On the second storey of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad is a statue that will stop you dead in your tracks. Standing nonchalantly on a polished dark pedestal is the life-size figure of a man in a hooded cloak, wearing a defiant smile.
Gaze at his reflection in the mirror behind him and the image of a demure woman, eyes lowered, prayer book in hand, looks back at you.
Behind the visual trickery is a far deeper dichotomy – embodied in this arresting sculpture is a metaphor for the forces of evil and good. Carved out of a single log of Sycamore wood, this ‘Double Statue’ is one of the most photographed exhibits at the Salar Jung Museum. And it’s not just the beautiful craftsmanship that makes it special.
Sculpted in the 19th century by an unknown French artist, the statue – hold your breath – is linked to a ‘pact with the devil’.
Also called ‘Mephistopheles-Margaretta’, this statue with back-to-back figures of a man and a woman is based on two characters from one of the most popular stories of 19th century Europe – Faust, by German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). A tragic play, Goethe’s Faust was published in two parts – Part One in 1808 and Part Two in 1832.
The play became such a hit in Europe and America that it introduced phrases like ‘Faustian bargain’, ‘Faustian pact with the devil’ and ‘pact with the devil’ into popular lexicon. The two figures in the Double Statue – Mephistopheles and Margaretta – are characters in this play.
Faust is a story of a highly successful man named Faust, who is dissatisfied with his life. In Part One, through a devil’s agent named Mephistopheles, Faust makes a pact with the devil, signed in his blood, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. He seduces an innocent girl named Margaretta, with whom he has a child out of wedlock. Overcome by shame, Margaretta drowns the child and goes to jail. Faust tries to help her escape but she refuses to be saved. In Part Two, which Goethe finished in 1831, Faust through his good deeds, achieves redemption and reaches Heaven, where he is reunited with Margaretta.
Cut to the 1870s, when there was a sudden surge of interest in German culture, literature and art following the unification of Germany under Otto Von Bismark. It was around this time that this statue was created by an unknown French sculptor. In 1876, it caught the attention of Nawab Mir Turab Ali Khan (Salar Jung I), who was on a trip to Europe at the time. Mir Turab Ali Khan was the then Prime Minister to the Nizam of Hyderabad and grandfather of the man responsible for the Salar Jung Museum’s fabulous collection, Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan, or Salar Jung III.
The Double Statue was acquired by Mir Turab Ali Khan in 1876 in France, and it was one of the earliest exhibits in the Salar Jung collection. During his European trip, Mir Turab Ali Khan also purchased another extraordinary statue, the marble sculpture called ‘Veiled Rebecca’, which he acquired in Rome. This sculpture too is one of the museum’s most popular attractions.
When the Double Statue arrived in Hyderabad, it was originally displayed at the Ainakhana or Hall of Mirrors, which served as the main reception room of the Dewan Deori, the Salar Jung Palace in Hyderabad, where it remained till 1949.
Mir Turab Ali Khan’s grandson, Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan (1889 – 1949), was a great collector of art and antiquities.
In his lifetime, he collected more than 50,000 objects of art and antiquities, where he kept in his palace, the Diwan Deori. Following the death of Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan in 1949, the Government of India decided to set up a museum to display his collection at the Dewan Deori Palace. This was the first home of the Salar Jung Museum, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru on 16th December, 1951. The museum shifted to its current premises in 1968.
The Double Statue is a riveting piece of work, its intricate craftsmanship more than worthy of the attention it draws. So the next time you’re in Hyderabad, remember to keep your date with the devil. Succumbing to temptation may not be a bad idea, after all.
Cover image and inputs from Salar Jung Museum