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India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too

India’s rich are no longer indifferent to art

Published: Nov 27, 2012 06:51:21 AM IST
Updated: Nov 26, 2012 02:22:24 PM IST

The billionaire life brings with it many perks, but none so much as art—its appreciation and acquisition—which sets one extraordinarily rich scion apart from the other. Wealth can command business jets in the hangar and yachts in the marina, mansions—though none so much as Antilla—and retreats, cars and watches, and the accoutrements of a rich and richly-lived life. But jewellery, to an aesthetic soul, and art to an intellectual one, are major differentiators, conversation points and conversation stoppers; they separate the newbies from the patrons. Once personal collections are in place, the rollout of museums will inevitably begin—as has already happened—to be followed by the establishment of art trusts and foundations.

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too

Image: Manoj Patil for Forbes India
HARSH GOENKA, with self portraits of Anjolie Ela Menon and Akbar Padamsee

Harsh Goenka: Make mine a self-portrait
Growing up in Calcutta, Harsh Goenka was put in charge of cataloguing the family’s miniature art. It was important enough to draw foreign scholars, but he found it “tedious”, thereby losing interest in the tradition. Later, in Bombay, he found himself drawn to the moderns, learning from his early mistakes, when he tended to pick up the merely decorative.

Goenka was numbered among the major collectors till he went cold turkey a few years ago, when inflated prices and thoughtlessly churned-out art put him off. But he’s back now. His tastes have evolved: From the initial investment in Bengal School to, later, Baroda; from works “of violence or strong paintings”, to “calmer works and many abstract artists whom I earlier wouldn’t have liked”. Describing it as an exciting journey, he says he’s moved from an interest in emerging artists to the masters of art: “Husain, Souza, Padamsee.”

The first big-ticket buy: “Husain’s Mother Teresa; it was a work introduced to me by my decorator.”

The Bengal phase: “For me, knowing or talking to an artist is important; so I didn’t collect Jamini Roy or Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, but Ganesh Pyne and Chittravonu Mazumdar. But Bengal art was not going anywhere.” And that is when he discovered the Baroda school.

The complete collector? “I’m governed by the whims and fancies of a quack collector. Of course, there are serious gaps in my collection. Friends ask me, where are the KG Subramanyans and the Tyeb Mehtas?”

A museum collection?
“A museum would show up my stupidity as a collector! Mumbai needs a museum, but any space would be an hour-and-a-half outside the city. My dilemma is: Should I spend Rs 500 crore on building a museum or for buying more art?”

The collection highlight:
A recent focus has been acquiring (or commissioning) artists’ portraits, whether self-portraits, or one artist painting another artist. “That’s been an interesting journey. I find the mind of an artist paradoxical and intriguing, and in their portraits they reveal so much of themselves. I must have 700-800 artists’ portraits.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
KIRAN NADAR, with Rina Banerjee’s The World as Burnt Fruit
Kiran Nadar: She led a revolution

With her characteristic cheer and bonhomie, Kiran Nadar manages the mojo in the Nadar household, filling it with like-minded friends and a penchant for the good things of life. A bridge player who travels extensively, she began to collect art soon after she married industrialist Shiv Nadar; the couple recollects driving down in their Fiat to Triveni Gallery in New Delhi to admire a nude male torso by Rameshwar Broota, while worrying about what his mother would think of it.

With some of the most talked-about works of modern and contemporary art in their collection, which grew so large that some of it had to be put into storage, the Nadars commissioned the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in January 2010. While they’re still scouting for a permanent address for the museum, Kiran has become one of the key figures of the Indian art world as much for her clout as for the purported size of her purse, which she wields on the museum’s behalf.

First blood: “I commissioned MF Husain, and bought works by Manjit Bawa and Rameshwar Broota; all three works are still in the house.”

Most exciting acquisition: KNMA’s bids for SH Raza’s seminal work Saurashtra (at Rs 16.5 crore, the most expensive painting by an Indian) and Bharti Kher’s The Skin Speaks a Language of its Own (a record for the artist at Rs 6.5 crore) at auctions drew global attention; but “I have to say Line of Control by Subodh Gupta has been my most exciting, recent acquisition.” The installation, with the artist’s leitmotif utensils in the form of a nuclear explosion, was first exhibited at London’s Tate Modern, and adorns the entrance of KNMA.

The museum: “People need to be exposed to art; I had a collection that was worth sharing, so planning a museum was logical.”

Changing perspective: Kiran no longer collects art intuitively but to fill in the gaps in her collection. “I don’t think from a personal point of view anymore, but from that of KNMA.”

Shiv Nadar’s role: “He’s not involved in the art aspect, but he’s supportive—very supportive—especially financially, without which this wouldn’t fly.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
TINA AMBANI, with a canvas by Chintan Upadhyay

Tina Ambani: The diva’s triumph
Her Harmony Art Foundation, Tina Ambani says, has been responsible for introducing—or at least projecting on a national platform—emerging artists who have gone on to receive global accolades and conquer the national market. At Reliance Centre in Mumbai, there is more art on display in the offices and public areas than almost anywhere else.

While artists working for elder brother-in-law Mukesh Ambani’s eyrie Antilla have had to sign non-disclosure agreements and were not allowed to even carry their mobiles to office while assembling art, the works at husband Anil Ambani’s office are a little more prominently—and happily—on display.

Tina Ambani’s tastes have remained eclectic. From among the Bombay artists, Souza is a favourite—a surprise, considering the family’s conservative Gujarati sensibility—but you can also spot Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Jehangir Sabavala; and many others from Kolkata’s Shyamal Dutta Ray to Jogen Chowdhury and from contemporaries like Chintan Upadhyay to newbies like Suhasini Kejriwal.

Arriviste: Souza’s The Birth at a Christie’s auction, for which she paid a stupendous—the highest price on record for the artist—Rs 10.5 crore. “It was like a high; I couldn’t stop myself even though the price was more than I had thought I would ever bid for a painting.” Among Souza’s most iconic works, the priceless painting is currently on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, of which august institution the former actor is also on the board.

Mentor: The annual Harmony art exhibition, with a few hiccups, has been the Big Outing for art in Mumbai, and has unusually placed “established and unknown artists on the same platform” with a mixed response. Despite apprehensions, “it has worked”.

The collection is eclectic. Tina Ambani’s bow to the masters is apparent, but she also acknowledges “the lesser known, the emerging and the young,” all of whose works share the same platform.

Alternate collection: “I love, and collect, Paithani sarees.”

A little help from Anil Ambani:
“He’s been a great support. He doesn’t get directly involved, but if he reads something in the newspapers, or magazines, he cuts it out and sends it home to me through the driver.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
Image: Getty Images

Parmeshwar Godrej: A home for Husain
When others were giving the term a bad name, Parmeshwar Godrej grabbed media attention as a ‘socialite’, not to focus on herself but on the many causes she supported. It has been the reason she has pulled off international fundraisers and other events, which drew global celebrities; she’s hosted elaborate parties at the Godrej beachfront property in Mumbai with rare panache.

A hobby painter when she was young, she took to collecting instead, as she was drawn to the works of different artists; eventually turning into a patron, on the way forming lasting friendships, such as the one with MF Husain, with whom she was part of a mutual admiration society. The Godrej collection of Husains is, of course, extensive—“far too many to mention”, she says—but the diva is known to have in her home works by Jehangir Sabavala, Krishen Khanna, Arpana Caur, Anjolie Ela Menon and Manu Parekh, among others.

First acquisitions: Krishen Khanna’s Memories of 1947, and Husain’s large canvas of a nude with horses, bought on the same day 40 years ago.

Favourites: “A difficult question to answer as I only buy art that appeals to my sensibilities.”

Heart-works: “The ones that are very precious to me are those that Husain painted specially on wooden sleepers, while at our beach house. These are the only paintings he’s ever made in this format. He even painted a small paperweight for my son, Pirojsha, who was around at the time and wanted one. His Mother Teresa series, and Jehangir Sabavala’s Purdah series, I would have to say, are my favourites.”

Current buys: “I just bought two works from the exhibition B Seventy, which Jaya Bachchan organised on Amitabh Bachchan’s 70th birthday: Anupam Sud’s Dream Merchant, and Shuvaprasanna’s Illusion.”

On the wishlist: “Iván Navarro’s minimalism art, and some of Anish Kapoor’s great works.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
Image : Amit Verma
MALVINDER SINGH, with a painting by Arpita Singh, whose largest mural, Wish Dream, is also part
of his collection

Malvinder Singh: Sharply focused
Few know the extent of Japna and Malvinder Singh’s art collection, since they are usually discreet about their big buys. These have included Arpita Singh’s Wish Dream, valued at a record Rs 9.6 crore in 2010, Bhupen Khakhar’s 17-part Gallery of Rogues more recently, and, five years ago, Atul Dodiya’s Three Painters, a seminal work by the artist based on René Magritte’s painting of the artist finding his back reflected in a mirror; Dodiya’s painting reflects the backs of Magritte, Khakhar and Dodiya himself.

Having observed his parents collecting the masters, Malvinder followed in their footsteps with his first painting—predictably, a Husain— and has been building his collection meticulously since.

Malvinder maintains that it is a personal collection, the best of which is housed in his New Delhi farmhouse, while others are present in his offices, and much of it is in storage. The city home where we photographed him has the family’s earlier collection, and hardly includes any of his personal favourites, since “one of the things we enjoy is the chance to have a dialogue with artists; that may not be possible with artists from earlier generations.”

Current thrill: “I am really excited about a fairly recent acquisition of a Gulam Mohammed Sheikh painting. I am also intrigued by an exhibition of Raghubir Singh’s works at the Barbican Gallery in London.”

Buying mantra: “I’m extremely picky, and buy selectively based on an artist’s particular period.”

Going, going, gone: “I, not my wife, bid at the auctions. If the price goes over what I am mentally prepared to pay, I prefer to walk away immediately.”

Maturing style: “I’ve moved to abstracts. I enjoy works of J Swaminathan, VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, FN Souza, SH Raza’s art from the ’50s, Tyeb Mehta, Gulam and Nilima Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, and Atul Dodiya of course! I also have paintings by Subodh Gupta and NS Harsha.”

The third dimension: “I have a large and lovely piece in alabaster by Anish Kapoor, and even a sculpture by Tyeb Mehta.” There is a Navjot Altaf fibreglass work in the dining room: It stands alongside Ved Nayar’s sculptures, whose installation of Gandhi’s three monkeys is at the farmhouse.

Global or local? “We looked at art globally, and selectively acquired some, but realised that if you want to know about what you’re collecting, and in order to know it deeply, to study and appreciate its history and culture, then—at least for now—we need to confine our interests to Indian art.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
Image: Getty Images
LAKSHMI MITTAL commissioned Anish Kapoor to make Orbit before the London Olympics

Lakshmi Mittal: Rule Britannica
Is he a secret collector? Mittal is hardly known for being media shy, nevertheless it seems he has managed to keep some aspects of his life private, if reports—that he purchased the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for his personal collection—are to be believed. The 2012 Pavilion in London features a landscape in cork, with a roof that collects water and becomes a reflecting surface for the sky.

Rare glimpses of Mittal’s mansions have revealed an eclectic collection of vases, tapestries and Western art, but no noticeable Indian modern art. His London home, acquired in 2008, is said to have come with a well-curated collection of works by European artists. He’s not yet been spotted at Christie’s or Sotheby’s auctions of the subcontinent’s masters.

Insiders say that the family tastes have so long been opulent rather than understated, but that might soon be changing if the Mittals have got themselves serious advisors to put together a prestigious collection of art.

Catalytic moment:
Definitely the London Olympics. The Games may be fading from memory, but the ArcelorMittal Orbit will forever define the city’s new skyline. Orbit hasn’t got the kindest reviews—yet—and does mangle the London skyline, but Indians can take pride in producing the city’s most controversial work of public art that many are likening to the Eiffel Tower pulverised by a gigantic crane.

Epiphany: The India-born British artist Anish Kapoor, who is responsible for it, compares it to the legendary Tower of Babel, “a folly”, he says, “that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythical about it.”

At what cost? Try £19 million (approximately $30.4 million), and you know Lakshmi Mittal means serious business when he flexes his collector’s eye. Punters believe he’s just waking up to the potential of art collection.

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
KIRAN MAZUMDAR-SHAW probably has the only
twin-country collection

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw: Split personality
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and spouse John Shaw have been described as insatiable collectors; they’re quiet and dignified, and live in a home surrounded by works of artists—known and emerging, with or without promise—reacting purely from the gut rather than being driven by their market or value. Their eclectic collection has seeped out of their home into their offices, where it is viewed by employees as well as visitors and guests.

Bangalore-based Yusuf Arakkal has been a favourite—and a mentor—for years, but Shaw has been as taken in by SG Vasudev; she has an affinity for Anjolie Ela Menon, lists MF Husain over the 800 works that range from Arpana Caur to Scotsman Archie Forrest (husband John’s influence) in what is now the Biocon collection; though she’s expressed the hope of having a museum in Bangalore that can display the collections of various art collectors, nothing’s come of it yet.

Favourites: “MF Husain, Bikash Bhattacharya, Paresh Maity and Yusuf Arrakal among Indian artists, and Archie Forrest, George Devlin and James Fullerton among the Scottish ones.” Hers is probably the only twin-country collection of art, and the couple enjoys juxtaposing the two, though husband John’s office is the natural home for the Scottish painters.

All-time favourite: “My all-time favourite is a painting by Bikash Bhattacharya” whose poignant paintings of doomed women rendered in the ’70s and ’80s are enjoying a tremendous resurgence.

On the wish-list: “I would love to own a Picasso, but I’m fine with just admiring his work in museums.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
Image : Vikas Khot
SANGITA JINDAL stands before a painting (right) by B Prabha

Sangita Jindal: Little girl wonder
Her mother, Usha Kanoria, started the Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmedabad, when she was just a teenager; so Sangita Jindal “grew up with art”. As a young girl, “whatever money I had, I’d buy art with it instead of, say, jewellery.” She began with a “small Anjolie Ela Menon; that’s all I could afford” for Rs 15,000, graduating to Husain’s horses “as a marriage gift” to herself.

Though that marriage took her to the Hissar-based Jindal family, her husband Sajjan Jindal and she were soon in Mumbai where she inveigled her way into working with Dr Jamshed Bhabha and Vijaya Mehta at the National Centre for Performing Arts, slowly getting absorbed with the cultural fabric of the city through its celebrated Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

She also started Art India magazine on the advice of art advisor Anupa Mehta. It was “a journey without planning” that saw her turn collector, both personally as well as for the growing JSW conglomerate, for which she ensured that the large works the Jindals specially commissioned were “people-friendly, something everyone could relate to.”

One work she’ll never part with:
“Krishen Khanna’s Girl in the Swing.”

Other personal favourites: Atul Dodiya, Suhasini Kejriwal.

Focus: “My collection would be even larger if I had more time.” She says this on a day when she’s helping organise the Art for Jehangir auction in Mumbai to raise funds for the 60-year-old art sanctum. “And, in any case, most of my acquisitions are for the company’s offices and factories.”

Factory commissions:
“We have Anish Kapoor’s discs; there are works by Shakti Maira, Ray Meeker—lots of artists…”

On the anvil: “A museum in Mumbai. We have the space; I’m looking for a curator. It’ll be the first private art museum in Mumbai.”

Madcap moment: “Acquiring a 3D exhibition on Hampi from the University of Brisbane that we’ll inaugurate in Vijayanagar on November 5.”

India's Rich are Tasteful Art Collectors Too
Image: Amit Verma
VIVEK BURMAN, oldest in the household, plays custodian to the family’s collection

Vivek C Burman: House of curiosities

Typically, the Burmans collected in the manner of the maharajas: Elephant tusks, silver memorabilia, Satsuma vases, Bohemian and Lalique chandeliers, marble statuary, decoupage tables, silk and wool carpets, miniature paintings (which his father gifted almost entirely to the Patna Museum). Their custodian is now Vivek Burman. His maverick streak includes patronage of artists not as well known as the A-listers, but whom he collects because of a preference for realistic art, which has replaced a taste for nudes, which he bought from impoverished maharajas.

“Modern collectors are rich, but we are old rich,” he says, as he potters around like a Wodehousian character in a house full of curiosities. “It’s the way we like to collect.” Even amidst the higgledy-piggledy collection, it’s easy to make out the Hemen Majumdars, Chughtais, a massive Satish Gupta commissioned for his dining room, Husains—including a portrait of his wife Sweety—SH Raza, Jatin Das, Bikash Bhattacharjee, and, more recently, a sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij and (he laughs with glee), “a fake Raja Ravi Varma.” The adjoining house, his office, and the factory “are packed with paintings.”

Collector? “I waited for five years, 10 years…to get two Ravi Varmas I’d seen; I knew I had to have them.”

My friend, Manjit: “I gave Manjit Bawa some money and said I had to have his work. Three years later he brought me a painting”—Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan—“that he said was his best work.”

Likes: “I don’t go for [only] big names, commissioning artists such as Vinod Sharma and Krishnendu Porel to make paintings.”

The, er, nudes? “I used to collect them till my son said this isn’t a nudist colony. My favourite used to be a work” —by an artist signing as M Manner… [Rest of it indecipherable]—“but is now someone else.”

Who? “An Englishman once arrived, and asked for Rs 5 lakh. I gave it in good faith. Four years later, he sent me a painting in London called Halloween which has since been my favourite.” That was 1994, and the artist was the maverick Anthony Christian.

(This story appears in the 02 November, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Aditi Chakraborty

    An independent art professional since last 11 years, I am working on my series of Nature Abstraction since 2006. With a serious dearth of appreciation for abstract art in India, or more precisely in Kolkata, I am fortunate enough to have been able to make a modest living out of my art for several years; have been getting support from collectors which has helped me to survive and meet ends somehow, but never thought of changing the style or theme of my works to subjects which are commercially more viable. Going through your article, I felt, as always, had I or artists like me, received some support from media and publications like yours, the journey could have been lot more comfortable. If you feel you may revert with a response. That will be delightful. Thanks and regards. Aditi Kolkata

    on Jun 22, 2016
  • Girish

    This is much better way to spend your riches. They are supporting and encouraging art in India. Historically the art forms have been patronised by wealthy. I hope these collectors open their art collection to wider public in the form of museums which will in turn inspire young artists to create their master pieces or at least allow the people to enjoy good art. Good art museaums are hallmark of any great city and cultural landscape.

    on Jul 9, 2013