Kiran Nadar in her museum
Kiran Nadar in her museum

In India, there is no difference between a museum and a railway platform. “They are both boring places,” the painter A Ramachandran has said.

The Delhi-based art collector Kiran Nadar describes India’s often lacklustre museum scene more politely: “India has a great heritage of art, but unfortunately it’s kind of lost at the moment. Museums are not on people’s agendas, especially in Delhi. In Mumbai and Calcutta you still have a museum-going public but Delhi is not as involved with the arts. I would like it to become part of lives here.”

And Nadar has put her resolve into action. Shoppers walking into the South Court Mall in New Delhi are confronted by a giant mushroom-cloud of steel pots, pans and tiffin tins. The title of Subodh Gupta’s sculpture “Line of Control” alludes to tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, while its form references the atomic bombs with which both states are armed, and its component parts are the everyday objects of people across the Indian subcontinent. The striking sculpture is a clue that this particular mall boasts something other than upmarket fashion brands, Starbucks and Pizza Hut: it is home to a museum of modern and contemporary Indian art.

Subodh Gupta in front of artwork
Subodh Gupta in front of his ‘Line of Control’, in the South Court Mall

“Line of Control” was bought by Nadar from Hauser & Wirth, and the museum, which opened in 2010, houses the rest of her collection – the country’s first private philanthropic museum. With a full-time curator and exhibitions drawn both from its own collection and others around the world, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) has a reputation as one of the most important visual arts centres in India.

Sitting in the museum’s small, well-stocked library, Nadar, 62, is softly spoken and elegantly dressed in a kurta blouse and dupatta shawl. She explains that when she first started buying art in the late 1980s she had no grand notions of filling a museum; she was simply setting up home with her husband, Shiv Nadar, founder of IT conglomerate HCL and himself a notable philanthropist (his eponymous foundation funds the museum as well as schools and universities across India).

Eventually she had so many pieces she was unable to display them all, and decided “to do something else with this urge to collect than just put the works into storage”.

The first work she bought was by the late Indian modernist painter MF Husain, and she went on to collect other works by members of the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists Group to which Husain belonged. She has since expanded her range to take in contemporary Indian art, including video art and large-scale installation – “a requirement for a museum”, she says. She now buys art with a view to “filling in the gaps” in her collection. “I used to buy art completely on a whim. Now, I still collect what I like but I look at it a little more in perspective. I would like the collection to be encyclopaedic rather than episodic.”

The British-born artist Bharti Kher, who lives and works in Delhi, tells me that Nadar is doing more than anyone to repatriate Indian art. Not only has Nadar been filling the gaps in her own collection, but her museum aims to plug the gap in India’s unexciting offering of art that is accessible to the public. The National Museum in Delhi has had no acquisition committee for almost two decades and no permanent director since 2007. Too many Indian museums are without qualified directors and staff; too many are unappealing places where the art is dingily displayed and poorly labelled. The exhibitions I saw at KNMA were certainly better curated – in particular, a revealing retrospective of the underrated Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi – than those at Delhi’s state-run institutions.

Artwork by by MF Husain
Untitled work (1955) by MF Husain

Nadar has great ambitions for her museum. “The idea is to be a public institution,” she says. Although KNMA is technically a private museum (it receives no regular public funding), it doesn’t feel quirky like others created for private collections, and its aim is, Nadar insists, “to educate”. Its outreach programme is proving to be a success, with many schools making repeat visits, and the talks and workshops are popular. (I attended a packed seminar on Indian art in the 1970s and 1980s with the lofty title “Urbanism, Anxiety and Sexuality as Contexts”.)

But fostering a regular art-loving, museum-going culture, as Nadar is trying to do, is uphill work: when I went to KNMA a few days before meeting Nadar, I was the only visitor all afternoon. As she tells me: “The spontaneous visitor is still hard to get. The government doesn’t encourage museum-going; I think it should have a much more proactive role.” She is, however, not holding her breath, having already fought for months to win the right to import Indian art for the museum without paying duty.

Nadar now wants to move her collection out of the shopping mall into a purpose-built museum, which would become an attraction in its own right like, say, the Guggenheim in New York. Acquiring the land has been a struggle – “You’d think the government would look on this as an opportunity,” she laughs – but she expects to get the go-ahead by the end of the year and hopes the new building will be ready in five years.

She is used to going it alone: unlike China, which has seen a flurry of museum-building in recent years – almost 400 opened in 2011 alone, mostly privately funded – art is still relatively low on India’s agenda. Museums comparable to KNMA are few and far between, although the Devi Art Foundation and the Sanskriti textiles and terracotta museums, both in the Delhi satellite of Gurgaon, are examples of excellent privately run spaces.

Internationally, there has been excitement around the Indian art scene in the past decade, boosted by the success of Delhi’s India Art Fair, which was launched in 2008. Yet Nadar is careful not to overstate the fair’s impact: “It has been exciting, but I don’t know how much it has affected the art market in terms of new collectors coming in. Before the crash [in 2008] there was a great euphoria about collecting art in India but that hasn’t really come back, especially as far as contemporary art is concerned.”

Before 2008, prices for Indian contemporary art also soared in the west and a handful of artists achieved celebrity status. But according to the London-based analysis firm ArtTactic, in June 2008 contemporary art made up about 50 per cent of the Indian market; in June 2013 that figure was closer to 5 per cent.

Although the market will always fluctuate, Nadar hopes that in five years’ time, with her collection installed in a new building, things will look very different. There are already signs of change elsewhere in the country: an ambitious Kolkata Museum of Modern Art designed by Herzog & de Meuron is due to open next year, and a new museum on a 13-acre site in Patna, east India, is scheduled for 2015. Even in India’s sleepy public institutions, staff are being trained by the British Museum as part of an exchange initiated by the Indian government. In the meantime, Nadar continues to expand her 1,000-strong collection and work on attracting new visitors to the museum.

Is she ever tempted, these days, to buy an artwork just for herself? “No,” she smiles, “I have stopped thinking of art as personal.”

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article