Pursuit of Happiness

Heart for art's sake

Kiran Nadar on her sense of detachment that eventually resulted in the country's first private philanthropic museum taking shape

In narrow, boxed-in suburban apartments in Mumbai, running out of display space for the few odd pieces of abstract art middle-class families own isn’t all that unusual. But what do you do when your enviable collection — more modern art than calendar art — outgrows your stately New Delhi home and is at risk of being banished into storage? Former communication professional and acclaimed bridge player Kiran Nadar found a way out by parking her growing art collection inside a sprawling mall in tony Saket, New Delhi, throwing it open to the public as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), the first such private and philanthropic institution in India. 

“The whole process took place quite by chance. I started off collecting art for my home but soon had more works than I could fit on my walls. I thought about putting them in storage or displaying them at my husband’s office (Nadar is married to HCL founder Shiv Nadar) but realised that wasn’t the aim I had in mind when I started collecting,” she says. 

So, Nadar altered the pace of her acquisitions and made them more museum-centric, with some help from her KNMA team, consultants and art historian Roobina Karode. Any period that she pays particular attention to? “Well, I collect across board, our collection — though large and holistic — is steeped in the modern. This means most Indian masters such as Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, FN Souza, SH Raza, Manjit Bawa and VS Gaitonde find a place in the museum.

Despite this impressive roster and its prime location, the museum faces an age-old challenge — getting footfalls. “In India, the museum-going public is not spontaneous, so we organise seminars, school and college programmes and talks to try and get people involved,” Nadar avers. 

This means not just bringing people to the museum but taking the museum to the public as well. With this intent, one of KNMA’s collections is currently traveling to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, and from there to the MET Museum in New York. “Though we often loan works to other museums, this is the first time a curated show is traveling to a large and well-known museum. Hopefully, in time, we will be able to set up our own building and display our collections in a larger space.” And to fill up those eventual bare walls, Nadar and her team are working hard to expand and add depth to the collections already in place. 

However, auctions and acquisitions — the other avenue to expand the museum’s purview — are stressful affairs for Nadar. She adds that one positive outcome of the auction process is that it is a good way to judge the price of a piece. Any pick of the lot that are dear to her? “Oh, this is like asking someone to pick their favourite child; it’s a very difficult question” Nadar laughs. 

But some definitely make the cut — Raza’s Saurashtra, which was the most expensive work she purchased (for a reported $3.5 million); the very moving Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma. Has she ever felt like restricting a purchase within the walls of her home? “Over time, I have stopped feeling that way. I realised that I needed to be more detached from the whole process,” says Nadar. She would rather have art within the reach — literally and figuratively — of the public.