In 2011, the Indian collector Kiran Nadar stepped in to fund her country’s inaugural pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, in the near absence of state support for the show. At the time, her idea for creating a generation-defining museum in Delhi was inchoate, but ambitious. "I didn't yet know what shape it would take, but I wanted to make a mark," she tells The Art Newspaper.
True to her vision, last month Nadar returned to Venice for the city’s 18th Architecture Biennale (until 26 November) to unveil designs for what promises to be India's largest private art museum project of this century. She was joined by David Adjaye, the prominent Ghanaian-British architect who, in 2019, was selected to design her building.
It will be India’s national modern and contemporary art museum, for all intents and purposesGlenn Lowry, MoMA director
The new Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) is due to open in 2026, near Delhi’s Indira Gandhi international airport. It will be “India’s national modern and contemporary art museum, for all intents and purposes”, said Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, during a live conversation with Adjaye at the unveiling of the building’s designs at the Biennale. “India’s institutions have not lived up to the scale and potential of its arts,” Lowry said. “The KNMA takes on the role as a symbol for what is now possible.”
Nadar is, by many accounts, the biggest private collector and patron of Indian Modern and contemporary art today. She has acted as something of a beacon for the nation’s art world since she opened her first museum in 2010, in Delhi’s nearby city of Noida, with a collection of around 500 works. A year later, she launched a second space in a shopping mall in Saket, South Delhi. (Both existing KNMA sites will continue to be used once the new museum is open, although in what capacity is still undecided.) Nadar’s collection has today mushroomed to contain more than 10,000 works. “It is encyclopaedic,” she says.
A vast collection requires a vast museum, and the Adjaye-designed site will apparently measure an eye-wateringly huge 100,000 sq. m. It will contain 11 galleries for temporary exhibitions and rotating displays of the collection, ranging from new video installations and 20th-century Modern masterpieces to Nadar’s sizeable, never-before-seen collection of Indian miniature paintings. Two auditoriums for the performing arts will also be built to help “capture new audiences who are not yet visual art lovers” and counter “a general apathy towards museums” in India, Nadar says.
The Indian government’s "lack of interest" in funding its modern and contemporary arts is a topic about which Nadar has long been vocal. She compares the progress of India to that of China, where hundreds of private museums have opened in the past decade. Around a dozen comparable projects are in development in India; virtually none are as grand in their scale or canon-building ambitions. “I didn’t intend to become the doyenne of Indian art,” Nadar says. “To be honest, I think it is time for others to step in. It can’t just be one person’s legacy.”
Some attempts are being made by other super-rich collectors to plug this gap. In March, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) opened in Mumbai with four floors of gallery space, and a guest list of Hollywood and Bollywood A-listers as glittering as the Swarovski crystal lotus adorning its ceiling. "That is their way of going forward, I have nothing further to say on that," says Nadar of the NMACC. She speaks more effusively about the recently opened Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bangalore, south India’s first private art museum. Similarly, she welcomes the businessman Sunil Kant Munjal’s planned Delhi museum The Brij. “It will be good for Delhi to have more than just my museum."
“This is the most significant art project I have ever worked on,” Adjaye says of the KNMA in an interview with The Art Newspaper. “I don’t say that lightly.” It is the first building in South Asia designed by Adjaye Associates, although the practice is partnering with the local Delhi firm S. Ghosh & Associates.
The region’s long history of architecture has been “deeply influential” to Adjaye since he first travelled to India as a student. Describing the project as “his most advanced museum concept to date”, he says that experimental technologies will be used including an “anti-dust repellent” which is added to concrete mixture to help protect the structure from Delhi’s notorious air pollution.
His vision for the building considers the “multiple civilisations of India” and will incorporate “the mind-blowing designs of Hindu shrines, the geometry of Rajasthan’s Mughal architecture, Edwin Lutyens’s colonial-era Delhi and the Modernist and Brutalist buildings of post-independence India”, he says.
I have no right or interest in exercising judgement over which civilisation is best. I respect all civilisations that have made an impact on beauty and artDavid Adjaye, architect
Such an inclusive consideration of India's cultures and religions comes at a time when many aspects of the nation’s heritage are threatened by rising Hindu-nationalism, abetted in part by the ruling government, the Indian People’s Party (BJP). This includes the destruction of historic mosques and Mughal-era buildings. Next year will see the completion of prime minister Narendra Modi’s controversial $2bn project to rebuild New Delhi’s colonial-era parliament buildings.
“Kiran Nadar’s collection doesn’t discriminate against civilisations that have been in this region,” Adjaye says. “Similarly, I have no right or interest in exercising judgement over which civilisation is best. I respect all civilisations that have made an impact on beauty and art. If people are not happy about that, there is nothing I can do.”
But India’s polarised political landscape is increasingly becoming a pressure point for Nadar, who is married to the billionaire industrialist Shiv Nadar. She recently faced criticism online for appearing in photographs with the divisive Modi, on the occasion of his visit last month to an exhibition at New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
"The [NGMA] exhibition is not a collaboration in any capacity with the KNMA," Nadar tells The Art Newspaper. "I was invited to get involved in an advisory role and was at the inauguration not as an official representative of the museum." She dismisses concerns that associating with leading government figures may compromise the KNMA’s ability to show politically charged works, or act as a platform for advocacy on certain issues: "The KNMA's curatorial team remains committed to maintaining artistic and intellectual integrity and autonomy through all our programs."
The difficulty of Nadar's position underscores the reality of undertaking a large construction project in India, where the process of obtaining planning permissions can be opaque and stiflingly slow. Indeed, initial designs for the new KNMA were for a taller, more vertical structure on a completely separate plot of land, and had to be scrapped due to planning complications, Adjaye says.
Yet it seems that Nadar’s ability to navigate thorny political terrain is benefitting more than just the forthcoming building. As an institution, the KNMA is increasingly exerting a degree of soft power far greater than many of its Western counterparts, facilitating cultural partnerships across South Asia, where movement across post-partition borders is often fraught with difficulty.
This spring, the KNMA struck an unprecedented deal with the Samdani Art Foundation in Bangladesh to organise exhibitions between the two countries. Meanwhile a recent group exhibition at the KNMA in Saket, Pop South Asia, involved a number of loans from Pakistan to India. “It was a battle securing those, and even then we had works that couldn’t arrive,” Nadar says. “Relations between our countries are so bad, worse than they’ve been in years. Some things go beyond art”.
Further cross-border ambitions can be gleaned from the KNMA's references to "South Asia", rather than just India, in its official communications. According to Nadar, the institution will now take greater strides to uncover histories around the 1947 partition of South Asia so as to consider the region in a more united sense. “My own great-grandfather was killed during partition—so many people lost someone during that period, everyone has stories. Linking Indian art with South Asian art is a great step forward,” she says. “There are great things happening in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka that we need to incorporate more of. These things aren’t easy—but you have to try.”