A discussion about
private versus corporate collecting
and the contemporary art scene in India
Dr. Renate Wiehager, head of DaimlerArt Collection (RW)
Anupam Poddar, collector Delhi, India (AP)
Ranjana Steinrücke, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, India
The discussion took place in the home of Anupam Poddar, Delhi, spring
RW: Anupam, would you be so kind to explain how the collection started?
AP: Well, my mother had been buying a lot of Indian contemporary art from
her generation in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, which were contemporary
at that point in time. If I'm not mistaken, by about 1995, she stopped
buying art for various reasons, we were involved in many business projects
and moreover didn't want to continue acquiring art if there wasn't space
to show it.
We moved into a new
house and in my part of the house, I found the art my parents collected
somewhat disconnected with my life, because it wasn't my generation, and
it did not speak to me. In addition, the scale of certain things was wrong.
In our new house, I wanted to focus on just a few works, so I started
to buy art in 2000. I would buy things specifically for a particular wall
but that changed over time, because once all the walls were full we wanted
to continue to buy art. We were doing it because we wanted to enjoy it,
and with the hope of being able to live with the works at some point of
time even though it wasn't immediately possible.
Poddar vor einer Arbeit von Subodh Gupta,
it became a passionate obsession in a very lovely way. I think it's truly
an addiction, and one that I enjoy, because in many ways it keeps my thoughts
off work, and all the serious things of life. I also find that art really
opens up my mind, because it makes me look at the same thing - it could
be an object or an idea - in a fresh way. I think artists who create interesting
art have great courage to be able to look at our world that way, it's
courage that I don't have, so I also enjoy it from their viewpoint.
RW: And was it
a definite decision in the beginning to go on acquiring Indian art or
did you consider the opportunity to also include international art in
your collection later?
AP: No, it was
very clear that we wanted to stay with Indian art - also because while
we were slowly building up the collection, we weren't really aware of
doing it - we were simply buying things and we wanted to promote India,
not necessarily just art. It could have been textiles, architecture,
or design. We wanted to remain true to giving Indians an opportunity
that they might not have in other ways. While we continued to collect
art, the collection became distinctly Indian, containing a few important
pieces from this particular generation. We found pieces, which were
historically or politically quite important that we might not have considered
before. Another shift that happened was that at a certain point we started
thinking of creating a foundation, hosted in Delhi. In India right now
not many spaces exist in the art world, which are not based on profit.
With this, our collection started to evolve in a different direction.
To make it more interesting within the region where we are based, we
wanted the subcontinent to come in at a later stage, which is what we're
doing now by making comparisons with Indian art. You know, being in
India we might be very close, physically, to Pakistan or Afghanistan,
but we don't know what is happening in the art world in those countries.
For example, it would be interesting to see video art from Afghanistan.
RW: Would you yourself consider it as being a progress, that you started
with painting, graphic and wall works and then you went on to include
AP: Absolutely. We
certainly started with paintings and works, which one is able to mount
on a wall quite easily, then progressed quickly to sculpture. I think
also because the space permitted us to display sculptures and installations.
Our consideration was: could we enter a room and live with the installation.
We were restricted by the fact that a lot of available space would be
taken up by these kinds of pieces.
There are all kinds
of inhibitions in our minds and as we get deeper into the art world, it's
important to break these rules. I don't know what the next step will be,
but I do keep saying that we are looking at art with a fresh eye without
the restraints of space, not just with regards to display but even with
the concept of storage, without putting restraints on medium. For example
five, ten years ago video [art] would have been a new and exciting medium,
today it's widely used by many people across the world. However, painting
can also still be new and fresh.
RW: . Anupam,
everybody is always so interested to learn a little bit about the history
of the family, besides the art obsession.
AP: Well, I come
from a background where both sides of my family are heavily involved in
industry in India, in different ways. We are from Rajasthan from a community
called Marwaris who were traditionally the traders and moneylenders in
the community. So, having come from that background
RW: What business?
Can you specify
AP: The main business
of the family is a paper company in South India, [which is] probably [one
of the] three largest paper factories in India. The other business is
the hotel, which I look after. We also have a family-run charity, including
a charity for animals.
Bindi (gefärbter Filz und Klebstoff), Bettlaken
mit Skulptur von Ravinder Reddy,
RW: And how long
have your parents been living in Delhi now?
AP: About 30 years,
RW: 30 years? And
you, how long have you been abroad?
AP: I went to England
to do my A-levels and then stayed there for university, as well as getting
experience working for certain banks, so I was away for seven years
RW: In London?
AP: In different
parts of England including London, but traveling around a lot. Every
summer I took the opportunity to either learn a language or work in
a different country, as the university course enabled that. So, by the
time I came back to India I had lived in London, of course, New York,
Madrid, Paris, and also Germany for six months. It was exciting; just
being able to see the world at such a young age. When I came back my
family said, we think you should be living here in India working on
the hotel project. So I gave it a try and I must say I don't think I
could be happier anywhere in the world. The opportunities that India
offers today are immense, and I think there are people with a certain
education background who can make a difference in any field. It's interesting
to be a part of this India.
RW: And you have
tried, as I understood, to also integrate artists with commissioned
projects in your hotel business you are building. Is that right? Can
you explain this a little?
AP: That was actually
an idea to work much more with craft people, because Rajasthan - where
we were renovating an old building into a hotel called Devi Garh, it's
an old fort palace from the 18th century - has such a rich heritage
of craft. All the rooms are different because of the structure. Even
in a house today, nobody creates all the rooms in exactly the same manner.
Hotels do tend to do that for various reasons of efficiency but the
building forced us to do things in a different way and we wanted to
use local craftsmen and the local materials, to present the new face
of India. The mix of the old and new [in the hotel] is also what India
is about and that is heavily based on craft. Our work includes wall
paintings, frescos and inlays, amongst other things. The hotel also
has commercial aspects to it, but the scale is such that one can dream
of and design interesting things in these architectural projects. It
is fascinating. You can incorporate different crafts and materials and
India allows it, because there is every material available, there are
also people who can work with those materials and it's affordable. Today,
we cannot construct these buildings in the west easily, but it's possible
RS : It's a living
tradition that we still have - that is the unique thing about India.
We've got the industrialization but we still have all the handicrafts,
and all of it is still a way of life and not only something that belongs
in a box.
AP: It's a living
culture on every level, just like you say, and of course it's a large
country, with a diverse culture. So a lot of these things co-exist and
are around at the moment, which also shows up in the art world. You
see people with different backgrounds who have been influenced by the
region or by their childhood.
RW: And over the
last two days, we have been discussing the problem that somehow the prices
for the most important artists in India are extremely imbalanced. How
do you deal with this strangely overheated market?
AP: For me it's like
art has been turned into a commodity and people are looking at it as an
investment and talking about it as something to be traded almost like
vegetables, or the stock exchange. People will buy it and sell it to make
a profit. I think people have forgotten how to look at art and how to
recognize if they really want to live with a particular work for the rest
of their life. For me the criterion to be able to want to buy an artwork
is: that I can't live without it.
At the moment, the art market is certainly enjoying its own peak, which
is a good thing, the artists are prospering and they are able to create
larger and more adventurous works at a certain level, though some people
are too busy making quick works and the quality is suffering. In the long
run I think, we will look back and realize that it wasn't the best way
for the Indian art market to develop.
RW: As you mentioned
today when you talked about the art market in the USA in the 1980's, when
there were all these really strange stories about artists being hidden
in the basement, who had to work in the gallery somehow and couldn't go
out before they had finished. And I think it's so strange that in a way
it seems to be part of a certain development that cannot be avoided somehow.
I mean, India is going through it and China has gone through it and is
still doing so.
AP: But having said
all this, in the last two years all assets in India, whether it be property,
the stock market, art, the price of gold internationally, or jewellery:
anything, which could be viewed as an investment in India, has skyrocketed.
This is also what is happening with the art world.
The economy is booming, there is money, people don't know how to invest
it at the moment and art seems to be a viable option because of the media
hype. But there's also this quality of wanting to be appreciated for being
intellectual or sophisticated, or as having taste. It's this whole competition
thing of wanting to keep up with the neighbors. It's a little bit of a
game at the moment, but people will hopefully grow out of this, but we'll
13 Knochenobjekte mti rotem Samt
Title: High Life II; 2002
Stahlkännchen auf Drahtgerüst
RW: When you lived
in London, in Paris and wherever you've been, did you follow contemporary
AP: Yes, my holidays
were extremely hectic holidays. We visited all the museums, all the
architectural sites in any country that we went to and we tried to go
to a new country every year and spend a week or two looking around there.
I would go to all the art exhibitions in London and because I don't
think many of my friends were interested, I would go alone, which retrospectively
is interesting, because I learned how to make my own decisions [and
appreciations]. So it's a strange sort of adventure.
There is a great
companionship in it, between just looking at the works and following
what's happening in the art world, but also getting to know the artists
and seeing how they think and how they evolve and what their next shows
or projects are like. I look forward to the next show like a child might
look forward to a toy store.
RW: We have discussed
the problem that for a broader community there is no real opportunity
to gain access to contemporary Indian art or international art, because
there are no places, no museums, just a few galleries, and there are
no art critics, as you said. What do you think, how can this develop
in the future? How can the next step be made?
AP: I think it
may change very quickly, because in the last couple of years a lot of
international museums and institutions, like yours for example, have
now started to have really large group shows of Indian contemporary
art in the west. All of this is about people being curious about what's
happening in India. This is the first step towards being able to get
some kind of information.
Slowly, as this
continues to develop more, I think there will be institutions, which
will be set up in India because the people who are involved in the art
world want to be involved at different levels. This is kind of a general
problem of any developing country in the world, not just India, where
the basic infrastructure and the basic needs of a lot of people must
be met before a certain luxurious, elitist concept of art gets promoted
or paid attention to.
RS: The private sector for example often funds hospitals and provides
basics which in any developed country, the government would be responsible
for. They support society in that way. But whether one approaches the
private or public sector for sponsorship of major exhibitions, the answer
is usually that they don't have the money for such things as they are
still trying to provide basics to society, and art is a luxury.
Second Skin; 2005
Fiberglass, Stoff, Acrylfarbe
Elusive Solutions/ Need Sharp Scriptures; 2004
Oil on Canvas
140 x 360 cm
AP: But don't you
think people would be interested?
RS: They would
be, because art has become much more prominent and is something that
seems to be viewed more importantly in society, though some years ago
this was not the case. And I guess again, the economic factor plays
a role, because art has become economically interesting. The work of
even the major artists had been selling for 10-15.000 USD and is now
selling for a hundred times as much, which makes much more sense, because
their work was very under-priced. It wasn't even looked at or taken
AP: The economic
value at the moment is now also giving art credibility. There is intense
pressure on the government to maybe set up organizations to promote
contemporary or classical art. It might just be that the private sector
steps in and not the government and things will move on from there.
RS: Or it might
be that there will be other investors, like the Guggenheim. You never
know. It might be that we have a Guggenheim before we have a National
RW: Are there some
corporate collections in India of interest, you would mention, since
we have a private/corporate dialogue?
AP: I think some
of the larger corporations, do have collections, but whether they are
described as corporate collections or private collections is another
thing. But then they are also extremely structured in terms of opting
for the names which are important or fashionable. So, a corporate collection
in India tends not to be an exercise in curatorship, but an exercise
RS: The chairmen
do have collections, they just don't do it professionally. You know
Anupam, I think you are the first person here who has hired a curator
for his collection. Corporate collections are very, very mixed, including
some of the worst works of art you can imagine combined with a few interesting
pieces. Now things have taken a new direction, in that there's a sort
of passion or driving force behind it. But still, people mostly just
make desperate shots in the dark to pick something up.
AP: It's also a generation
thing, I'm sorry to put it like that, but it is also because I'm responding
to a lot of works at this time of my life. 20 or 30 years later, when
there might be something that requires a lot more effort and work, I might
shrink away from that responsibility. I might just be tired, exhausted,
and too busy with other things.
I think it's also
a question of creating a balance between finding the time and doing it
at a comfortable level. My generation is so involved in knowing the artists,
knowing the works they are going to make in advance, being in touch with
the studios and the galleries and building a rapport you have with these
people. Because now 500 people are fighting for each work, so very few
people have easy access to good contemporary art in India - there are
very few shows that do not sell out in India.
RS: Most of the
galleries don't even want to tell their clients when they are opening
a show. You try to avoid telling too many people beforehand. Because
people can be very pushy, so it's sometimes unpleasant and you just
try to filter the news out little by little. The most unpleasant situation
is when you have something available, and everybody pulling in different
AP: Every show
is pre-sold, by the time you get to the preview. If you think you have
the chance to buy something at the preview, forget about it.
RS: But this situation
also existed in Europe sometime back when people stood waiting at the
gates of art fairs, to dash in the second they opened.
RW: This happens
still. I mean, I was never part of it, but I know the stories. Everybody
with a mobile phone, running around the fair and making phone calls.
AP: But I never
go to art previews now, because you can't get to see the art and everything
is sold, so I have to go before. I mean at some point before to the
studios or the galleries as they are installing the works.
RS: I think the
interesting collections in India certainly include that of the Deutsche
Bank, built around 12 years ago. They made a concept and traveled all
over the country and selected fresh young talent, and works by masters,
and put it all together very professionally with the involvement of
an art committee. At that time there was nobody in India who did it
like this. When their board member, Dr. Herbert Zapp, inaugurated their
Bombay collection at the Tata Palace, he said "I feel I'm launching
the first contemporary art museum in Bombay". It has fantastic
works by artists from three or four generations.
MN: I would be interested to know more about the point you mentioned,
to compare the art in India with other countries in Asia, not so much
with Europe. How would you describe that situation?
AP: The borders,
the boundaries, the languages, the people, the food, the religion - everything
in this region has shifted. But there are so many overlaps and similarities
and differences within the region, that's why the comparison is interesting.
Also from within, because we understand the problems and appreciate the
difficulties ahead and those in the past, we ignore many of these difficulties,
because we also take things for granted and we focus on the things that
are of interest to us. That is why the region is important in my mind.
India certainly plays a leading role in the region at the moment as far
as the art world goes - for various reasons: maybe the economics of it,
or the scale and the size and the diversity of the art world available
Having said that
I think a lot of exciting work is happening in different countries, which
nobody has seen. For example, in Pakistan, I would say the quality of
art is amazing. Extremely young artists straight out of college have a
strength that I have not seen in many people who have worked on their
career for twenty years. So it would be exciting to see how that develops.
But a lot of people don't go to Pakistan and do not have access to see
that art, because of travel restrictions imposed by their governments.
I think the contemporary
art forms other than painting and photography and video are more stimulating,
and installation work and sculpture still has to mature a little bit.
The same goes for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which is all that I've seen
so far. We haven't got to Bhutan, Nepal or Tibet yet. They are sparks,
it's how India used to be five or ten years ago. It's very similar, it's
like deja-vu almost, because you go and see a lot of art in this intense
manner and there are few very inspiring artists. A lot of it might seem
too dull to us, but these few sparks will be fascinating to follow to
see what happens next. And I think they need the support of maybe even
AP: Because, even
economically a lot of people from Pakistan show their works in India at
prices which we would compare to the west, so they are showing their works
in Europe or in India at the same price. But they're showing it in Pakistan
at a lower price. So, India becomes the foreign country which in their
minds has the same economic power as Europe. We should encourage them,
saying we like some of the works they are making and we would like to
invite them to the show in India. Let's have a dialogue, let's have an
MN: What makes
the art in India so unique compared to the other regions?
AP: I think we
just had a longer and stronger tradition, which means actually that
I think all the countries have an equally long tradition, but over the
years, the tradition has survived in India. It has been encouraged,
there have been patrons who have always wanted to create interesting
art forms, not necessarily just art, and have kind of developed regions
of artisans and artists who are extremely skilled and have taken their
craft to another level.
RS: This kind of
patronage has been more prevalent in India. For example, my mother recently
went to Vietnam and she found that this kind of cultural segment is
lacking there. It's all very basic.
AP: India isn't
isolated, a lot of these other countries are isolated, to pick up on
what you were saying. It's difficult for them to travel, it's difficult
for them to get visas and also to go to other parts of the world. It's
very expensive, not a lot of people can afford it, it's the same in
India, it is expensive, but I think a lot more Indians interact with
the west by traveling and then come back with fresh ideas and that helps
RS: This is also
an issue. Thirteen years ago when my husband first came to India and started
to collect art for the Deutsche Bank, he asked a leading artist the big
question: "what is Indian about Indian contemporary art?" And
this artist retaliated with "what is German about German contemporary
art?" But of course we all know that German contemporary art is indeed
very German. All their social and political situations were infused into
their art which was not happening for quite some time in India - or if,
then on a very superficial level.
AP: But for the young
generation now all this has been infusing into the art as well.
RS: It is, that's
right, but I tell you for instance, I have just made a studio visit to
Kiki Smith in New York and if you look at her books and publications and
you talk to her, you will be amazed at how many artists in India are lifting
her ideas. I talked to another very astute collector in Bombay, who became
conscious and aware of these issues of 'derivation' after starting to
visit Documenta and Venice, and Basel. It's something to consider.