India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
December 20, 2006

Partners In Art

Text by Geeta Rao. Photographs by Ankur Chaturvedi

She is cool, calm and collected, the logical thinker, the perfect consultant. He is the art school grad-cum-industrialist who likes breaking new ground and taking risks. Together they make a dynamic couple who have made art accessible to Indian and international buyers through their portal saffronart.com. Dinesh and Minal Vazirani enjoy their tête-à-tête with Verve and reveal how they turned their passion for art into an innovative business enterprise

The brushstrokes of their relationship and partnership are spectacularly confident as they play out against the burgeoning Indian art market and a global canvas that is splashed with the imprints of Boston, Manhattan, Mumbai, Paris, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. They have just completed their autumn on-line auction which generated sales of $4.5 million and significantly set new auction benchmarks for contemporary artists like Anju Dodiya, Jaganath Panda, Ashim Purkayashta and Jayshree Chakravarty. A year ago, their winter auction was sold out, exceeding the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions and generating $13 million in sales of the masters – F.N. Souza, S. H. Raza, M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee.

As you walk down the vibrant, colourful Saffronart gallery at Prabhadevi in Mumbai, you share some quiet time with the contemporary brigade and the Masters skillfully hung on the wall as they wait their turn to be shipped out. There is a fuchsia and black Justin Ponmany facing the terracotta and green hues of Tyeb Mehta, Surendran Nair’s Stygian Oath cocking an elegant snook at an early pre-Bindu Raza, Jitish Kallat’s Rickshawpolis having a face-off with a cryptic Ram Kumar. This is their gallery space with another in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. But it is the website, saffronart.com, that is the core anchor of their business and the nerve centre of the on-line auctions.

The husband and wife team of Dinesh and Minal Vazirani are passionate about Indian art and making it accessible and easy to view for international buyers and lovers of art who may not always be able to go to the galleries of Mumbai and Delhi. The portal on the verge of closure three years ago is vibrantly alive and their summer, spring and autumn auctions have beaten all records, their winter auction previews will be opening in Manhattan and Mumbai in December as a prelude to the winter on-line auction. But as with all stories of love and shared passions it didn’t quite start here and growth wasn’t as seamless.

They walk into the gallery late but are charmingly apologetic about the delay and the first question that arises is how they curate their own personal lives against the backdrop of art, culture, global wandering and transitions. Is it simpler when you translate a shared personal passion into a viable business model? And of course, the most important question is, how do spouses work together successfully? “When we started Saffronart, both of us knew we had to create something bigger than ourselves. Our objective was never to create another Indian company. We wanted to reach out to international buyers who are people like us…well travelled, comfortable in world cultures, willing to experiment,” says Minal.

On the face of it, they seem to be very different personalities – she is the focused, calm and logical thinker, the chemical engineer-turned-retrovirologist-cum-quintessential consultant. He is the art school grad-cum-industrial engineer-cum-industrialist who likes to fly against the wind, takes risks and wants to do things in a hurry. A chance meeting at a Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco turned into a heated debate and culminated in a hot coast to coast pursuit – he was at Harvard completing his MBA, she was at UCLA finishing her Masters. Suddenly, from being composed elegant interviewees analysing the art market, they are back to being young grad school students, as they break into a mock serious spat as to who chased whom, who made the first move. There is laughter and the ice breaks but Minal has the last word. “He chased me with his video camera all evening and left ninety messages on my answering machine.” Dinesh protests weakly but it does not work. Both agree that the interest sparked that weekend was the real and mutual thing. Married in 1994, they followed different careers, she in consulting, he in the family business of manufacturing industrial cranes.

Coming to India was a difficult transition for Minal who had grown up in the US from the age of three but their families were very supportive. “When I came in, I realised there were unwritten rules of family and society and I was often conflicted – should I blend in or do my own thing?” Dinesh himself had not worked in Mumbai so getting back was difficult but being in the family business made the transition simpler. Minal’s long hours in consulting with Anderson, then Boaze Allen and constant travel made her question why she didn’t do this for herself instead.

Four years into marriage and in India, Minal went off to INSEAD, the renowned international business school in Paris, to do her MBA while Dinesh made, in his own words, “seventeen trips to Paris to spend time with her”. As Minal says, “Nobody but Dinesh understood that an MBA was a logical progression to my career.” That transition helped them monetise the passion for art that had brought them together. She had a minor in art history, he in fine arts even as they pursued their engineering degrees at Stanford and UCLA. They bought their first piece of art on their honeymoon in Bali, an unknown Balinese artist. The next was a Raza they both love.

“When we came back we had no access to art and information about art. We roamed galleries endlessly and built our collection but we just did not get enough historic and archival data or reliable information and prices.” With Dinesh, Minal discovered Raza, Gaitonde, the Masters but she found the early years a bit of a culture shock. “The whole process of negotiating prices for art was something I was not culturally used to.” They both realised there was a market for people like themselves who wanted things to be accessible, transparent and upfront and soon Planetsaffron was born. While their initial plans were ambitious – more verticals into the mind, body and soul (yoga, Ayurveda and wellness) and lifestyle spaces – it was the online art gallery and auction model, saffronart.com that proved most viable. They have their areas of disagreement when it comes to sourcing and leading the auctions and choosing the artists but whoever is chosen to lead gets the final say.

At work, responsibilities are clearly delegated and divided. They have disagreements and endless debate when it comes to choosing the art, “but if you don’t have debate you will make mediocre choices,” says the clear-headed Minal. But they trust each other implicitly to take on where one leaves off and to know that the eventual tastes will be impeccable. “If you put Minal and me in a room full of art it is amazing how we will gravitate towards the same stuff,” says Dinesh, the more ebullient of the two. Minal agrees, “I think when it comes to any kind of aesthetic, we would choose the same.”

What really works in favour of two spouses who operate together? “It is the implicit trust with which you can work that is a powerful element, in fact, the most powerful element in our relationship,” says Dinesh emphatically. They saw it up close when they almost shut down in 2002. “We went through a really tough time and spent hours awake until two and three in the morning for months trying to find solutions,” reminisces Minal, “and we were both very grateful to have each other.”

In the last five years, there have been no private spaces, no downtime. But they made a conscious decision to go away and  “now, when we are on holiday we don’t go to museums or discuss art. We just chill.” Their three-year-old daughter Aria, has made the crucial difference to their lives. “Aria has put everything into perspective for us and thrice a week she comes into the gallery and responds wonderfully to the colours all around.”

Their personal tastes in art meet with artists like Raza and Souza. Workshops with the legendary Souza before his untimely death – their meeting with Souza and their collaboration with him at their Laguna beach exhibition in 2001 – has affected them both profoundly. But they have their other favourites. Dinesh likes Natraj Sharma for his industrial design and sensibility; she likes Analjit Ray for his anatomical precision and now finds she has a deeper understanding of Gaitonde.  Their own collection has Raza and Souza of course but also art from all over – Vietnam, Bali, France and Indonesia.

And what about domestic fights carried over to the workspace? “They have to be dropped as soon as we enter the office. Just shelved,” both answer in tandem. “We owe it to our team,” adds Dinesh, “or things can get awkward.” There are pressures from collectors and buyers and there is the historic context that often dictates prices and choices. And in this environment, decisions have to be made fast and there is constant pressure for validation. “But,” Dinesh interjects realistically, “it is very difficult to be critical of your spouse at the workplace and we realise that. Especially in front of the team.” But having said that they both admit that they do take off on each other. “Sometimes I can say things to Dinesh that I would have never said to my colleagues in the consulting business,” laughs Minal.

They are now gearing up for the change and transitions that all organisations face, as they become successful. Personal and professional goals have to be met. Minal is leaving to be part of an Aspen Fellowship leadership series as we wrap the interview. Dinesh is keen on getting on with his brand extension ideas and the winter auction previews of the Masters are coming up. Keeping the organisational culture alive while building the brand, extending the aesthetic and sensibilities of Saffronart into newer offerings without sacrificing the eye for detail, managing the ground activities and keeping a balanced perspective on their marriage and their daughter is definitely a lot to handle. But as I say goodbye, I sense that Dinesh and Minal Vazirani have the quiet confidence that says they will make it all happen eventually.

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