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Prshant Lahoti stands before a late 19th century pilgrimage map of the Jain sacred site Shatrunjaya. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Prshant Lahoti stands before a late 19th century pilgrimage map of the Jain sacred site Shatrunjaya. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Cartography is art

Prshant Lahoti's collection of maps traces the country's religious and political histories from the 15th-19th centuries

Dressed casually in jeans, a blue, striped shirt, spectacles framing his eyes, Prshant Lahoti sits waiting outside the National Museum gallery in New Delhi that’s showing his collection of maps. It’s Sunday, and he has flown in from his home city of Hyderabad for the day to conduct a personalized tour of the exhibition, Cosmology To Cartography: A Cultural Journey Of Indian Maps.

Curated by scholars Vivek Nanda and Alexander Johnson, the show comprises 70 maps from the Hyderabad-based Kalakriti Archives established by Lahoti and a couple from the National Museum’s own collection. If, at 10.45am, there were three people who had turned up for the walk, at the appointed hour of 11, mysteriously, at least 20-25 more materialize in front of the first-floor gallery. It’s a heartening turnout for a Sunday morning.

For the next hour, Lahoti walks us through the gallery, giving a basic overview of the various sections in the show—15th-18th century painted maps showing the Jain cosmic view of life, 18th and 19th century Hindu pilgrimage and temple maps, and more scientific geographical maps that highlight the colonial ambitions of the Dutch, French and British. It’s a remarkably well-curated exhibition, with detailed captions that capture the social, religious and political ethos of the times they date back to, the kind of history lesson one would have paid attention to in school.

An early 18th century two-panel painted map (the third panel of these interconnected route maps is housed with a collector in the US) traces the pilgrimage route from Haridwar to Badrinath along the Ganga. A Japanese map of the world from the same period, created by Buddhist priest Zuda Rokashi, shows India and China, countries central to the religion, dominating the world, with Europe, Africa and the Americas relegated to smaller island-like shapes on the side. The larger section of the exhibition consists of military conquest maps detailing battles, maps depicting the positions of various European trading nations along the Hooghly, nautical maps of ports, and those showcasing the European nations’ attempts to understand the geography of India.

Those hoping for greater insight from the collector himself would be disappointed; for the curious, the answers usually came from the more informed members of the audience. Lahoti, who is clear from the start that he speaks not as a curator but a collector, is however unmistakably enthusiastic about sharing what information he has, and listens with a keen ear to those who can provide more. “I’m glad I am not a curator," he says. “Being a curator and a collector is not the same thing. You then become scientific about the whole thing (collecting), but don’t go by your heart."

It’s been a little more than a decade since Lahoti has been collecting maps, an obsession that started about a year after he and his wife, Rekha Lahoti, opened the Kalakriti Art Gallery in Hyderabad in 2002, to show Indian contemporary art. During a trip to Edinburgh, he happened to walk into an antiques shop that sold maps. And he was hooked.

There are four elements in maps, Lahoti says, that fascinate him. “The first is the very mystery about antiques. Then, every map has an element of history, and every map has geography. And when you go through the maps, you will see that they are all aesthetically appealing. To find all these four elements in one collection, that’s the reason I have been so attracted to them."

While he has also been collecting modern Indian art and vintage photographs, over the past five-six years the passion for cartography has overtaken everything else, he says. “Art and collecting are the finer things in your life. It gives you a gratification, you feel fulfilled, satisfied, there’s a kick (that is) totally different."

Lahoti, who has been involved in the family real-estate business, is a self-taught man where art is concerned, never really having been exposed to it during his formative years. “I thought the best way to start collecting art is to know more artists and curators. And the best way to get more knowledge about art is to start an art gallery," he says.

With around 3,000 maps in his archive, and still going strong, Lahoti says his retirement plan is to “create a map museum", get researchers to study the maps, and promote the bigger idea of collecting maps. “A lot of times I even collect maps which may not be of historical importance or which may not be aesthetically very good, but are important for other reasons" of scholarly interest, he says. Lahoti’s interest in making this collection of rare maps open to the public is inspiring—parts of it are already available online through the Google Cultural Institute.

Cosmology To Cartography: A Cultural Journey Of Indian Maps is on till 11 October, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi.

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