Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless

An iconic Indian hotel hosts an indispensable art collection

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Oct 27, 2014 07:17:38 AM IST
Updated: Nov 6, 2014 12:12:04 PM IST
Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless
Image: Vikas Khot
Untitled oil on canvas, 1964, MF Husain. Location: Presidential Suite

As you enter the lush lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba, Mumbai, turn left. Behind the long, gleaming reception desk there is an equally long, vivid-in-its-redness triptych. It’s a Husain. Stand a while; take it in.  

Now stroll down the corridor to the left. Peep in at the Harbour Bar (incidentally, the oldest licensed bar in the city). Anchored there are a Ram Kumar, a Laxman Pai and a Rajesh Pullarwar.

Now, down the corridor. Take a left into the stairwell of the hotel’s heritage wing. Before you take the stairs, step into the Palace Lounge. Amid the hushed silence of its plush interiors, resting on its sombre wooden walls, are a couple of VS Gaitondes, a Ram Kumar, and a Jehangir Sabavala.

Tear yourself away; take the grand staircase. As you ascend, your feet sinking into the carpet, you come face to face with an SH Raza. On the first floor, step into the banquet hall. Take a slow, deep breath. Around you are works by KK Hebbar, Anjolie Ela Menon, Vivan Sundaram, Sabavala, GR Santosh, B Vithal and Laxman Shrestha.

And this is a mere sampling.

The Taj’s collection of paintings by modern Indian artists is one of the largest in the country—about 1,000 original paintings, including about 200 masterpieces, and another 3,000 prints—and rivals some of the best private treasure troves of the country’s most zealous collectors. And what sets it apart is the fact that instead of being guarded by jealous owners behind high levels of security or in secretive private galleries, it is out there for anyone who walks in to admire. Well, at least some of it.

The Taj, as we see it today, was not always so. Neither was the now-famed art collection.

From the time it opened to the public—on December 16, 1903—right up to the decade after India’s independence, the history of the Taj is generously populated with royal (and loyal) guests, grand parties, extravagant entertainment, and national luminaries. But once the Second World War was over and the country independent, the arduous task of nation-building lay ahead, and the going was not all that smooth.

“The Taj too, was having its post war problems, albeit of a different kind and on a different scale. The turnover during the last year of the War had been the highest ever, with bar receipts alone amounting to two million rupees. However, increasingly large sums of money were now having to be spent on keeping the Taj and Greens in running order,” write Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi in their book The Taj at Apollo Bunder.

JRD Tata, who had been overall chairman of the Tata organisation since 1938, would later admit that neither he nor his colleagues then gave much thought to the hotel, which represented such a tiny part of the Tata business. “The idea was that we had gone into the hotel business in a moment of mental aberration on the part of the old man, Jamshetji Tata, who had done it really because he was proud of Bombay. I took some interest in it, I appointed Faletti and people like that in order to get some professionals in, but otherwise it was almost comical the way the Taj was run in those days—and so long as it did not lose too much money, nobody bothered too much about it.”

Chuckling over her memories from the 1960s is Elizabeth Kerkar, as she sits behind her crowded desk at her interior design consultancy firm, Elizabeth Kerkar and Associates, in Colaba. “In 1963, when I first stepped into the hotel, I looked around and thought to myself, ‘Where have I landed?’ It looked quite ugly; and it was an old building. The flooring was ruined. The colour scheme of the [heritage] tower was dull and boring. Everything had to be changed.”

Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless
Image: Vikas Khot
Untitled oil on canvas, Ram Kumar. Loaction: Palace Lounge

And change it she did, over the next 35 years, during which she was associated with the Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces (she retired as head of housekeeping in 1997). Along with Rodabeh Sawhny’s (JRD Tata’s sister), Kerkar’s efforts at the Taj Mahal Hotel included a severe overhaul of the hotel’s interiors, bringing in paintings, antique furniture for the lobby and the corridors, replacing old metal pillars, and changing existing colour schemes.

It was during the first decade or so of Kerkar’s association with the hotel that the art collection was born, driven by the need to extensively redecorate the interiors.

The Taj Art Gallery (TAG) played a significant role in this effort. “The gallery was all ABK’s idea,” says Kerkar, referring to her husband by the acronym he was fondly given. [Ajit Baburao Kerkar, Elizabeth’s husband, joined the group as assistant catering manager in 1959 and went on to be the general manager of the Taj Group of Hotels.] “We just wanted to give young artists a chance. They did not have many places to show their works, and they did not have any money. We did not charge them anything; the hotel made no money from the gallery. We bought their paintings, and hung them up on our walls.”

That some of these young artists would, over the next few decades, become the toast of India’s modern art movement was something no one could have known back then. “That is how patronage works,” says Dadibhai Pundole, owner of Pundole Art Gallery, and son of its founder Kali Pundole. “Patrons just buy art for the love of it. Not necessarily because they feel the collection will one day become valuable. Consequently, you have a lot of mediocre works in a collection, and some good or great works.”

The TAG, situated where the Palace Lounge now sits, was a notch above the other two galleries—Pundole and Chemould—in the city in the ’60s.
“We also bought a lot of paintings from Pundole and Chemould. They were very good people to deal with: Honest,” says Kerkar. “I even bought a Husain for myself by paying for it in installments. It cost Rs 1,800, and I gave a few hundred rupees at a time.”

“Through the ’60s, even the ’70s, Indian Hotels [the holding company of the Taj] must have been fantastic for my dad, really, to have as a client,” says Pundole. “Not many people were building collections. They are your regulars: Jehangir Nicholson, Indian Hotels… But there were very few. You could count them on your fingertips. There was TIFR [Tata Institute of Fundamental Research], but that was during the time of Homi Bhaba. After him there was no clear strategy of collecting. Dad used to always talk about Rodabeh Sawhny and Elizabeth Kerkar, so they must have been a huge help for the gallery.”
Allan and Dwivedi write: “Both Mrs Sawhny and Liz Kerkar also had an eye for contemporary Indian art. What began as the occasional purchase of a painting on exhibition in the Taj Art Gallery grew by degrees into the patronage of some of India’s leading painters.”  

The Taj’s collection was built through the ’60s, ’70s, and some part of the ’80s. By this time, it would seem, the hotel ran out of space: There were not enough wall space left to hang paintings on. Allen and Dwivedi write, “[The collection] has led a visiting art historian from London to declare recently that the Taj Palace was ‘India’s Tate Modern with bedrooms attached.’”

Kerkar remembers making the gallery “nice and air-conditioned” but the hotel discontinued it. “It did not want a gallery that did not make any money,” she says.

The collection, today, is one that is “priceless”, says Mortimer Chatterjee, of the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Colaba, and also, since 2006, consultant to the Taj Mahal Hotel’s art collection.

Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless
Image: Vikas Khot
Composition, oil on canvas,1968, SH Raza. Location: Taj heritage wing

It was by the early 2000s that the hotel felt the need to focus on the conservation and preservation of its collection. “Till the early- to mid-’80s,” Chatterjee says, “there was a clear acquisitions mentality... But that’s not to say that the quality of the care of the works diminished during that period. It’s just that the focus moved from acquisition to preservation. The early 2000s was the period in which the Indian art market came to be what we understand it today: From a point where values were way below fair market value, to a point where they had some relationship with their international peers. Many collections, and not specifically the Taj’s, therefore needed to take more cognisance of the methodology of conservation and preservation as the values increased.”

One of the earliest tasks that Chatterjee was entrusted with was inventorying—and getting to understand—the nature of the collection. This task included room-to-room scanning of the works, to see what was in each bedroom, suite and public area, and the stores. “There are always works in the stores... The number of works that you have often exceeds the number of walls that you have to put those works up on.”

Chatterjee talks about how the collection has come to represent a snapshot of the years in which the paintings were collected. He believes it is a reflection of the optimism of nation-building that existed in the 1950s and ’60s. This attitude looked at contemporary India and all that was good in it, instead of looking back into the past.

Pundole concurs: “If you see the collection, you get an idea of what was happening in the world of Indian art at that point in time. You see the style of the Progressives, you see what was happening in Bengal, you see what was happening in Bombay.”
Through the collection you also get to see the evolution in the styles of paintings of different artists: From a time when they were influenced by the European styles to finally evolving and developing their distinctive, confident styles and coming into their own.  

Chatterjee believes that during the acquisition phase, abstracts were probably preferred, as they are more neutral in their themes, and do not usually portray sombre or disturbing emotions. Pundole, however, believes that these distinctions are more a product of present times: When the paintings were bought, he says, “Nobody thought like this. They just bought the paintings they liked.” Case in point: The Tyeb Mehta that hangs in the sixth floor of the heritage wing. From the painter’s ‘diagonal’ series depicting the country’s Partition, the painting is dark and disturbing, and shows an anguished human figure.
The collection is also a reflection of the relationships that the hotel shared with artists over several years. Chatterjee says, “The big difference was the fact that the Taj had that art gallery. That is what allowed this deeper relationship with the art community. Because, for the half-century post Independence, the TAG actually filled a very important node in the city’s art ecosystem. We don’t have anything comparable either in Bombay or, to my knowledge, in the rest of the country. All other hotels build their collections only by acquisition.”

This relationship is evident, for instance, in the works of Laxman Shrestha. Chatterjee says, “We have a collaborative work between him and Ratan Tata. There are several other works of his in the property, and he talks of a long-standing relationship between him and the hotel. I have taken Raza around the property and shown him his own works and those of his peer group. When he saw one of his own works, he made a simple namaste gesture, almost in the manner of a greeting. But in front of the Gaitondes, he just stood for minutes upon minutes in silent reflection. And you could see he was visibly moved by the experience.” He adds that because of the warm ties, it is sometimes difficult to figure out if a particular painting had been bought or whether an artist had given it to the hotel.

Jehangir Sabavala was another artist who would have had fond memories of the Taj. He was given a room at the hotel for several months. One of his untitled paintings from that period finds a place of prominence in the Palace Lounge; it depicts boats at sea, a scene caught, perhaps, from the window of his room. Says Chatterjee, “The painting locates itself so beautifully in the space of the Taj. It seems that the painting could not exist if the Taj did not exist.”

Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless
Image: Vikas Khot
Untitled waterclour, Jehangir Sabavala.Location: Palace Lounge

Although the bulk of the hotel’s collection had been built by the 1980s, it still commissions works. The Husain triptych behind the reception—unveiled in December 2000 by Ratan Tata—was one. Rajesh Pullarwar’s depiction of Mumbai—spanning the entire width of the rearmost wall of the Harbour Bar—would be another.

“The focus has now moved from acquisition to preservation,” Chatterjee says. “It was a natural consequence that by the early 2000s there was a clear need to put in a place a more clear process for looking after the collection.”

Efforts have therefore been concentrated on ensuring the safety of the paintings and making them more accessible to a larger audience. The hanging and display of the collection has been changed, and several masterpieces, displayed in suites where few would get to see them, have been brought out. Those now adorn the walls of the Palace Lounge, the banquet hall, the Harbour Bar, corridors in the heritage wing, and reception areas. (Some masterpieces, for instance, an untitled Husain from 1964, remain inside some of the suites.)

An art walk was also initiated in 2013 for citizens and art lovers. The 45-minute walk took visitors from the lobby, to the Harbour Bar, the banquet hall and the Palace Lounge of the heritage wing. Although this is no longer open to the casual passerby, art walks are arranged on request for residents and loyal patrons of the hotel.
The other initiative taken towards the safekeeping of the artworks, is the installation of glass in front of the masterpieces. Chatterjee says the glass—expensive, and used in international museums—is bought from a UK-based dealer. “For the Husain triptych, we had to, of course, assemble the glass pieces here; it would be impossible to import the entire thing in one piece.”

The glass has evoked mixed reactions among viewers, which Chatterjee acknowledges: “Yes, you could argue that the experience of viewing the artwork has been diminished. Making out the brush strokes, or the various textures on the canvas is not the same right now. But, we think, to most lay viewers, it would not make a significant difference.”

Elizabeth Kerkar, however, remembers how they never had any problem with their artworks being damaged. “We had very good people living there, I think,” she says. “No harm was ever done to any of the paintings. Except, perhaps, for one time, when some members of an Italian air crew cut out some of the Pichwai paintings that were part of an antique wooden cupboard in the lobby!”


Taj's collection of paintings will leave you speechless Image: Taj Hotels/Graham Crouch
The Taj went through an extensive rebuilding process after the events of 26/11.  Art restorer Aarti Rawat (right) works on MF Husain’s ‘Mullah and Mariyam’—a priceless work damaged in the attacks

Like other hotels that house art, the Taj, too, has trained its housekeeping staff to check for signs of dust, fungus, moisture and other damage. Maintenance and restoration work takes a couple of hours per painting, and is done when the need arises.

Restoration work was, however, required on an unprecedented level after the terror attacks of November 2008. Priya Khanna, who, along with her team, worked on the damaged artworks for several months, says, “It was like 10 years worth of damage took place within a span of four days. There was extensive damage by soot and water, there were tears in the canvasses, there were bullet holes. Some paintings were permanently damaged. Nothing could be done to recover them.” Khanna and her team worked in a cordoned-off part of the hotel’s ground floor, slowly restoring the paintings to their original form.

Art writers Allen and Dwivedi say the damage could have been worse: “…The Taj’s almost priceless collection of art and antiques displayed in the Taj Palace had suffered far less than had been feared. This was partly due to the foresight of Birgit Zoringer, the Taj’s deputy manager, who had earlier instituted a programme to identify and protect the most valuable paintings with glass and had removed a large number to a store room. To her relief she found the store room undamaged and many paintings on the walls covered in soot and dust but unaffected under the glass.”

(This story appears in the 31 October, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)