Seven of the most prolific Indian art collectors

Four based in India, one New York Indian, one US couple and one Japanese buyer


The all-round impresario

Theatre director, art collector and impresario, 82-year-old Ebrahim Alkazi is legendary in Indian cultural circles. An early supporter of the Progressive Artists Group, he organised pioneering exhibitions in Bombay including India’s first show of Picasso in 1947, building an impressive collection of the likes of M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, K.G. Subramanian, and F.N. Souza. With his wife Roshan, he set up the Art Heritage Foundation and Gallery in Delhi in 1977.

Mr Alkazi’s Souzas were shown at the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, Delhi, in 1996. “The exhibition was set up like a church,” says consultant and collector Amrita Jhaveri. “It was very powerful.” Mr Alkazi is better known for his collection of over 90,000 vintage photographs of South Asia housed at his Sepia International gallery in New York. “He has very strong views and a classical way of looking at things,” says Neville Tuli. “His collecting has always been informed by a sense of historical linkage between different aspects of culture.”

The US pioneers

Chester and Davida Herwitz, founders of US handbag manufacturers Davey’s, began collecting Indian paintings in 1966 and over 30 years amassed the world’s biggest collection of 20th-century Indian painting. M.F. Husain became a lifelong friend and introduced them to many other artists for whom they provided important patronage in the 70s and 80s. The handbag factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, where much of the collection was kept, became a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in modern Indian art. After the government of India declined to buy the collection in the early 1990s, a portion was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1995 and 1996, immediately invigorating the market.

After Chester Herwitz died in 1999 and Davida in 2001 the collection of around 4,000 works was dispersed. A gift of 1,200 was made to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem where the Herwitz Gallery became the first major public collection of 20th-century Indian art outside Asia. A further portion was auctioned by Sotheby’s, but nearly 2,000 works were privately sold to Artsindia (now Aicon) gallery. “In terms of the market the Herwitz’s were 10 years too early,” says Aicon director Prajit Dutta, “but they were important pioneers.”

The textile fan

A director of Garden Silk Mills in the Gujarati town of Surat, Praful Shah is a discreet but important collector and one of India’s longest-standing art impresarios. In 2004, an exhibition of M.F. Husain at his Garden Art Gallery was wrecked by Hindu nationalist thugs angry at the Muslim artist’s depiction of Hindu deities.

Mr Shah and his wife Shilpa have also built the Tapi collection of Indian textiles, considered one of the finest in the world. He sweeps up large portions of auctions when the feeling takes him, and did so most recently at Bonham’s last year when he walked away with a large number of Souzas. He has been a long-time collector of Bhupen Khakhar and is the executor of his estate.

The visionary auctioneer

“Osian’s has the largest collection of Indian art in the world!” Eyebrows may be raised at Neville Tuli’s claim, but for the past decade he has been almost obsessive in his collecting. Raised in England, Mr Tuli came to India in 1996, writing a book on Indian contemporary art and curating a series of exhibitions before founding Osian’s auction house in Mumbai in 2000. With his stated agenda to build a model infrastructure for the arts in India he is regarded as an idealistic maverick, but as supremo of an auction house, art fund, price index, publishing house and cinema festival, his influence is undeniable.

His collection of Indian modern and contemporary art consists of some 2,500 works focusing on a core of around 50 artists primarily of the older generation. Still, it is only a fraction of the huge Osian’s archive which Tuli envisages as part of a future university of the arts. He buys unceasingly, following an idiosyncratic sense of cultural connectivity taking him from Mughal miniatures to Kurosawa film posters. Eclectic exhibitions have appeared regularly and an arts centre in a historic Mumbai cinema is expected to open by the end of the year.

New York’s Indian financial hot-shot

New York-based manager of the Digital Century technology hedge-fund, Rajiv Chaudhri, with his wife Payal, may epitomise the NRI wealth that has boosted the Indian art market in recent years, but their large collection is anything but typical, ranging from modern and contemporary to antiquities such as the Chola bronze loaned to the Royal Academy exhibition this year.

Mr Chaudhri began collecting Indian art in the mid-1990s, and in 2005 bought the first million dollar Indian painting when he paid $1.6m for Tyeb Metha’s Mahisasura, 1997, currently on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It has been juxtaposed with an eighth-century statue of Durga, which is the same subject,” he told The Art Newspaper. Last September, he paid $1.36m for Souza’s Man and Woman, 1954, one of four Souzas being sold at Christie’s New York from the collection of the late British dance patron Robin Howard. “It is a wonderful painting showing the two obsessions—religion and women—with which he was never entirely at peace.”

Artists for which Mr Chaudhri claims a particular passion include Anjolie Ela Menon, Ganesh Pyne, Manu Parekh, Shibu Natesan and Baiju Parthan. Like everyone else he has been dazzled by Subodh Gupta and last year paid $150,000 at Saffronart for Two Cows, made of two brass bicycles with milk churns.

Welcome, young artists

Anupam Poddar is leading the way in collecting and patronage of the younger generation of Indian artists such as Subodh Gupta, Mithu Sen, Shilpa Gupta, Atul Dodiya and Sudarshan Shetty. The family business is paper manufacturing and Mr Poddar himself runs a chic hotel in Udaipur. His background is steeped in art collecting, however, and for much of his youth his mother Lekha was collecting Indian moderns. Including about 800 pieces of folk and tribal art, the Poddar collection now stands at around 3,000 works, a selection of which has recently been on show in Germany at Berlin’s DaimlerChrysler Contemporary.

“The older art didn’t work for me,” Mr Poddar told The Art Newspaper. “When I started collecting at the end of the 1990s I was looking for art from my own generation.” The Poddars’ farmhouse outside Delhi is full of stunning contemporary works. “I like art with a challenge,” he adds. “Too many collectors and indeed artists are playing safe and allowing themselves to be guided by the market.”

Mr Poddar is currently setting up the not-for-profit Devi Foundation in Delhi which will be the first private contemporary art foundation in India with exhibition space for the collection. “I want it to be a platform for artists and curators from the whole region,” says Mr Poddar. “Once it is ready we will go back to commissioning a lot of work.”

The Japanese fish magnate who paid a “crore” of rupees

One of the main forces on the market from 1990 onwards has been Japanese tinned fish magnate Masanori Fukuoka. His huge collection of around 5,000 works is one of the world’s largest and the Glenbarra Art Museum, which he founded in 1991 at Himeji, near Osaka in Japan, is the only museum outside India devoted to Indian contemporary art. An important exhibition of works from his collection was held at the National Museum of Modern Art (NGMA) Delhi in 1997.

In 2002 Mr Fukuoka bought Tyeb Mehta’s triptych Celebration for $317,000, capturing the Indian imagination as the first time an Indian painting had passed 10m (a crore) rupees ($246,400). The same year saw collaboration with artist Jogen Chowdhury on the book Enigmatic Visions. With the market boom, Mr Fukuoka’s buying has slowed and he has sold works in recent auctions, although he showed that he can still be a force to be reckoned with when he paid $1.1m for an untitled work by V.S. Gaitonde at Sotheby’s New York in September, 2006.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Seven studies in enthusiasm'