The RPG art collection is probably the largest privately owned repository of modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures in India. It is the outcome of three decades of collecting on the part of the company’s chairman, Harsh Goenka. Throughout this period artworks have been installed prominently in offices owned and operated by the company.
RPG is a major player in domains like power distribution, information technology, infrastructure, tyres, plantations and pharmaceuticals. Harsh has been chairman since 1988 when he took over from his father, R P Goenka. He also inherited a family passion for art, music and the scholarly world surrounding these disciplines.
Growing up in Kolkata in the early 1970s, Harsh was inducted into art by way of the outstanding miniature collection that the family had built up and which the young boy was given charge of cataloguing. Hasselblad camera at the ready, it would take up to 15 minutes to shoot a single artwork. This exacting work gave him a deep appreciation for art, even if it also left him with a lifelong aversion to miniatures.
His introduction to modern and contemporary art came when Parmeshwar Godrej agreed to undertake the interior design of his new apartment. This was in the late 1980s. He describes her as a woman of ‘impeccable taste’, and it was under her tutelage that he first encountered the few galleries that were active at this time. Beyond Mumbai, his taste for collecting soon saw him get interested in Kolkatabased artists and the school of painting known as neo-Bengal. Traversing half-hidden bylanes by foot, the romance of studio visits soon had Harsh addicted to the process of seeing and acquiring work by this group of artists.
Before long, the desire to mount exhibitions took hold. The first of these was a group show that brought together 75 artists, each producing two works, on the theme of Bombay. Held at the Jehangir Art Gallery, it was on a scale not hitherto seen in the city and attracted huge crowds. The entire exercise was not for profit and kick-started many years of hosting exhibitions, both at the NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art) and the Jehangir. In tandem with regular exhibitions, Harsh also has been holding art camps in collaboration with his friend, the gallerist Vikram Sethi. His enthusiasm for these events is evident; “Some of my best times have been in the art camps. That is the time that the artists are relaxed. You get to know them and their techniques.” It was during the first of these camps that the collector began to request artists to leave behind a small work that was either a self-portrait or, else, a portrait of another artist. This became an obsession of sorts and up to the present moment, he has assembled over 800 works of this nature.
Asked if he regrets not buying any particular works, he recalls eight important Gaitondes that were once available from the widow of a collector, at one lakh rupees each. The result is that he has no examples by one of India’s greatest abstract painters. These individual gaps are more than made up by supremely good examples of paintings by artists such as S H Raza, Ram Kumar, Jehangir Sabavala and M F Husain. From the generation of mid-career artists adorning the walls in RPG House in Worli are two fabulous Atul Dodiya canvas paintings, one of which, Dr Patel’s Clinic – Lamington Road (1995), is simply one of the most important works to have been executed in the last 30 years. In this painting, Dodiya liberally quotes from Indian art history including vignettes in the style of many luminaries that have informed his own practice (artists such as Anju Dodiya and Sudhir Patwardhan). This a painting about painting, housed amid works by the very artists that Dodiya seeks to acknowledge. There could be no better home for it.
Goenka considers himself to have a collection that is not concerned with art history but, rather, is the result of the “whims and fancies of one person”. While it is true that he does not share the standard institutional desire for completeness, what he does have in common with any great contemporary art collection, is a sense of being a part of a certain moment.
Alfred Barr, the legendary first director of MoMA, New York, once said that a museum of contemporary art should be like a comet, with its head in the present and its tail in the everreceding past. This perfectly describes the nature of Goenka’s acquisitions logic, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. He says he would ultimately like the collection to be housed in more museum-like conditions. This space would be located centrally, as accessibility is something he is keenly aware of. Mumbai would benefit immeasurably from such a project.