional failure in preserving India’s popular culture, especially cinema. For him, it all began with worshipping his screen idol Amitabh Bachchan as a young boy. Replete with posters, lobby cards, journals, slides, stills, LPs and so on, his impressive collection is a lifetime’s endeavour, a shrine of sorts. Describing the sensation as a kick and the gratification as a “happiness that cannot be quantified”, Ausaja’s disposition is informed by pragmatism. One must put food on the table first, he says to me, although he admits that on occasion it is painful to say ‘no’ to a particular object because one can’t afford it.

Alok Sharma, though, a devoted fan of Indian comic books, has always thrown caution to the wind, not to mention rupee notes at used booksellers, street vendors, newspaper stands, collectors, and whoever else willing to sell him what he treasures, in his relentless pursuit. He recalls that at the age of four he had read of how Phantom uses dynamite made out of moongphali (groundnuts). Singularly intriguing, this idea fired Alok’s imagination, which was then fuelled over the years by the absence of a TV set, impermanence of residence, lack of friends and no girls on the scene. Devouring everything down to the publisher’s address, Alok confesses to an obsessive relationship with comic books. When I ask why, he responds blankly in Hindi: “There was no alternative.”

While stacking his life high with comic books, Alok started developing finer collecting attributes at a young age by following writers and illustrators. “It’s like a drug, and I was an outcaste,” he says, hoping to soon complete a documentary film on Indian comic books with a focus on their creators and fans. His Facebook status now carries obituaries and tributes to the recently deceased creator of Amar Chitra Katha comics, Anant Pai.

Collecting can lead down darker paths, both real and imagined. Allison Hoover Bartlett’s account of the ‘most successful book thief’ John Gilkey provides fascinating insights into the life and mind of a bibliomaniac recidivist. Our relationship to books can be ‘intimate, complex and sometimes dangerous’, the writer informs us, as her first encounters with Gilkey in a California prison reveal bits of his obsessive criminality. Popular Victorian images—“You know, like Sherlock Holmes,” Gilkey says, “where a gentleman has a library, wears a smoking jacket”—were the foundation for his fascination for books, which he takes to extremes in his construction of an identity. An intriguing read, including the very compelling antiquarian bookseller and detective (bibliodick) Ken Sanders who is trying to apprehend Gilkey, the book explores the book thief’s strange, illicit and psychosexual relationship to books.

From pop culture to literary representations (Nabokov, Sebald, Perec, Pamuk and others), there are many explorations of the psyches of collectors and boundaries of collecting. The ‘individual collections of the mind’, with which Borges plays metaphysical mischief, also inform our collective knowledge in this complex psychological topography. Collections are wide and eclectic, as explored by Stephen Calloway in Obsessions (with great photographs)—from Michelle Joubert’s birds and butterflies to Olaf Lenke’s antique frames. Every collection then, as Phillip Blom says, ‘is a theatre of memories, a dramatisation and a mise en scene of personal and collective pasts’.