WHEN A PAKISTANI lawyer filed a petition in Lahore High Court seeking the return of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro, the 3-5 millennia old sculpture brought to New Delhi from Lahore in 1946 and currently housed in the National Museum, he disregarded that state’s neglect of its arising identity from the Indus Valley Civilisation to which India sources its origins. The turnaround resulted in bemused questions about cultural and historical roots and genesis, but draws, again, to the idea of identity that art privileges, and has been at the crux of countries laying claim to works of artistic heritage that have been looted, seized or obtained as war booty. The British Museum in London is a reservoir of such treasures that countries as far apart as China, Turkey and Iraq are demanding be returned. Egypt wants its Rosetta stone, Greece its Elgin Marbles, India has made a case for the Kohinoor diamond, and Nigeria is staking its claim to over 700 Benin bronzes. The Ethiopians want the Axum obelisk, seized by Mussolini as a war trophy, restored to its rightful place. Given this template, Pakistan’s arguable demand for the return of the Dancing Girl could well be justified—except, its movement from one museum to another, in 1946, even as a temporary loan, took place in undivided India, making any attempt at reparation an ethical—to say nothing of complicated—issue.
Very little is known about the Dancing Girl, and certainly nothing about its ownership, the artist, the patron who ordered it, or, indeed, whether it was a child’s toy or a work of aesthetic appreciation for adults. We can at least guess the ateliers and the wealthy who commissioned the elaborate caves and frescos of Ajanta and Ellora under a religious edict, but the artists themselves have remained anonymous, their greatness surviving in the form of a collective rather than individual merit. Hieroglyphics and pictograms on the pyramids recall the names of the great pharaohs of Egypt, and sometimes their artists, but of those who carved the exquisite sculptures of Konark and Khajuraho, the Ranakpur and the Dilwara Jain temples, no more is known than we do of the artists who fashioned the bas reliefs at Mamallapuram. The names of the kings, or dynasties, or merchants who ordered them are at least documented in regional history, but the artists themselves survive only through their work in anonymity.
Considerably more is known and made of those who unleashed movements that came to be known as markers of a new age of civilisation— the Renaissance—with the Medici family of Florence leading not just to the creation of great works of art, but also unleashing voyages of discovery and maritime trade that paid for these artistic wonders, placing patron and artist, for the first time, at par with the other: a marriage that has survived well into the present day, but a relationship that is much more tenuous than it was in its time. Not dissimilarly, the Mughals and various Indian kingdoms commissioned rare treasures of art and architecture that have survived centuries later, even as we continue to examine and uncover the relationship—and names—of artists and their patrons.
Today’s patrons are not mere rulers and the wealthy; they can be faceless institutions and organisations, or bustling biennales and art events. Art itself is a tradable commodity, an asset class, no less significant than gold, real estate or shares. It is invested in, sold and resold, faked and copied. Arguments about who is the greater—the patron for recognising worth and creating a market; the artist for talent’s sake alone but unwilling to risk the bondage of a garret— are argumentative. Culture itself is a loosely enough bandied term, more easily identified with jingoistic nationalism. And art is easily subsumed into the national narrative, as happened during the course of India’s struggle for freedom from the colonial yoke, when the Bengal School of art practice came to signify a native Indianness that bypassed the academic art taught at the British-led art schools set up in mid-19th century India, and which came to represent a strident nationalism in the form of Abanindranath Tagore’s wash image of Bharat Mata, or Mother India, that represented its peak.
It was an era when patronage of art was a lively concept. The royal families with their pomp and splendour were the greatest consumers of art and architecture at the time, abandoning their ancient forts for the relative pleasures of more modern lifestyles in palaces designed by British or other European architects in the manner of the mansions and palaces they built for themselves in Calcutta and Bombay, Madras and—with the shifting of the capital—New Delhi. In Jodhpur, the royal family pressed the Polish artist Stefan Norblin to create murals at the Art-Deco Umaid Bhawan palace just as, decades before, a visiting Turkish artist had painted a portrait of Bikaner’s Maharaja Sardar Singh along with his courtiers at Junagarh’s Badal Mahal. Not all forays were always successful: Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum displays art and memorabilia collected on the whimsy of Nawab Mir Yusuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III, the prime minister of the seventh nizam of Hyderabad, whose three-decade old collection was built in the first half of the 20th century. And Kolkata’s neoclassical Marble Palace, highly regarded for its collection, chose well in some cases if not wisely in all. In both cases, quantity trumped quality.
The traditional ateliers with generations of families of artists who were hard pressed to create evocative miniatures with mythological, historical and literary renditions found their art challenged with the arrival of colonial artists who charged a hefty fee for realistic paintings made with oil paints on canvas that were glamorous and appealed to their gut instincts. As palaces opened themselves to commissions from these travelling artists, as well as paintings and sculptures by Western artists acquired during their overseas travels, the classical miniaturists saw a loss of prestige, even though their work did not suffer overmuch. The greatest patrons of the time were the Nawabs of Arcot and Avadh. In response, many self taught themselves to paint in the exotic style of Western artists, most then moonlighting to create for wealthy families in the cities of Bombay and Madras where their efforts resulted in commissions of portraits by Parsi families and the emerging rich.
Art is a tradable commodity, an asset class, no less significant than gold, real estate or shares. It is invested in, sold and resold, faked and copied
IT WAS INEVITABLE that the yoke of patronage, then, would pass to the new elite who exercised strict rules for the process of selection, nowhere in more evidence than the Bombay Art Society. But artists who were selected for its annual soiree, and those who went on to win its coveted prizes, immediately became the toast of society, creating a rigid establishment that was broken only with the Progressive Artists’ Group consisting, among others, of the artists FN Souza, MF Husain and SH Raza. It is a moot point whether the patrons who came out to support their efforts were the mentors (and art critics) Rudy von Leyden and Walter Langhammer (of The Times of India and The Illustrated Weekly of India respectively), or the city’s merchants and professionals who inherited art as part of their Western-oriented lifestyles. By the 1960s, institutions such as the Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship played a critical role in selecting, to send to New York to study, Indian artists, whose works they and other American collectors began to acquire—and which is only now coming to light as succeeding generations consign those works to auctions for considerable sums whether in America, Australia or Europe.
It is those rising values that have been at the forefront of media interest in recent years, as prices of Indian modern art have risen against all odds. Artist Krishen Khanna’s Rs 1,000 acquisition of a painting by fellow-artist Akbar Padamsee in 1959 recently saw its sale for a mouth-watering Rs 20 crore. Gaitonde and Souza, and indeed Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Amrita Sher-Gil’s values have soared, the first peaking at Rs 30 crore.
But who are these collectors, this new breed of patrons for whom value may or may not be a stimulant, but rarity and the excitement of the chase is the high? Many of these, we are familiar with. Institutionally, the Tatas were among the earliest collectors, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research remains a storehouse of some of the most significant mid-20th century Indian art. Collectors at the time included Jehangir Nicholson, now honoured with a wing at the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum—renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya—in Mumbai. London-based Kito de Boer, New Delhi’s Rajeev Savara, New York’s Akhil Mago, Philadelphia’s Ajay Raju—these are just some of the better known among a host of collectors whose efforts have resulted in talking points among the art elite.
Others have spun off their collecting interests into something altogether more significant. Kiran Nadar of the eponymously named museum in New Delhi (and Noida) has not only brought art to the global forefront, she has single-handedly taken Indian modernists to global heights. Her museum’s retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi was shown at the Reina Sofia in Spain, and at the Met Breur in New York, leading to recognition (and record prices) for the highly-regarded but little-known artist. That the outing in the Big Apple was supported by the Reliance Foundation, and the presence of Nita Ambani standing beside Kiran Nadar, led to speculation about the Ambanis’ interest in institutionalising art, something that is eagerly anticipated. Antilia, their landmark home in Mumbai, has its own collection of art especially commissioned from artists with strict injunctions and legal paperwork around any disclosures. However, punters believe it to be mostly mythological, or decorative, considered anathema in terms of serious collecting. Previously, it was Tina Ambani’s Harmony Foundation that created an opportunity around annual curations of art, but has been quiet over the last years. Meanwhile, recently shown retrospectives of Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi have considerably helped raise the profile of these artists and could lead to similar, significant developments as happened with Nasreen Mohamedi. (Museum shows are a popular way of creating intellectual as well as financial value for artists, as the VS Gaitonde exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, and the Bhupen Khakar retrospective at Tate Modern, London, have proved.) Nadar’s support to contemporary artists is equally well known, but it is not avarice that is the basis for these buys and curatorial outings, but responsibility and recognition at their heart.
Rajeev Savara is guarded about the extent and quality of his collection—among the most highly regarded in the country—but he too intends to place it on public display with a museum that is intended to come up on the banks of the Ganga near Rishikesh. He spends almost as much time chasing specific works he has set his eyes on as he does in his library reading up about artists and their works, and is among the better informed collectors in the country. Swati and Ajay Piramal’s Piramal Art Foundation in Mumbai has opened the first of what it hopes will be a scattering of pop-up style museums in the city, and besides its own collection, has already brought a rare exhibition of Raja Ravi Varma paintings to Maximum City. GVK’s Reddys were able to highlight how a collection can be quickly built in a country such as India when it launched the new airport in Mumbai with a dazzling assortment of folk, tribal, modern and contemporary art and craft curated by Rajeev Sethi for its Jaya He Museum, a first-of-its-kind experiment to turn an airport into a museum, even if the result is comme ci, comme ça. As for the Poddars, mother Lekha and son Anupam, their Devi Art Foundation, once regarded as the most significant players in regard to the consumption of contemporary art (and not just from India, having shown Pakistani and Iranian artists in their museum), have quietened a little—perhaps preferring a back seat from the heady world of art with its stress and pressures.
For, to be a patron is to be feted and celebrated on a global platform, invited for panel discussions at faraway biennales and soirees closer home, chased by art fair professionals and pursued by marketing executives brimming with ideas for collaborations. Being in the limelight has its pleasures, but it makes the pursuit of art public rather than private. Galleries and artists who are able to armtwist these and other significant collectors to attend openings are equally vocal when they choose not to acquire from them, for to be a collector is to be picky and selective, not merely dispensing largesse and funds (even though it is easy to be swayed). For the true pleasure of patronage is private: in those moments, at home, sharing a work of art with oneself or with friends, discussing its finer points, is reason enough, oftentimes, for building such formidable collections.
For now, there is no precedent for these private collections to be gifted to the National Gallery of Modern Art in the form of galleries, as has so often been lamented, for they are a record of India’s artistic story and excellence. And yet, they hope for a change to see the emergence of art philanthropy as happens in the West, and particularly the US, where the names of contributors to the country’s artistic heritage are enshrined forever in the halls and corridors of their generosity and largesse. Modern architecture in India is faceless and has not contributed to a future legacy—as India’s medieval and ancient monuments have done—but art, at least, has the ability to bridge time and survive across history, long after its corporate histories and personal wealth have disappeared into a fugue. Reason enough to hold on to the Dancing Girl even as we continue to aspire for the Kohinoor.
The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of Essays, click here