Before commercial galleries began to flourish in the early 2000s, art collectors needed to be more self-reliant than is the case today. Searching out artists and their work necessitated a dogged persistence that the present generation of collector may not recognise (bombarded, as they are, by galleries reaching out through digital marketing). In the years when the modern Indian art era gave way to the contemporary, one of the most formidable corporate art collections to have been assembled was undoubtedly that of the Associated Capsules Group (ACG) Worldwide and the Singh family.
Associated Capsules Group is one of the largest manufacturers of empty hard gelatin capsules in the world. It is today an integrated partner to the pharmaceutical industry. The founders of the company, Ajit and Jasjit Singh, along with Jasjit’s wife, the famed interior designer Kavita Singh, are responsible for building a collection that now numbers over 400 individual paintings and sculptures.
Growing up between England and Europe, the brothers had developed an appreciation for Western art and, upon their return to India in the mid-1960s, they quickly began acquiring work by Indian artists in depth. Ajit believes that artists at that time “worked with a passion, though were never fairly compensated.”
An artist whose work was acquired early was M F Husain and Ajit remembers that his paintings were “stacked on the floor in the Gita Art Gallery, at the Oberoi, New Delhi. I used to acquire them just with money left over in my pocket.” Soon many other names would be added, many of whom became the trailblazers of the decades between the 1960s and 1990s — Rameshwar Broota, Jehangir Sabavala, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Anjolie Ela Menon, Bikash Battarcharjee, S H Raza, N S Bendre, Shiavax Chavda, Arpana Caur, B Prabha, Murli Lahoti, Jatin Das and Shanti Dave.
It was not long before artworks were being hung both in ACG offices and, also, the new factories that were being built across Maharashtra. Given that Kavita Singh’s flourishing interior design firm was responsible for fitting out these spaces, the focus on high quality art was almost inevitable. At this time Kavita was gaining a reputation as a tastemaker in the city, and her signature style was, and still is, evident in many Mumbai best homes. In addition managers of offices were allowed to loan works and display them at home.
This continued until the rise in the value of individual works meant that it was safer to make reproductions for sending to managers’ homes.
During the early years of the ACG art collection, it was still fairly unusual for Indian corporates to acquire aggressively and so there was a fair bit of media attention. Ajit deftly used this platform to put forward a compelling argument for corporate collecting.
He made it clear that he and Jasjit were never concerned as to who the painter was that they were buying, rather it was the work that needed to speak to them, “We have collected many paintings which depict a management principle or capture and freeze a thought or reason for success or failure in a commercial endeavor. In such cases, the appeal of the painting for us was in the message that the painter had unwittingly put onto canvas.”
This was an entirely new way of thinking about paintings, and created a synergy between the art acquired and the context in which it was displayed. As an example he points is the magisterial canvas painting of card players by Krishen Khanna. Here huddled figures are immersed in a game, swaddled in a conspiratorial cloak of dark green. These inscrutable characters are open to a whole host of interpretations.
However, the story that Ajit weaves is one about fate and luck and the element of chance that is as much a feature of life as it is of business. Positioned above the table in his well-appointed office, Ajit’s inner sanctum, the painting functions at the level of decoration, of instruction and, not least, of a heightened aesthetic sense.
Acquisitions continue by both the brothers and there are plans afoot for a major publication on the collection. Today a large range of art advisors exists in India, but what make the ACG collection special is that the family is so involved in every aspect of acquisition and display. It is their engagement with city’s art scene over such a long span of time that marks theirs as one of the truly great corporate art collections of Mumbai.