The Samdanis are married to art

The Samdanis from Dhaka are today the most influential couple from South Asia known to the world of art. Here is a look at what drives them

Rajeeb Samdani and Nadia Samdani

Rajeeb Samdani and Nadia Samdani

Ritika Kochhar
Did you visit Golpo?” was the question everybody with any interest in art was asking this February. Golpo (Bangla for “fantasy” or “fairytale”) is where Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, art collectors and founders of the Dhaka Art Summit, live with their three daughters in Dhaka.

Golpo houses some of the best modern and contemporary South Asian and international art in the world. Even an international art dealer like Georges Armaos, from the Gagosian Gallery in New York, gushes as he compares Golpo to the Eczacibasi House in Istanbul.

“They are both narrow, six floors high and filled from ceiling to floor with art. The difference is, Faruk and Fusun Eczac?ba??’s family founded Istanbul Modern — the museum that BBC says changed art in Turkey. And, the Samdanis got there independently,” says Armaos. “They’re young (Rajeeb is 41 and Nadia 34) but their vision is unprecedented. You’ll have to work very hard to find someone with their vision.” By the standards of international art world, the Samdanis operate on a shoestring budget.

Nadia grew up in a family of collectors and bought her first artwork at 22. And Rajeeb, who is fairly proud of never completing college, now owns a conglomerate called Golden Harvest Group, which has interests in Bangladesh and Dubai. He is also secretary general of the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation. But in matters of art, he says Nadia is his inspiration.

Together, they’re the only ones from South Asia, among Artnews’s list of Top 200 collectors for 2015 and on Art Review’s Power 100 list. In other words, they’re the most influential couple in the South Asian art scene today.

At Golpo, the artwork includes Picassos, Rembrandts and Tagores. And also Mithu Sen, Begum Tayeba Lipi, Lala Rukh and Raqs Media Collective. It is a fairytale place, with a gritty modern touch.

From a quiet lane, you walk through the gates onto a video installation set in the path. It shows a baby chick embryo whose wings are being moved by ants so that they look like they’re flying. This famous video installation called Icarus by Sen was released in 2008 to mixed views on whether it was art. Above the entrance door is a huge sign picked out in neon lights that read, “Sold Out”. It’s a 2012 piece by Raqs Media Collective that I last saw at the India Art Fair. A large French window to the side has a fountain in front of it that has disembodied hands coming out of the ground holding hand grenades.  

The waiting room and lobby with white walls on the first floor of the six-floor house is disorienting because it’s so bland after the interesting exteriors. But when you look around, there’s an unmistakable Anish Kapoor mirror at the far corner. The Samdanis say they spent a year looking for a piece they liked. Next to it is a series of Zarina Hashmi’s works with their clean monochromatic lines, interspersed with a similar work from the same genre by Prabhavathi Meppayil called Untitled II (2009).

A big part of the influence is through the bi-annual Dhaka Art Summit. The third edition held in February was attended by over 120,000 people, including over 600 visitors from around the world. As Maria Balshaw, director, Manchester Art Gallery, exclaimed, “Half the world is here. Perhaps, because it isn’t a fair (the art isn’t sold), there is an excitement, and a generosity and warmth in the presentations and in the interactions between the people which feels very different.”

What the Samdanis are trying to do is summed up by Farooq Sobhan, a board member of the Samdani Foundation and an ex-foreign secretary of Bangladesh. “In the early days, I was inclined to see their initiative as a cross between an experiment and an adventure because, in many ways, they were breaking barriers and entering uncharted waters.” But not least among their achievements was persuading the government-run Shilpakala Academy to make their facilities available for the art summit, says Sobhan.

Towards this, they’ve displayed endless diplomacy, hospitality and an energy that’s kept the summit going. Nadia personally greeted every visitor to the summit on the first day. Rajeeb escorted guests to the Parliament building, sent friends to eat the best fish curry in Dhaka and even loaned his helicopter to artists travelling to the Gupta period excavation sites.

The couple was often at the venue till 2 am, looking after site preparations. The lifts would stop working at 10 pm and they’d take their shoes off so that they could continue running up and down. And immediately after the summit, they took their team to Singapore for a Madonna concert.

As Adam Sheffer, president, Art Dealers Association of America, puts it, “They are among the most serious and genuinely committed collectors I have ever met.” His first meeting with them was amongst the bustle of the opening day at Art Basel. “Nothing in the world could have distracted them at that moment. Perhaps this comes from living in such a place as Dhaka, I thought,” he says.

This vision has entered a polarising area as well: the South Asian Acquisition Committee at the Tate Museum for Modern Art, London, that Rajeeb co-chairs and they both helped found. There’s a school of thought that questions money from the sub-continent being spent on buying South Asian Contemporary Art but for a foreign museum. Rajeeb defends this saying, “South Asian art needs more exposure. Tate is the first international museum that has seriously looked at South Asian art. This gives the next generation of curators, academics and collectors access to the region. Within the region, this has led to collaboration.”

And that, two weeks after the summit, isn’t the only thing the Samdanis are focusing on. They have just co-founded the Arts Advisory Council at Harvard University’s South Asia Institute. In the third week of April, the National Museum, Dhaka, will exhibit 18 Tagores from their private collection. They’re also setting up a second, permanent space in Sylhet, where Rajeeb was born and where they run a charitable hospital.

Nadia says, “Acquiring art is simple, building and sharing is different. But our agenda is to have fun. While it feels good when people say we’re among the top collectors, no price tag can buy the happiness of showing art to 2,500 children. ”

So how do their daughters react to growing up amidst so much art? Nadia giggles, “Whenever we have a rehang, they choose what goes into their rooms and on which walls it’ll be displayed. They always want to know the story behind the sculptures. And I often hear them respectfully explaining the artworks to their friends.” Rajeeb mutters bemusedly, “The youngest one chose a Mithu Sen Butterfly for her bedroom.”

What about them? Do they have different tastes in art? They both demur. They can’t remember a disagreement. They have the same taste. And the Summit is a crazy project. They support each other through it.

Small wonder then that my flight from Delhi was filled with collectors and artists. The world, after all, loves visionaries.

ALSO READ: The art treasures at the Samdani residence

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First Published: Feb 27 2016 | 12:29 AM IST

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