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July 31, 2017

Kiran Nadar On Being A Collector Who Follows Her Heart

Text by Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar

Whether she is setting up a museum or choosing her next acquisition, she always goes at it with guts and gusto

She is known for being on her toes. “How else would one run two museums? You have to channelise all your energies and work as if there are 12 instead of 24 hours in a day,” says Kiran Nadar, wrapping up work in Delhi before she leaves on a two-month-long voyage that will take her to the Venice Biennale and the Documenta art fair in Athens.

The two Kiran Nadar Museums of Art (KNMA), in Saket and Noida, are emblematic of this prolific nature of their founder and director. Even as we catch up with her and map her significant rise in India’s art mart, KNMA is exhibiting a string of seven exhibitions titled Stretched Terrains that include solo shows of modern masters — M. F. Husain, F. N. Souza and S. H. Raza — showcasing their formative works from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s also the original model of Delhi’s recently demolished Hall of Nations on display.

An avid collector, a philanthropist and an international bridge player who segued into becoming a museum director, Nadar has inspired many within the community. Her affair with art started in the 1980s when she was doing up her house after getting married to technology czar Shiv Nadar. She interacted at length with Husain, who was commissioned to create paintings for her home (iconic works like Yatra and Ganga hold pride of place in her collection). That’s how the romance commenced; of seeing how an artist works, how an artwork develops. Over the years, Nadar’s emphasis shifted from buying artworks to seriously collecting the masters, followed by managing the logistics of owning their creations. As her compilation matured, she pondered over the fact that the works were simply being stored away and not displayed. She hardly got to see many of her own prized possessions. “Great art, and the love for it, ought to be shared. The thought for a museum was conceived through the idea that art should be visible and gain appreciation for what it is,” she says.

Nadar received support from her husband, and together they set up the first private contemporary art museum in India in Noida eight years ago (January 2009), followed by another one in Saket’s DLF South Court Mall a year later.

Over the years, KNMA has regaled audiences with its unconventional exhibits. No matter how difficult the installation process, Nadar was sure that each new acquisition would ensure an enjoyable dialogue between the artist and the viewer. She is quick to point out such works: “Subodh Gupta’s sculptural installation Line of Control (2012) is a good example of a larger-than-life piece; it is 36 feet high, 33 feet in diameter and weighs 20 tons. It was a dexterous engineering feat installing it at the museum. But the response made it all worth it. When there are initial inhibitions about a certain artwork being installed, I just take it up as a challenge. It eggs me on. Over the years I’ve come to be known as a tough negotiator who is not afraid to take risks, and an adventurous art collector,” she declares.

More such audacious acquisitions include Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning (2017), comprising a video installation inside a train coach, William Kentridge’s eight-channel video installation I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) and Shahzia Sikander’s 45-foot-wide video animation Parallax (2013). Adds Nadar, “The collection houses several challenging works that are historically important and address contemporary issues. That is a big reason why we go that extra mile to include these pieces in our museum. The audience loves the awe effect.”

It helps that both KNMAs are huge (the one in Noida is 18,000 square feet and the one in Saket is humongous at 34,000 square feet), so the scope of playing around with exhibits is enormous. “The space, location and contexts of both the branches are unique. The idea of making the museum in a mall was to heighten its accessibility to the general public,” explains Nadar. “It’s heartening to see normal walk-ins. People are happy to discover a quiet, meditative space like this. Also, the word-of-mouth publicity, summer programmes for kids and regular work with NGOs help in guiding public attention to art. It reflects its power to evoke a deep, often emotional, response from its viewer and forges a relation for posterity.”

The works exhibit a brilliant range and variety; a testament to Nadar’s own taste for the diverse and unique, and an eye she has developed over 30 years. She owns more than 250 works, some of which are monumental in their scale and size including those by Souza, Raza, Husain, V. S. Gaitonde, Rashid Rana, Anish Kapoor, Adeela Suleman and Atul Dodiya.

Besides collecting some of the bigger names, Nadar is known for picking certain rare works because of an emotional connection. Rameshwar Broota, for instance, was an acclaimed artist in the early 1980s, but not really the most saleable one. Over the years, her travels took her to various art venues across the world, where she was often drawn to those creations that were considered unorthodox for their time. One such example was Broota’s Runners, a monochromatic work depicting a nude male torso. “I saw it at Triveni Kala Sangam and took my husband to see it. Though I was sceptical, he loved the piece and declared that we definitely must buy it,” quips Nadar. One of her objectives is to discover fresh works by artists that she knows will garner appreciation when brought back to India. “I travel extensively for my passions — art and sports. And wherever I go, my eyes are trained at singling out the best pieces,” she says. However, she feels that her collecting style has evolved since she started KNMA. “Earlier, I would buy a lot on a whim. Today, I try to plug the gaps in the collection; I invest my attention in those artists I would like to collect in depth.”

From her vast collection Nadar is crystal clear about the pieces dear to her. She muses, “My early buys remain closest to my heart, including two works of Husain (Mothers and Matrabhoomi), a signature Manjit Bawa and a Broota, all bought in the 1980s. These got me addicted to art. As far as artists go, I have no particular preferences; I engage with their individual points of view and get fascinated by their imaginative and artistic abilities. I also closely follow the works of Rina Banerjee, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander, Rana Begum, Zarina Hashmi and Krishna Reddy.”

KNMA’s focus extends to much more than what Nadar holds as personal favourites. It has a devoted collection of experimental and contemporary art. An ongoing exhibition Hangar for the Passerby is a narrative on the histories of modern art institutions. “It’s all about a dialogue to communicate this history to the looker. KNMA here is the mediator,” elaborates Nadar, adding, “We brought together the oeuvres of Himmat Shah, Jeram Patel and Nasreen Mohamedi in an art historical way so that the three exhibitions could be seen as breakthroughs in the study of abstraction in modern Indian art.” On the rare occasions that Nadar finds time to unwind, she follows cricket and football, and travels to watch international matches. She did not miss the last cricket world cup, the Beijing Olympics and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Her bridge team, The Formidables, is known to participate in global tournaments.

Her efforts in creating a supportive platform for artists is garnering global recognition as well. Recently KNMA loaned works of K.G. Subramanyan, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Nilima Sheikh and Ganesh Haloi to Documenta 14. “This kind of presence and exposure to seminal artists will have an impact and their contribution will be recognised internationally,” she believes.

It’s tough to describe Nadar in a nutshell. And knowing her penchant for growth, she is far from pushing the brakes. While she is soldiering on to build KNMA and secure the global recognition it rightfully deserves, her educational initiatives are providing young talents with new horizons for thought and execution. “One does not need to ‘try too hard’ to be recognised. If you are a genuine art enthusiast, it is natural that the industry will sit up and take note of your work. The museums are now entities in their own right. That’s just the start though. We are aiming higher, much higher — Delhi needs to be on the art map of the world in a strong way,” rounds off Nadar with a reassuring smile.

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