"Noida?" I am questioned by incredulous colleagues when I mention about my impending trip to the Swaraj Art Archive. At a time when south Delhi continues to reign as the undisputed hub of art in the capital, it is somewhat surprising to find an art archive located in this neighbourhood, situated just across the Yamuna. Located in Sector 2, Noida, Swaraj is owned by art collector and philanthropist Vijay Aggarwal. It was started with the intention of documenting, preserving and showcasing Aggarwal's family collection.
Housed in a spotless white building, spanning 10,000 sq ft across three floors, the glass facade sets the mood inside - misty light on a wet winter day adding a melancholic touch and on other days, the bright sunshine bringing every painting in the gallery into sharp spotlight. The ground floor houses the gallery [spread over a little more than 3,000 sq ft], with the two floors above acting as the office, storage space, restoration facility and the library. "Aggarwal comes from a family of collectors, with his great grandfather inculcating an appreciation for art in the family," says Smriti Rajgarhia Bhatt, curator at the archive. "His father, Seth Jai Prakash, built an impressive collection of Kalighats, Bengal school paintings and British Indian prints," adds Bhatt.
Aggarwal is not a flamboyant collector, who makes his trips to auctions and galleries visible with aplomb. Those who know him describe him as a silent art enthusiast who has collected extensively during his travels in India and overseas, especially during 1960-65 when he worked as a project engineer in the US and then during his 20-year stint with the international commodity trading firm, Marc Rich. "Three years ago, he decided to put his collection together so that it could be properly housed in one place. One extra space was put in to act as a viewing area for art enthusiasts who visited him," says Bhatt. In 2013, he decided to take this endeavour forward by creating a place where people could come and view the depth of Indian art. "His collection contains artwork from 1900s to 1980s, with at least one work of almost every Indian artist from the pre-independence to the post-independence era," says Bhatt. Some of the treasures from the collection include a portrait by Raja Raja Varma, Raja Ravi Varma's uncle, drawings by Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood, Jamshedjee Jeejeeboy's portrait by M F Pithawalla and a large collection of watercolours by Bhupen Kakar.
His team of art experts describes him as someone who buys what is aesthetically pleasing, without being market driven. Since 2013, Aggarwal has put up an annual show every year. "Based on the theme, we bring out paintings from his collection, which are on display the entire year. The rest of his collection remains in the storage space. Usually, the shows are open to public between January and February and post that, they can be viewed by appointment only," says Bhatt.
The upcoming show at the archive is Stri Avalekha - a series of 300 artworks by Indian artists such as M F Husain, Aparna Caur and Jamini Roy. These have been divided into four categories: nudes, couples, mother and child, royalty and devotion. "We are not putting artists' names on the wall so that viewers can see the art in its entirety and not be driven by the names," says Bhatt.