By Mortimer Chatterjee
Published in Mumbai Mirror | 9 November, 2015
Starting at 7.30pm on the 19th December 2013, Christie’s held its first auction in India, at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. It brought together a group of paintings that, by 11pm, became the most valuable group of paintings to have ever been assembled in the region for the purposes of public sale. After the auction, collectors bubbling with excitement emerged from the banquet hall. Descending the grand staircase, they passed a group of paintings from the collection of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, put on display especially for the event. On the wall were fine examples by the very same artists who had just achieved dizzying prices at the auction: S.H. Raza, V. S. Gaitonde, Jehangir Sabavala. Here, in the collection of a single hotel, were artworks that could compete in quality with best that an international auction house could assemble. The point being made by the management that evening was clear: theirs is no ordinary hotel art collection. There are few places in the world quite like the hotel, and there are few art collections quite like the one on display there.
The creation of the Taj Art Gallery in the 1950s gave the hotel the ability to acquire first-rate art. The gallery saw a very great many of the most important artists of the era mount exhibitions. In the absence of a large commercial gallery scene, it made sense for artists to rent the space themselves. Of course, the fact that there was an art gallery did not by itself guarantee that the hotel would take the initiative to build a collection. Two women in particular are to be thanked for the acquisitions process: Rodabeh Sawhny (the sister of JRD Tata) and Elizabeth Kerkar (wife of then general manager, Ajit Kerkar). Over a large spread of time, they took responsibility for the furniture and furnishings of the hotel and saw to it that paintings were purchased at a rapid rate. Before long, a particular taste can be seen to have emerged. It tended toward a monochromatic palate with a definite bias for abstract painting.
Highlights in the collection include a number of Ram Kumar works, all abstracts, spanning a substantial part of the artist’s career (the earliest dates from 1965; the last was executed in 1987). There are a number of canvas works by V.S. Gaitonde that hone in on a key period for the artist, between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s. Other major names included in the collection are Jamini Roy, K.H. Ara, Tyeb Mehta, N.S. Bendre, K.K. Hebbar, Vivan Sundaram, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and B. Prabha.
Two artists who have had extra-close relationships with the hotel are Jehangir Sabavala and Laxman Shreshtha. In the case of Sabavala, there are paintings in the collection that he created whilst living for extended periods at the hotel (the artist’s father was part of the hotel’s management). His sensitive watercolour on paper rendering of the harbour view, as seen from the sea-facing rooms of the hotel, is today one of the most well known paintings in the collection. Laxman Shreshtha has been a friend of the hotel and its management for many decades, and this is evidenced by the significant holdings of his work. One painting, in particular, that deserves highlighting is the collaboration that he undertook with Ratan Tata; a canvas that today hangs in the Heritage Wing of the hotel.
Subsequent to the attack on the Taj, in November 2008, the hotel underwent a large series of renovations to the public areas, the rooms and the suites. As part of these changes, the display of the art collection was completely overhauled in order to give priority to its most important works. A large conservation program saw many paintings undergo thorough treatment. Walkthroughs of the collection, by trained staff, were put in place to highlight the masterpieces. In addition, in a number of public spaces (such as the Habour Bar, the Ballroom and the Heritage Wing Lounge), special care was taken to create a conversation between the artworks on display.
Today the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, art collection is presented in a manner that does justice to the quality of the paintings themselves, and adds character to an already extraordinary environment. Excitingly, plans are afoot to reopen the Taj Art Gallery before the end of 2015. Given the fact that the hotel finds itself located in the heart of the city’s art scene, with galleries clustered around the property, this initiative seems well placed to recapture the hotel’s position as a pre-eminent venue for buying art.