When Madhu Khanna, one of the few authorities on tantric art, ended a session at the India Art Fair with an exhortation on patronage and the role of collectors, she put her finger on the pulse of cultural legacies that have been noticeable for their absence in the country. The state has made few efforts in this direction, and those who collect art - whether publicly or privately - are treated by the ill-informed janata as whimsical, idiosyncratic beings. Everyone bemoans the lack of cultural institutions, but let someone make an effort to right this and his peers will have a field day pulling him "off his high horse".
This columnist has been fortunate in having the privilege of viewing several private collections that represent the personalities of their owners and can be as intensely varied. Ideally, this is something to be encouraged if collections are not to become cookie-cutter versions of each other. In the West - particularly in America - collecting is cultic. Collections are noteworthy markers of society, and collectors are obsessive. Entire libraries are devoted to the tenets of collecting, and serious collectors leave the results of their efforts not to their families as to art institutions. Incentivisation in terms of collecting in the American manner and following European export laws could sustain India's attempts to provide a fillip currently bottle-necked by "national treasures" and antiquity regulations.
In India too, collectors have built meritorious collections whether from the power of wealth or, often, tracking down rare treasures at great personal cost, waiting for months and years to acquire these. India's reluctance to engage with her collectors and the lack of a nurturing environment - contrarily, there is every chance of harassment - is enough to put off those interested in such pursuits. Yet, India is at a cusp where at least a few are willing to risk their life's pursuit in the care of trusts and foundations. If the state would safeguard their interests, it would be enriched culturally.
If this is happening when the country has just a handful of collectors worth the mention, imagine a scenario if collectors would be encouraged - and not just fiscally. The serious pursuit of art, its scholarship and collecting could spread to millionaire and billionaire families, and if even a few could be persuaded to share that cultural wealth with the nation, it could spin off an entire movement. But do we have the vision to naming wings in our woefully few museums after patrons? Do we have the ability and maturity to distance ourselves from petty tussles of ego to agree to public-private partnerships that will not consign entire collections to dusty basements instead of frequent viewerships? Can we celebrate collecting instead of consigning it to dustbins of memory?
I quote here an email from a cherished acquaintance and one of India's major collectors: "It is very important to follow the US model of encouraging a close relationship between collectors and museum professionals as well as between collectors and the academia. The dependency was so successful that in his memoirs, John Walker, former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, wrote that 'the greater part of my adult life has been spent collecting collectors who would, I hoped, become donors'. Similarly, Paul J Sachs, teaching history of art at Harvard, made his rich students believe that good collecting was almost a moral duty - there being no doubt that he had in mind the enrichment of the North American museums. In New York alone, Philip Johnson, Robert Lehman, Irwin Untermyer, Walter Annenberg, Nelson Rockefeller and Charles and Jayne Wrightsman have given the better part of their collections to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum.