The Eye of the (Art) Collector

Dialogues with The Good Edge is an initiative to revive the culture of the public intellectual in Mumbai, one that flourished well into the 1990s with Nani Palkhivala’s masterful budget analyses. Through these talks, we seek to bring the most erudite voices in every sphere of public life to the people, to enlighten and inform in an engaging and accessible manner, and to elevate public discourse in the city. Here, Abhishek Phadnis reflects on the first talk of the series, delivered by the distinguished British Indian cardiologist and art collector, Dr. Avijit Lahiri.

I have known few people to merit the phrase ‘Renaissance Man’ so fully as Dr. Avijit Lahiri. He manages to balance a medical CV like a telephone directory (and the headships of seemingly half of Britain’s medical foundations and research trusts), with a bohemian second life as a self-taught art historian and collector along with his remarkable wife, Dr. Bratati Lahiri. Works from the Lahiris’ collection, a labour of love some forty years in the making, have been exhibited at some of the finest galleries and museums in the world, most recently the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The Good Edge recently persuaded Dr. Lahiri, who was in Mumbai at the invitation of Christie’s for an expert session at their India Sale, to deliver a talk on the art of building a collection. The event was staged in association with the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (NGMA). A distinguished audience of artists, gallerists, art historians, filmmakers, corporates, dipAudiencelomats and art-lovers at large – among them William Robinson of Christie’s, Hugo Weihe of SaffronArt and Maithili Parekh, former director of Sotheby’s – gathered at the NGMA to listen to the veteran collector. After the talk, Ranjana Steinruecke, Director of the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, interviewed Dr. Lahiri onstage.

Dr. Lahiri’s reflections on his collection took in British watercolours, Japanese woodblock-prints, Santhal tribal art and practically the entire Bengal School, from Abanindranath Tagore to Ganesh Pyne, and three thousand years of sculptures from Mathura, Sanchi, Nalanda, Bengal, Rajasthan, Kashmir, Tibet, Burma, Indonesia and China. From the Ming Dynasty jade bowl gifted by Mao to Nehru, to the spectacular frieze that took a crane to install in the Lahiris’ living-room, to the 10th-century Avalokiteswara on which he once conducted a CT-scan (to examine its make), Dr. Lahiri spoke of the enterprise, diligence and good fortune it takes to build and maintain a collection of this scope. He credits his wife as the driving force behind the collection, and the talk came alive with photographs of the multiple homes of the Lahiri Collection in England, Cyprus and India, where exquisite paintings and antique sculptures jostle for space with the family’s everyday effects.

Dismissing criticisms of cultural appropriation, Dr. Lahiri mounted an eloquent defence of syncretism in art, one of his enduring fascinations even after forty years in the field. He spoke warmly about the influences of China, Japan and Western Europe on the Bengal School, and extolled the woodblock-prints of India by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshida. He explored the thematic similarities between the watercolours of the British artist Peter de Wint and Nandalal Bose of the Bengal School, and dwelt at length on a treasured Tibetan sculpture of a Bodhisattva Maitreya with Kashmiri influences as an exemplar of the interplay between cultures.

Dr. Lahiri

Dr. Lahiri’s dry wit peppered his observations on the idiosyncrasies of the art world. He credited his Japanese woodblock-print collection to the local food on a 1982 speaking tour of China – fleeing to Hong Kong in search of a more agreeable meal, he stumbled upon a Hollywood Street dealer who introduced him to the work of Hiroshi Yoshida. An anecdote about a fellow British collector concluded with the poker-faced observation that the unnamed gentleman, upon retirement from art circles, had “devoted his life to pharmaceuticals; alas, not the kind one gets over the counter”. Speaking about an oil-on-canvas in his Calcutta home by family friend and artist Jayashree Chakravarty, Dr. Lahiri recalled that she still calls on him with her satchel every time he visits the city, in the forlorn hope that he might finally agree to let her improve the painting. He still won’t.

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