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Collect with your Heart: a Q & A with Professor Lahiri

Head of World Art William Robinson in conversation with the eminent cardiologist and collector, whose collection will be sold in New York on 15 March

What was the spark that started you collecting?

I am sure there were multiple stimuli to collecting. My father was instrumental in enticing me with his historical stories of Mahabharata, Alexander, Rameses, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Chinese empire, Ramayana, Olmecs and Aztecs and the intensity of the Japanese rulers. Though he was a scientist, he wove the stories of the Gupta dynasty and mathematics, the origin of the zero and the philosophy and medicine of the Greeks with considerable talent to capture the imagination of a young boy and light the fire and hunger for things ancient.

My father was at Imperial College in London all through the 7 years of the war, and he had developed a wide perspective on art. I visited Europe for one year at the age of 9, and the British Museum had a huge impact on a young boy from the outback of Eastern Indian coalfields. These childhood memories and growing up with Japanese and Chinese art in our home was also a strong influence.

When I went to medical college in Kolkata, I was in the Indian Museum at least every month when other mates were studying anatomy or different art forms appreciated by the young students.

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What are your emotions when sitting surrounded by such outstanding works of art?

That of amazement that a human being could produce such an object of intense emotion. We live in a modern world charged with adrenaline-fed emotions. As a cardiologist, I understand the effects of excessive activation of the neurohormonal system, sustained over time, are harmful for the body. These objects create for me an emotion of peace and harmony, and I can overcome the daily stresses of being a practising cardiologist.

Professor Lahiri photographed by his daughter sitting his garden in Edgware, with the Padmapani.
Professor Lahiri photographed by his daughter sitting his garden in Edgware, with the Padmapani.

Is there a specific sculpture that gives particular pleasure, and if so why and how?

All our objects have their own charm and it is difficult to choose. The exquisitely inlaid Pala Padmapani with his benign smile and exorbitant posture has been a great favourite. I often took it around the house and contemplated its origins and the inner energy, but I could take days to describe the rest of the collection with all its individual charm.

A bronze figure of Maitreya, Kashmir or western Tibet, circa 1025. Estimate $200,000–300,000. This piece is offered in The Lahiri Collection Indian and Himalayan art, Ancient and Modern on 15 March at Christie’s in New York
A bronze figure of Maitreya, Kashmir or western Tibet, circa 1025. Estimate: $200,000–300,000. This piece is offered in The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan art, Ancient and Modern on 15 March at Christie’s in New York

You have wonderful stories about some of the purchases you have made. What has been your favourite moment of purchase?

Many years ago, after a lecture tour to China in the mid 80’s, I went to Hong Kong and ended up on my favourite street, Hollywood Road, where one can lose oneself in the numerous tiny stores where great art abounds. I met an old friend and saw some exquisite Pala bronzes. The prices were higher than all my honoraria from China, but I had patience, but so did my old friend. We talked about life, drank Chiu Chow tea by the gallon, and often discussed a price, which was either too high or too low (depending on which end of the bargain you were). After 3 days of friendly discussions, the range had narrowed, but we both had caffeine toxicity by then! However, I flew back with not one, but two exquisite bronzes, and we have remained friends for nearly 40 years.

This is a complex field. How did you learn to navigate your way around it?

There is no shortcut to experience. Armed with passion, some knowledge and an eye for beauty, you soon learn. You make a few mistakes, but your senses get fine-tuned with time. Of course you have to be lucky, your planets have to be aligned, and the right art object turns up at the right time.

How do you and your wife agree (or disagree) on purchases?

We are complete individuals, I have learnt to appreciate modern art mainly because of her enthusiasm and understanding. She is actively collecting the newer generation of younger Indian artists, whereas my expertise lies mainly in the field of antiquity, but we do share a common passion for things beautiful.

How do you choose what should be on display?

That is where I fail. How can I choose between a gorgeous Pala bronze of Manjushree, an ancient terracotta plaque from Chandraketugarh, a Buddha head from Sarnath, an electric Kushan Yakshi, a meditative stucco Buddha from Gandhara or, for that matter, an intricate miniature gilt bronze of Lord Vishnu and escorts? I display art objects where I can and we ‘live’ with them, touch them and ‘feel’ them every day- this is our meditation.

Professor Lahiri’s Collection on display in his home
Professor Lahiri’s Collection on display in his home

What advice would you give somebody contemplating starting a collection?

‘Collect with your heart!’ Buy what you love, not because it is expensive or cheap, or because it is a good ‘business deal’. Don’t think of the cost, be extravagant. You will have more pleasure from art than a bank balance.