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The Good Life

Artful Acquisitions
Why industrialist Samir Modi’s art collection is a labour of love and not just a fancy asset class

Clockwise: Samir Modi with Roopmati by Jayasri Burman and Nayanaa Kanodia, Photograph from Andreas Volwahsen; Rise and Fall by Gautam Bhatia

He’s the executive director of Modi Enterprises in Delhi, but when he’s not making business deals or opening retail stores across the country, he’s indulging in his favourite pastime – collecting art. “It’s been 27 years since I’m collecting art,” says the 40-something Samir Modi, younger son of industrialist BK Modi. “In those days I would buy art from unknown artists, as that’s what my pocket allowed.” Samir says he’s not married to big names or the masters per se. “As long as the art pleases my eye, I’m good.”

With a special fondness for installations, his pieces include art from Bangladesh as well as works by Arun Kumar. It was his greatest loss when his family didn’t let him bring Subodh Gupta’s now famous Priya scooter with milk cans inside his home – “I’ve never let them forget it,” he says. “At the time, Subodh was not known, so I didn’t end up buying it finally. Today, no one stops me from buying what I want!” He also likes to collect works by new artists, to promote them as much as he can, picking them up from places like Gallery Espace, Latitude 28, and Vadehra Art Gallery in the Capital, and occasionally the odd auction. “Art should please; it should make you feel happy,” he says. “It’s less about the name behind the artist.” Not that he doesn’t own a Manjit Bawa or a MF Husain, he’s got these plus Souza, Jamini Roy, and A Ramachandran. Samir also loves works by Tayeba Begum Lipi, a Bangladeshi artist, who’s created unusual pieces like brassieres made from razor blades. He also favours sculptor and artist Valay Shende, Debanjan Roy, Bharti Kher, and photographer Raghu Rai.

Having grown up around art, with a mother who loves art, and a brother-in-law who’s an avid collector, the first artwork Samir every bought was a Thota Vaikuntam. “I had a miniscule budget back then,” he says. “In those days, artists who’re well known today would sell for 15,000-30,000. Back then, that was a lot of money. Subodh got 5 lakh for his scooter. It’s worth 3 crore today.”

Samir says that when he sees art, he’s driven by its colour, its presence on the wall, and how it makes him feel. “I’m very much into colour; the brighter it is, the better. And I’m not into ‘gory’ art either. It has to be pleasant to the eye. You buy it to be happy, it has to have that ‘feel-good’ factor,” he says. Nor is he interested in selling his art collection. His 400-odd piece collection, which fills up three entire rooms, predominantly consists of contemporary Indian artists. “I do like Chinese artists, but I have not had the chance to pick up anything worthwhile so far, nor anything I can afford,” he says. “I have street art from Bangkok to Jamini Roy, so the cross section goes from street art to a master. I tend to buy a lot of installations, and most of my art is in storage, as I don’t have the wall space – I do switch my art around, but where is the space with the glass walls in my office?”

“My reasons for collecting are very different from others,” says Samir. “They may want to collect the big names, and that is valid too. Everyone’s measures are different. For me, it’s what makes me happy. A decade ago people told me, why am I wasting money on an artist like A Balasubramaniam? He’s unknown, they told me. I said, it doesn’t matter to me. And today they walk into my home, and exclaim, oh my goodness, you have this artist! I remind them it’s the same artist they had once criticized.”

A self-avowed gadget freak (something he also likes to collect), Samir is in the process of creating his own work of art, which will be ready in six months. “It’s a multi-dimensional installation with 48 panels – 24 panels with art on both sides, so you turn the panels, and this makes a collage. 

As he still dreams of one day owning Subodh’s scooter, Samir Modi has a word of advice to young collectors: “Buy what you love, not for its price or the impression the artist creates.” Words to the wise.

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