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First day, first show

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Kiran and Shiv Nadar will throw open their collection of art this evening at the HCL Technologies campus in Noida. Kishore Singh gets a preview before the formal opening of this private art museum, the first of its kind

Today is judgement day of sorts for Kiran Nadar. In the evening, as the chatterati of the capital cross over the Yamuna to its east bank, they will come to build — or break — the reputation of the card-playing wife of the founder of HCL Corporation. She will discover whether the ambitious Kiran Nadar Museum of Art will prove to be the proverbial albatross, or a memorial to the art she has been collecting, mostly unknown to her friends, for over two decades.

Till yesterday, these were just paintings on her walls, stuff you might expect the wife of the $5 billion technology czar to have bought for pleasure, or even on a whim. Today, things have changed. Others might covet the Husains and Razas, but these and other works, the space, the displays and the diligence that have been brought to the effort, will also be judged by serious professionals: curators and critics, artists and gallery owners, and even a whisper of criticism might damage the standing of this private museum of modern and contemporary art.

OTHER VENTURES

  • Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon houses Anupam and Lekha Poddar’s significant collection of Indian and southeast Asian contemporary art. The Foundation does around four shows a year, curated from its collection. These are open to all
  • KMoMA, the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, is an ambitious project, with a budget of Rs 500 crore, and designed by Herzog and De Meuron (of Beijing Bird’s Nest fame). It is scheduled to be complete in 2013
  • Rajshree Pathy, industrialist, plans to open a contemporary arts museum to house her personal collection, built over 25 years. Scheduled to open in January 2011 in Coimbatore

Hereby hangs a tale
Kiran Nadar has a particular tale to tell. Long before Shiv Nadar became the success he is today, he would pray to calendar images of Lakshmi and Saraswati, the kind familiar to most Indians and sold from every sidewalk. When the original Raja Ravi Varma paintings of the deities came up for sale at a Bowring’s auction, Nadar was quick to ask his wife to snap them up at whatever price. The two paintings hang in his office, the garlands of fresh flowers that adorn them changed daily, and today, for a change, Kiran rather than Shiv might consider paying obeisance to them before the start of the evening.

For her efforts will be rewarded, or resisted, not far from where these two canvases hang. Within the sprawling HCL campus in Noida, where her Bentley currently draws more appreciation among the employees than this, her obsession, a sprawling but draughty 13,000 sq ft space has been carved out of the staff cafeteria for the temporary museum. It will showcase 48 works that have been curated by Roobina Karode, who took over as director of the museum in August last year. Karode herself seems rather shaken by the speed at which events have converged to this evening — a reneging chief guest, air-freighted catalogues, last-minute invitation lists, the usual chaos. “But at least we’ve made a beginning,” she says.

The beginning, actually, was a longer while back, at a time when the Nadars had met, fallen in love, and married. As most couples do, when setting up their home, Kiran bought a few artworks from their friend and artist Madhoor Kapur. This was in 1975, perhaps in 1976, but Kiran’s obsessive collecting would begin in the late ’80s, when they needed to “dress up” their new home in New Delhi’s Friends Colony East. Many of the works the couple “commissioned” are from this period — two Husains, one of which will be shown this evening at the museum, a Manjit Bawa “which I think is his greatest work”, a Rameshwar Broota...

Kiran has a special Broota story too. In 1987, she spotted a bold, male nude by Broota at Triveni, a New Delhi art gallery, and took home an image to show to her husband. Shiv was no collector, though he didn’t mind funding Kiran’s interest. “He took one look at the picture and said are you kidding, our daughter is seven, my mother lives with us, she’ll be horrified,” hiding his disapproval behind paternal propriety. “I told him I was committed to buying it,” says Kiran. “He grumbled and mumbled all the way there,” she laughs, “but the moment he saw it, he said we had to buy it.” Runners is “one of the jewels of my collection” and is also on view at the museum’s debut exhibition.

Kiran’s friends — at least those who don’t own galleries or auction houses — may not know her collecting streak, but they’re all aware of her bridge playing abilities. Yet, any time away from competitive bridge is devoted to sourcing out works that Karode describes as “seminal”. Because Kiran preferred to buy from auctions, “60 per cent of the collection consists of paintings that have won cultural consensus, or acclaim,” says Roobina. When the art became too much to hang on the walls in Delhi, the Nadars shipped some of it off to their home in California. Other works are in Shiv’s Noida office. But there were still many more, and Kiran was still buying, which is why, “four or five years ago, I decided I would do something more serious with the art I’d collected”. Shiv was “arm-twisted” into agreeing to give her, first, half the space in the cafeteria, but eventually a building with 80,000 sq ft of space for a full-fledged museum within the campus. “Kiran has a passion for monumental works,” says Roobina. “When I saw the diptychs and triptychs, I realised they were ideal for viewing in a museum.”

To the good gentlemen at HCL Corporation, or even The Shiv Nadar Foundation that runs educational institutions, an art museum must have been a considered shock. “Shiv Nadar and family own a fair number of shares of HCL, and The Shiv Nadar Foundation is funded from their personal earnings,” explains Sundarajan M, vice president, corporate brand strategy. “The main expenditure will be the capex on the museum building,” he adds. “It was an expensive ambition to have, though Shiv was supportive,” says Kiran, pointing out that the corpus “will be replenished as required on an annualised basis by Shiv Nadar and family.”

Actually, it isn’t a huge collection — yet — but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in volume. In numbers, it must be no more than 300-odd works. Nor has it been collected purposefully. “It isn’t encyclopaedic, it has obvious gaps and an uneven nature for people from an art background who’re trained to see in a time-line,” says Roobina, “but what is so exciting is that it’s a growing collection,” one for which an advisory board has been established and which, she says, “will think deeply of the process of collecting works”. Kiran, though, says she would “at least like the freedom to buy as I choose, though I’m open to advice”.

Convergence and confluence
“There are just a handful of serious collectors in India,” opines Kiran, “and no more than five probably who spend more than $1 million annually on buying art.” Dealers remember that at the India Art Summit in New Delhi last year, she created a buzz by picking up the India-born, British-resident sculptor Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel and lacquer work as soon as she set eyes on it. “In five minutes, flat,” word was out that the Summit’s most expensive sale had been made. Yet, Kiran is aware of the pitfalls of buying for the sake of it. “If you buy frenetically, you won’t get the best,” she says, so new additions in the New Delhi-based Rajendra Kumar & Associates designed museum — she’d like the curved building in its surround of straight-angled towers to be ready 18 months from now — may not be frequent, but Roobina says the space will be interactive, “a place of confluence”, open to collaborations as well as to loaning or borrowing works to enhance the visual experience.

They couldn’t have begun better than at the HCL campus “with 22,000 members of the 65,000-strong HCL family in the National Capital Region, and if you include their families, there is a huge opportunity to reach out to a middle class with no exposure to art”, points out Kiran. The museum, though, is open through the week to the public — including walk-ins — though it’s by invitation only this evening.

“I hope,” sighs Kiran, the gravity of the moment suddenly staring her in the face, “that they see the honesty of the effort and don’t view it merely as something dilettante.” Whatever the consequences of its first public outing, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art will change the landscape of collecting in the country. “I believe that art, like music or literature, has an ability to express feelings or thoughts that we all have experienced at one time or the other. Good art, therefore, becomes part of us and our consciousness. I am fortunate to have enjoyed some very good art that Kiran has collected over the years,” says Shiv Nadar. “The museum will be a platform to share this experiencing of art with the HCL family and with the people of India and the world who should know more about the richness and depth of Indian art.” One thing is sure: Lakshmi and Saraswati would approve.

STARS OF THE SHOW

Forty-eight works is a small number to show off a collection, let alone the might of Indian art of a little over a century. Roobina Karode, director at the museum, says the inaugural exhibition pays homage to the artists of the subcontinent — Anish Kapoor, Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet as well as Raquib Shaw’s Absence of God, a 1894 Raja Ravi Varma Untitled, Gulammohamed Sheikh’s poignant Speechless City, to more recent works by Atul Dodiya, T V Santhosh, Jagannath Panda and Subodh Gupta. The masters are represented too, but the most monumental works are those by Vivek Vilasini, Avinash Chandra and Surendran Nair (all 10 ft), Shazia Sikander (16.5 ft), A Ramachandran (23 ft), and N S Harsha (28 ft).

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First Published: Sat, January 23 2010. 00:07 IST
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