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Lunch with BS: Neville Tuli

To the vintage born

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Neville Tuli

Osian's inexhaustible Neville Tuli has promised to place at the heart of India's development.

At Osian’s Cinefan, amidst posters and stills from the world’s largest film factory, Neville Tuli, looking frailer than before, is hiding his tired eyes behind dark glasses. There is a sense of ordered chaos as the annual juggernaut of cinema rolls inevitably on despite controversies over the selection of films, over Osian’s own future and, its critics maintain, its financial viability. Whether because of his own overreach, or because he is seen as a flailing Don Quixote, Tuli is never far from the eye of a maelstrom of criticism, writes Kishore Singh.

There’s nothing that angers him as much as accusations about the health of the organisation. “Osian’s,” he glowers into his plate, “has one of the largest collections in the world, of 265,000 original art works and memorabilia owned by us. It’s worth Rs 800-1,000 crore. It’s because of that we have been able to do what we have done, and we’ve sold barely 2,000 works from that collection (at auctions, to fund our ventures).”

We’re having lunch in the staff canteen at Siri Fort Auditorium, the venue for the cine fest. Tuli examines the buffet as if he’s unused to food — which is probably true, he is infamous for his lack of eating — and if his mixed serving of noodles and roganjosh is anything to go by, it’s a pointer not so much to his unfamiliarity with cuisines as his lack of concern for what he eats. We share a table with other delegates. At tables around us, volunteers, directors, actors, writers and organisers are milling around, conversing, eating, leaving.

The previous evening, Osian’s auction of antiquities had concluded with no small measure of success, 35 of the 41 lots, “most selling above estimates, and all but one bought by Indian buyers”, the antiquities themselves — 10th century stone sculptures from Java, a book of Thomas Daniells’ aquatints — brought into the country for the purpose of the auction. Ironically, the auction happened on the 10th anniversary of a previous attempt, when a fragment of a shahtoosh shawl had got the bureaucratic and legislative machinery in a lather, putting a stop to the proceedings “You get ten times the price legally than illegally,” he says now, teasing his small helping of lunch with his fork.

According to Tuli, the antiquities market at Rs 5,000 crore (arrived at on the basis of an estimate of what 1,000 families possess) should yield the government revenue worth Rs 500 crore, “which is why the legislative process must be pushed”, he says. “Ironically, the laws are complicit in encouraging smuggling,” he says, and the only way out might be to “revisit an amnesty scheme”. While it might still be difficult to auction antiques from India in India, “the amount of Indian art outside the country is phenomenal”, and with buyers in India eager to invest in their own heritage, Osian’s has already planned six auctions of antiques over the next year.

The other diners at our table have been replaced by a couple of international delegates from the Far East, and they watch in fascination as Tuli flagellates the air, his flailing arms stabbing at an imagined bureaucracy, legislation and policy-makers because “they have not worked out a development framework for the country yet”. It is his idea that India’s philosophical core is central to its growth, but particularly when it comes to building cultural institutions, to which he has devoted his energies over the last decade. “You cannot flirt with India,” he says, outlining that the model to institutionalise cannot be based on the old one of charity or patronage. “Philanthropy has failed the world,” he insists, arguing that even the American model is on the brink of bankruptcy. “Genuine social responsibility requires a corporate entity,” he points out. “The world has fallen apart financially not because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers,” he argues, “but because emotional motivation has been killed, spiritual motivation has been killed. Consumerism,” he continues, not pausing for breath, “is not everything, technology has dehumanised us. India,” he plays with his noodles, “has potential answers for the world, but because of its own struggle with poverty, it cannot lead the world, though the seeds for that exist.”

Osian’s agenda to place fine art and popular art — Gaitonde and a poster from Guide — on the same platform has worked “with Souza and Swaminath [paintings] paying for people to see world cinema,” he gestures at the cine fans around us, and then he’s off flaying another pet-horse: the “mediocre” education system. “Classroom and tutorials are no longer at the heart of learning,” we accept hot rotis from the catering team, who have been hovering around, bothered at Tuli’s lack of appetite. In the process, he’s launched OLE, or Osian’s Learning Experience, using art and cinema as platforms for education, “where Rishi Kapoor or Rameshwar Broota can be in the same classroom as you, they can be your buddies”, his fork spears the air threateningly.

It is Tuli’s argument that “because India is economically insecure, without economic value she will never value anything”, arguing that Laksmi (or wealth) cannot exist with Saraswati (or knowledge) because “economic logic has a certain ruthlessness that is a bone of contention between the two”. His argument is that “if you don’t sustain values with creative integrity, you cannot build anything”, these values requiring “fearlessness, the ability to question, acceptance and compassion”.

This has been a busy period for Osian’s — besides Cinefan and its auctions, including the recent one of antiquities, it has lauched OLE, to start in January, opened a store at Mumbai’s Vama, Osianama at Minerva is to open some time next year, and its art fund will be redeemed on November 9 “at 5 per cent per annum against expectations of 20-25 per cent when we launched three years ago”, he says. “The strength of art is its long-term stability,” he says. “To be forced to sell under duress in the worst circumstances” has put the market in a tailspin, but having stayed outside “the manipulative bandwagon of contemporary art and sticking with the secondary markets”, Osian’s, he says, has been able to ride the tide.

“I’m a tap,” Tuli laughs self-deprecatingly as I bid to bring the conversation — and lunch — to an end. “We’ve always created wealth for others first,” he says. “Our job is to nurture the secondary market, and we have always dealt with dealers and galleries, not the artists directly, for which we do not mind paying 30 per cent more. We have avoided tie-ups with galleries to avoid accusations of vested interest. We’ve bought from every gallery, we’ve never negotiated prices because I’ve had faith in my eye,” — all of which is commendable given that “we are the biggest buyers in the world, not just in India”.

Don’t believe it? “We have the largest stock of Hollywood memorabilia in the world,” Tuli insists. The international auction houses accept only consignments, and few museums now have attractive budgets. Which does place the 265,000 objects and art works owned by Osian’s in a league of their own. As he replaces the dark glasses over his face, Tuli throws, “It’s been a great journey,” and frustrations aside, “I wouldn’t give it up for all the horses of the world,” he says, returning once again, for the duration of the afternoon, to the embrace of cinema.

First Published: Tue, November 03 2009. 00:30 IST