Pursuit of Happiness

At Home With Art

Novartis India’s Ranjit Shahani’s enviable collection reflects his journey from a novice to an expert in contemporary art

Soumik Kar

When he was no more than eight-years-old, Ranjit Shahani’s tryst with colours began. It was not a traditional approach and had him sitting with his drawing book and giving the skies a purple shade. “Colour brings me alive,” says Shahani.

If he had had it his way, a career as a painter was a possibility. When he told his father that, the response was predictable. “Bhukha maroge kya?”  was all what was exclaimed. Shahani, today Novartis India’s vice-chairman, instead went to IIT Kanpur for a degree in mechanical engineering. Art was not ever far away though and during this student phase, he completed over 60 paintings. “They were not great by any stretch but it was a reflection of the interest in art,” he says. The curriculum allowed a student to opt for electives of his choice during the first three years. “Obviously, I opted for art and painting,” he says casually.

Sitting in his tastefully done up home in Mumbai’s tony Malabar Hill, Shahani points to a set of three works by K K Hebbar as what seriously provoked the process of buying art. That was in the mid 90s and they hold a place of pride in the living room. “Mulk Raj Anand called them singing lines,” he says with a smile. The first painting he purchased was that of an unknown artist in Darjeeling 40 years ago for what was 30% of his monthly salary then. Since then, the collection of around 70 works of art has eminent names like M F Husain, whom Shahani met as a student at IIT, S H Raza, Datta Bansode, who made a name out of his works on Buddha, and Vrindavan Solanki to name a few. Each of their works has something interesting or distinct. The two Husain works have a scene from the Ramayan with the deer, while the other is from Mughal-e-Azam, with the inimitable Anarkali. Solanki’s piece is on the famed AfghanChurch in south Mumbai and part of a series on the city’s famous landmarks. Likewise, Kolkata-based Nandan Purkayastha, has a myriad of characters without their feet ever being shown.

Shahani’s favourite hunting grounds are the Tao Art Gallery and Gallery Art & Soul, though there is the occasional exception. A few years ago, he saw a work by an artist in Vietnam and ordered that online. “I like the idea of seeing a work before buying it,” he says. It was at an art exhibition in Mumbai in the late 90s where he ran into former prime minister, V P Singh. An artist himself, his work was on display and the one Shahani bought was that of a girl with a melancholic look.

By his own admission, Shahani is more right brained and working in businesses like polyester fibre, during the early part of his career, brought him into close contact with fashion and, of course, colours. “The interest in art took a break after IIT and was revived once I started working,” he explains.  There were some art bought in the early days of work but did not take off till around two decades ago. A large collection of art books go well with well-adorned walls and one has to look hard for that tome on management.

In a corner is the unforgettable image of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. The Marilyn Diptych, the pop artist’s work in the 60s, is known for its silkscreen painting as much it is for the subject. Push Shahani on his favourite artist and the instant response is Vincent Van Gogh, though it does seem a like a while before that makes a presence at home. “When I have a lot of money, I will surely buy one of his works,” he signs off with a wide grin.