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Alwar Balasubramaniam, Knots, 2011

One of the world’s foremost collectors of Indian art, Kiran Nadar founded her first museum in Delhi 10 years ago. Now David Adjaye is designing a new building to house her collection and share it with a wider public. E Jane Dickson went to meet her. 

‘Art should not be locked away,’ says Kiran Nadar, and one imagines vaults the world over springing open at her words. It is clear, within moments of meeting her, that this is a woman who gets things done. ‘It’s true,’ she says, smiling warmly. ‘I am very determined. Building a collection requires a certain focus, and I am very focused on making art part of everyday living in India.’

In only a decade, Nadar has built, from scratch, the first private museum of modern and contemporary art in India, and already the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi has the clout of a national institution. More than 6,000 pieces describe the arc of Indian and South Asian art, from late 19th-century masters such as Raja Ravi Varma, through the modern explosion of the Bombay Progressives, to conceptual, confrontational works by emerging artists.

‘It’s quite encyclopaedic,’ Nadar acknowledges. ‘I have actually collected at great speed in the last 10 years. I have no background in art, but I started collecting to decorate my private residence and became very enthused. Once the house was full, I was just putting the work into storage, and that didn’t feel right. My husband and I have a lot of philanthropic projects, and I thought, well, an art museum is also an act of philanthropy — let’s do it.’

Shiv Nadar, a pioneer of India’s IT industry, who founded and chairs the $8.6-billion global tech company HCL Enterprise, was swiftly drawn into his wife’s new passion. ‘My first acquisition for our house in Delhi was a very graphic male nude by Rameshwar Broota,’ says Nadar. ‘It was quite a courageous purchase, and my husband said, “What are you doing, buying a painting like this?” I said, “Well, I’ve bought it. If you don’t want the painting, then we have to go and tell the artist.” 

‘So we drove to Rameshwar’s studio to look at the piece, and once he saw it my husband was convinced. He said, “You know, you are right. We should buy this.” And he has been very supportive — though maybe not as much as he grumbles — ever since. I would never have been able to build the collection without him.’

The Shiv Nadar Foundation is a field leader in social-impact projects. To date, it has established a research-led university, an engineering college, a school and a model village, with the purpose of raising the aspirations and achievements of India’s poorest. Nadar sees KNMA in the same light.

‘It’s impossible for the state to do everything,’ she says, ‘and our state institutions are not being run as they should be. I felt that the country has a lot of responsibilities and that the private sector should pitch in. Art was one area where I felt I had a contribution to make. So the museum is free to anyone who likes to visit, plus we have a lot of educational and outreach programmes.

‘We bring in busloads of students and schoolchildren, help them to understand the exhibits, and provide art materials for them to create their own work inspired by the pieces in the museum. I feel very strongly that the museum should be a place of confluence, where art is not merely housed and displayed, but is discussed and appreciated as a way of engaging with the world.’

KNMA’s current location, in a shopping mall in South Delhi’s Saket neighbourhood, was part of Nadar’s strategy to reach the people. ‘Art is not a great interest in Delhi,’ she says. ‘Mumbai has a lot of interest, Kolkata has a lot of interest, but Delhi is a bureaucratic city; people would rather wander around a mall than go to a museum.

‘We’ve had a lot of success bringing in working people, and there is support from the middle classes, but the elite has no interest at all. It’s partly to do with the fact that art isn’t considered an asset class in India.

‘In the West, if you have a million-dollar apartment, you have art worth two to three million in that apartment, but this is not the case in India; the elite invest in property, they invest in jewellery, but they don’t think of art as an investment.’

While this is not wholly bad news for a collector, Nadar takes the large view. ‘Contemporary Indian art is very undervalued. There should be a parallel with art prices in China, but that hasn’t happened. After the Lehman Brothers crash, Chinese art lost as much as Indian art, but in China they recovered everything.

‘In India, the people who built contemporary art collections bought with the sole idea of appreciation, and when they got their fingers burnt, they just got out of the market and never came back. It’s not just Chinese people investing in their own art, they also have a lot of Western investors. So part of KNMA’s mission is to stimulate international interest in contemporary Indian art.’

Nadar’s tastes are broad. Her London apartment (she also has homes in New Delhi, New York and California) is dominated by a dark Chittrovanu Mazumdar canvas featuring an anguished figure and a real noose (‘I like the way the rope comes down,’ says Nadar equably). Diagonally opposite, a tiny, glowing Satish Gujral offers a vision of agrarian contentment.

Since founding KNMA, however, Nadar has widened her scope still further to reflect the museum’s commitment to diversity.  ‘When I first started collecting, the Progressives were my mainstay; these were the paintings I wanted to have in my house and look at every day. I have an amazing collection of F.N. Souza — I think his heart speaks out in his brushstrokes — and I have a huge affinity for S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain.

‘I also love people like Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, who were not part of the Progressives but a similar kind of grouping; and more recently I have started collecting Mughal and Bikaner miniatures.

‘Collecting for the museum is slightly different. Each piece is personally selected by me, and, while I don’t only buy what I like, I still don’t buy what I don’t  like. But I’m sure that will happen at some stage. If a particular area of work that we don’t already have comes up at auction, then I will try to get it.’

Auctions are viewed with gladiatorial relish. ‘I bid on the phone; I feel less conspicuous that way. But even so I think most people know when I’m bidding. And yes, I have a reputation for not giving up easily.’ A battle royal at Christie’s in 2010 for S.H. Raza’s abstract Saurashtra left Nadar the owner of what was then the world’s most expensive Indian painting sold at auction (for £2.4 million), a record she later smashed with the acquisition of F.N. Souza’s Birth ($4 million).

She can’t help yearning for ‘the ones that got away’, but she sees the value of setting a limit. ‘I’m learning that I have to give up sometimes, that I can’t have every work,’ she says, although it’s possible her fingers are crossed.

As it stands, the collection is remarkably comprehensive, and it is no small measure of Nadar’s reach and influence that the award-winning Indian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale was curated by KNMA (most of the funding and some of the exhibits were also provided by Nadar). A striking photo-installation by Shakuntala Kulkarni featuring women encased in bamboo structures was a reprise of KNMA’s 2012 exhibition, of bodies, armour and cages; with its layered references to patriarchal control and acid attacks, the work speaks clearly of the museum’s willingness to confront societal issues.

‘Women artists haven’t had the attention they deserve in India, and I must say that what we have done for women artists has been very much appreciated,’ says Nadar. ‘It was a major coup when our Nasreen Mohamedi show travelled to the Reina Sofa in Madrid, and then went on to the Met Breuer in New York.’

While KNMA is a rare platform for overtly political art in the National Capital Region, Nadar acknowledges the restraints of an essentially conservative society. ‘We were due to have a show of the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana,’ she says, ‘but when the trouble between India and Pakistan started up again, we decided we had to cancel. If I had brought in Rana’s work for a massive show at that time, it wouldn’t have been appreciated, and at this stage in life I don’t want to get embroiled in politics.’

Obstacles, however, are far outweighed by opportunity. ‘We have this great heritage of art,’ she points out. ‘There is the hugely important architectural tradition of Jaipur and Udaipur and the Taj Mahal. But, over the centuries, most of our classical paintings were smuggled out of India; they’re all in the West. So it’s time to reharness and reignite that sense of cultural patrimony with modern and contemporary art.’

As India enters a fresh phase of institution building, Nadar has commissioned the award-winning British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye to design a new, iconic building — ‘a monument to art’ — to house the collection. Was there pressure from her compatriots to choose an Indian architect?

‘No, there was no pressure. I’m funding it myself, and I just thought having an architect from abroad made a little more sense, because they have more museum-building experience. That was a big criterion in the selection process. Look at what happened with the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Who knows what this could do for Delhi?’

Pressure, one imagines, is a spur to Nadar, who, in her other life as a competitive bridge player, represents India at a national level. ‘The people I play bridge with don’t know my art world at all. Some are professional bridge players, some work with the railways. They’re from different social strata altogether, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all concentrating on the game. The only time you lose at bridge is when you lose concentration.’

Separate worlds, but transferable skills? ‘Perhaps,’ says Nadar, smoothing the folds of her salwar kameez with flashing, jewelled fingers. ‘Perhaps there is a certain killer instinct.’

-E. Jane Dickinson