Nadia Samdani, an art collector from Bangladesh, created a stir at this year’s India Art Fair when she picked up an artwork by Rashid Rana even before the fair’s official opening. “Translation/Transliteration” was a large (2.74 X 3.65 m) work in the acclaimed Pakistani artist’s trademark style of photo — video, in this instance — montage that took up almost an entire wall right at the entrance, and must have cost a few crores, going by Rana’s auction prices. (Samdani is, of course, not revealing prices.)
Petite, unassuming and totting a large yellow Birkin bag on her arm, it was Samdani’s first exposure to the Indian media — which is a little mystifying given that she and her husband Rajeeb Samdani are significant collectors of the art of not just their own country but also India, especially the Bengal school. The Tagores are a special focus; in 2010, Rajeeb bought a historically significant Rabindranath Tagore painting for £91,250 at a Sotheby’s auction; it was a “gift for my wife”, he told the media then.
The Samdanis’ partiality for Bengal is understandable —“Though we are now two different countries, to us Bengal is Bengal,” says Samdani — but that’s not all there is to her collection. Instead it is an eclectic mix of over a thousand works by everyone from Rembrandt, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor, to Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Murakami. The Samdanis have no advisors to guide them, and there is no focus, either of period, place or style, to their collection, says Samdani, except for “a weakness for emerging artists. ‘Shock at first sight’, I would say, is the main dogma of our collection.”
Samdani, who was born in Britain, says she got her passion for art from her family which collected art. Her father, Khalilur Rahman Choudhury, is one of the pioneers of the readymade garments industry in Bangladesh. She began collecting herself eight years ago when she was 22. Her husband, Rajeeb, she says, has “always had a keen interest in art” and “supports” her. Rajeeb is managing director of the Golden Harvest group which has diversified businesses in food processing, commodity trading, real-estate, logistics and distribution and IT.
The Samdanis belong to a new generation of collectors, much like Kiran Nadar and Anupam and Lekha Poddar in India, who not only have no qualms talking about and showing off their collections, but have also set up art institutions to encourage artists and facilitate a discourse around art. While the Samdanis haven’t yet set up a museum — “it is our dream,” says Samdani — they have the Samdani Art Foundation set up in 2011 to “promote Bangladeshi art and artists globally”. The foundation facilitated contemporary artist Ebadur Rahman’s participation in the Venice Biennale last June — it was the first-ever by a Bangladeshi. It also invited Tate Museum’s head of collections (international art) and its curator of international art to the country in December, and mounted an exhibition showcasing emerging artists of Bangladesh. “There is a lot of international interest in art from Bangladesh, as it is perceived to be less politically volatile than Pakistan,” says Indian curator Sushma Bahl who recently conducted a joint residency for artists from India and Bangladesh.
It is this interest in Bangladeshi art that Samdani will be looking to capitalise on in her latest venture — the inaugural Dhaka Art Summit, scheduled for April 12-15 (India Art Fair founder Neha Kirpal is one of the advisors to the event). Unlike the Indian fair, the Dhaka one will be a local event with participation by local galleries and artists only, at least initially. “Promoting the vibrant art scene of Bangladesh,” says Samdani, is her main objective.
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