Priceless Art? Turn Right at Noida


Being India’s biggest collector doesn’t mean hoarding art selfishly. Sahar Zaman gets a sneak peek of Kiran Nadar’s new museum

Enlightenment  Kiran Nadar under an untitled Anish Kapoor work, at her museum
Kiran Nadar under an untitled Anish Kapoor work, at her museum
Photo: Kavi Bhansali

IF YOU have followed the art auctions in the past five years, and wondered who went home with the show-stoppers on the cover of the auction catalogues, look no further than Noida. Here, in the Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts (KNMA), you can gently let your jaw descend at a Raja Ravi Varma from 1894, FN Souza’s Nude with Fruit (1958), MF Husain’s Ganga of the early 1970s, a Raqib Shaw, the first ever seen in India — The Absence of God (2008) — and Anish Kapoor’s untitled electric blue disc from 2009. And all this that is on display, forms only a fraction of Kiran Nadar’s personal collection of 300 works. Luckily, for the rest of us, Kiran likes to share.

A long-term art collector, Kiran plans to open up her collection to the public soon. Kiran is married to HCL founder Shiv Nadar and has dreamt of a museum since 2000. “It’s better to display art than to have it in storage or personal space,” she says. She launched it in January this year at an elegant but make-shift space at the HCL headquarters in Noida. The collection will be housed independently by 2012 in the vicinity. The Nadars have already set aside Rs 600 crore for the museum. It merely awaits an architect who shares Kiran’s vision for a highly contemporary museum.

At our first meeting in 2007, during an Osian’s auction, 59- year-old Kiran Nadar was a striking contrast to most art collectors. Indian collectors are usually secretive, nervous as they are about the gentlemen from the Income-Tax department. But Kiran, in her bubbly, exuberant manner, confessed that she loves art and is addicted to buying it. Stepping into the KNMA three years later, it is easy to believe her. Kiran’s collection, with a net worth of Rs 250 crore, is fairly eclectic.

She has a fantastic collection of Gaitondes and leans towards the moderns. But none of the contemporary art in her collection are minor notes: Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Jagannath Panda, GR Iranna, TV Santosh and of course, Raqib Shaw.

Her final bid for SH Raza’s Saurashtra broke all previous records in the Indian art market — Rs 16.4 crore

Kiran is a confident collector who trusts her instincts and likes to enjoy the process of buying art. If you know that she is a formidable bridge player who has played against Bill Gates and represented India at the World Bridge Championship, you will have a sense of the game face that she brings to art collection. At art auctions, she does not have people bid for her. She always bids herself. Take her latest acquisition — one that many column inches around the world were devoted to. In June, Kiran bought SH Raza’s Saurashtra at Christie’s, London. She had seen pictures of it and knew the significance of this seminal 1983 work — a painting from an important period when the Paris-based artist was returning to Indian aesthetics. When she finally saw this most ambitious of Raza’s works, Kiran says she was blown away. The day before, hers had been the runner-up bid for FN Souza’s Red Curse. Bidding for Saurashtra, she was tense, excited but aggressive. Her final and successful bid broke all records in the Indian art market — $3.49 million (Rs 16.4 crore).

Flower children Kiran Nadar with Venkat Bothsa’s Enigma
Flower children
Kiran Nadar with Venkat Bothsa’s Enigma

Kiran’s vast energy is visible in everything she does. When she worked in advertising, she helped shape the formidable NIIT brand in computer education. An ardent sports-lover she travels 10 days in a month and has just returned from the football World Cup in South Africa. What is surprising, especially standing in her new bastion of high art, is Kiran’s frank enjoyment of pop culture. She is a die-hard fan of reality TV and gleefully says she would love to be the judge for a song and dance show. “I would like to be remembered as somebody who really did everything with commitment,” she says.

The Nadars are quite involved in philanthropic work within the traditional framework. One of their initiatives has been the Vidya Gyan School, a 20-acre campus that provides high-end education to underprivileged children from Uttar Pradesh. But Kiran’s personal crusade in the realm of art education — with little hopes of instant gratification — is one that wealthy Indians have so far been disinterested in. She outlines the dismal terrain clearly, saying, “We just have a handful of serious collectors in our country. Anupam Poddar (of Devi Art Foundation) is showing cutting edge contemporary art in his museum, Rajshri Pathy is planning an art college with a museum of her collection in Coimbatore, Rakhee Sarkar will soon have something in Kolkata, but what about the larger body of Indian corporates who make big profits? There were talks of major houses getting involved which hasn’t fructified. It would be great if more focussed private entrepreneurship came into the museum space.”

Through her collection Kiran hopes to influence India’s museum policy for contemporary art. Currently, in India the duty on importing art is a steep 20 to 25 percent, making even ardent collectors pale. So Saurashtra — the superstar among Kiran’s collection — is still waiting to arrive in India. Kiran says, “We are trying to get the government to give a tax exemption for museums. The tax structure for art is unrealistic in India. China has given a five-year tax holiday to art and the US has zero duty on art. So for a museum, to get this kind of work is important. Culture Secretary Jawahar Sarkar has been very supportive so far to consider a plea to the government that we get a tax exemption for Saurashtra.” Kiran is hopeful of the tax exemption but determined to bring Saurashtra home anyway. She says, “If we can’t get clearance, we will still get it in by paying duty. It’s not often that you get a Raza of this quality.”

THE INDIAN art market is only 0.04 percent of the international market. Characteristically, Kiran doesn’t respond to this with platitudes about our steady growth. “A Picasso can go for more than $100 million so where are we at just $3.5 million for a Raza?” she asks. In a country without a museum culture, sustaining the 80,000 sq ft-planned KNMA is bound to be a challenge. But she remains pragmatic about the scene, saying, “Donations and funding for a museum come at a later stage. We are at an initial stage where we are doing it all on our own. You can’t expect people to come and fund you unless you are well-established.”

Art journalist Sahar Zaman’s television show Art Wise is set to air on Bloomberg UTV

Photo : Kavi Bhansali


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