The city’s lack of adequate institutional spaces to exhibit art is well known. Even Mumbai’s premier institution, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), was never built as a museum but, rather, as an auditorium. It is reason to cheer, therefore, that the city is getting a range of new venues courtesy of the Piramal Art Foundation.
Mr Ajay Piramal began collecting art in 2008, purely as a personal interest, whilst his wife, Dr Swati Piramal, has a longstanding interest in the arts of Persia. In more recent times their daughter, Nandini, and their son-in-law Peter, have developed an interest in contemporary Indian art. The Piramal group is a diversified conglomerate with operations in over 30 countries and a strong presence in more than 100 markets in the world.
Since the late 1980s, it has evolved from a textile-centric business to operating in sectors such as healthcare, life sciences, health care information management, financial services, specialty glass packaging and real estate. Given that the motto of the company is ‘Knowledge, Action, Care’, art acquisition seems a particularly apt endeavor. Over the last seven years, there has been an increasing focus on building a collection that will eventually be housed in public spaces associated with the family’s numerous real estate interests. The first of these venues is ready to open to the public this week at Peninsula Corporate Park in Lower Parel.
This functions as a serious statement of intent and is great news for the city that, up till now, has seen precious few new art initiatives.
The main focus of the art collection is the era of modern Indian art; that is, art produced in India in the years following close on the heels of independence. Of course, the art scene in India in the mid 20th century didn’t appear out of the blue, and so the collection has taken care to acquire work that provides a historical framework: a 300-year historical framework! The Modern art movement in India was loyal to a vigorous synthesis of styles both indigenous and Western. As such they looked to influences as diverse as Mughal and Rajput miniatures, classical sculpture, as well as major figures from 20th century European painting such as Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. The art collection of the Piramal Art Foundation is keen to include works that track these influences, especially as they relate to the history of the arts in India.
The spurt of acquisitions in the recent past has been made both at auction and privately, and a handsome publication, brought out recently, details many of the most exciting purchases from the last decade.
There are a range of works representing a diverse range of styles and movements such as Bengal School artists Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, through to the high abstraction of V S Gaitonde and, more recently, important works by Manjit Bawa.
The team working on the art collection of the Piramal Art Foundation now includes a full-time researcher and a rapidly expanding library.
Scholars will be encouraged to use the collection as source material and the office in Lower Parel has a workspace that will remain open 24 hours a day. As public displays of the collection begin to be rolled out, it becomes increasingly important to the Piramals, and their advisory team, that coherent stories be told through the artworks acquired.
At a moment when many feel that the existing history of modern Indian art is in serious need of revision, this news is particularly welcome. And it is not always the big headlining histories that are the most interesting. As an example, the team recently discovered that amongst the several views of Benares present in the collection, painted over a span of 200 years or more, the same vistas keep on popping up. To be able to trace the architecture of cities, through the visual record left by artists, is but one of many possible microhistories waiting to be told.
The future of the Piramal Art Foundation, as told by Mr Piramal, sounds promising. “I would like to organise workshops where young artists come and they get the opportunity to develop their art, and then provide them the gallery space where they can get some value out of their art”. He continues, “Art should be in everyone’s lives irrespective of what economic strata you come from. And this we hope to achieve in whatever little way we can, by supporting artists and building collections that the public can enjoy.” This sounds an engaging proposition, and something that has not been seen in India since the opening of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi, in 2010.
As this column continues to trace the histories of great corporate and institutional collections of Mumbai, the Piramal Art Foundation takes its place as a ‘future great’; an exciting addition to an already illustrious group of corporate names that have taken a leap of faith and looked to art patronage in a serious and sustained manner.