Can the value of a collection be enhanced simply by exhibiting it?
There is no comparison between the three-city National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and the recently re-launched Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi in terms of the size of the collection, the historicity as, indeed, the prestige of the former, which allows it to bring in an Anish Kapoor exhibition (while promoter Kiran Nadar has to buy the works of the artist). Yet it is the latter which may do more for creating a museum-going and art-appreciation culture. The Anish Kapoor show has increased the footfalls at the usually moribund institution, which is at the vanguard of India’s art firmament, but it is the Kiran Nadar Museum, located in a mall, that has ended up drawing visitors in flocks to its considerably fewer, but more prominent, exhibits.
There is no gainsaying that KNMA is about the “biggest”, or “best” or “most expensive” with reference to modern art. You can speculate whether the Rs 16.4 crore it paid for the S H Raza painting, Saurashtra was worth it or not, whether Raqib Shaw’s Absence of God-VIII was more expensive or less, whether Bharti Kher’s most expensive work, The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own deserved the Rs 6.5 crore. But its in-the-face brazenness in acquiring works that are iconic, or talked about, or at the very least large, has at least made it a talking point — whether among collectors or the hundreds (and hopefully, soon, thousands) of visitors daily who come in out of curiosity but are awe-struck by the kind of art they have not previously seen.
There is Subodh Gupta’s nut-brown family astride a scooter, which may at first appear more like a diorama than a work of art, but F N Souza’s lascivious nudes will require commentary, as will the heart-rending majesty of Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Bird that reveals both the power of his minimalistic strokes as well as the bravery of Jatayu’s stand against Ravana. A Ramachandran’s sculpture inverts the game of chess from the Mahabharata, pitting the mothers Kunti and Gandhari in the well-known tale that erupted into the battle of Kurukshetra. It is these carefully chosen works, some from Nadar’s personal collection and others bought especially for the museum, each relaying not just another cultural or social anecdote but mapping the best of each artist’s career, that makes the museum-in-the-mall an experiential delight. The National Gallery of Modern Art boasts enough and more works of art, and paintings such as Tyeb Mehta’s Shantiniketan or M F Husain’s Man and Zameen can prove magical, Nandalal Bose’s ethereal paintings, Amrita Sher-Gil’s transformation from European salon artist to Indian modernist are vividly glimpsed, but it is KNMA which has the “aw! gee!” moments.
NGMA can draw on its vast collection to showcase the vast treasure of Indian art, but it is likely KNMA that will draw the visitors with its careful selection of some of the best within that treasure-chest. While national or prestigious exhibitions will continue to tie-up with and show at the National Gallery of Modern Art, it is the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art that may enhance the value of artists in its collection simply because the very exercise of choosing distinctive works will add a commercial prestige that being showcased at NGMA currently lacks (though it is something each artist yearns for as a form of national recognition). As it converts more casual visitors into gallery- and museum-goers, KNMA will do more to boost an artist’s valuation than simply being part of the NGMA collection currently does.
The NGMA has not bought anything in recent years because of budgetary constraints, a policy it will re-visit, according to Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar, but even in its buying years, it hardly had the funds to buy the best works of artists at even hugely discounted prices. KNMA, on the other hand, has spent liberally on its collection, and has filled the gap with younger artists whose works are not on view at NGMA. As it acquires more celebrated works, KNMA may end up doing for Indian artists in India what Charles Saatchi has done for them in London — even though the former is a museum and the latter a gallery.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.