When Umesh Gaur first landed in the US as a student of chemical engineering at Princeton University, he had absolutely no exposure to the world of art. But that was soon set to change.
“I had heard some jokes about modern art, but that was it,” he quips, as we speak at The Lalit in Delhi, a day before India Art Fair 2023, the reason for Gaur’s visit to the country. “My first exposure to art was from buying posters or prints of artwork, which was all the rage among students in the 70s. I found them attractive, so I bought a few, as well. That led me to look up real works of art by Picasso and other masters, and I was blown away!”
Yet, it wasn’t until many years later that he began his journey as a collector of modern and contemporary Indian art, amassing a collection that currently includes 500 to 600 works and counts in the world’s topmost collections of Indian art.
“A few years later, after I married my wife Sunanda and we had more resources, I wanted to buy an original Picasso,” he recounts the story.
“I remember seeing a small canvas from his ‘Dora Maar’ series at a gallery in Chelsea, but when I looked at the price tag, I realised it’d be better to stick to posters!”
Soon after, on a trip to India, it was an encounter with MF Husain himself that changed things drastically for Gaur. While out for lunch with his brother at the iconic Volga in Connaught Place, Delhi, he watched Husain walk in and be thronged by fans immediately. But Gaur hadn’t the faintest idea who he was at the time.
“My brother then told me about MF Husain, the famous modern Indian artist who held the distinction of having a joint exhibition with Picasso. That was the magic phrase. I may not have been able to afford a Picasso back then, but I could certainly afford a Husain. So that was the first work I ever bought — a Husain from the ‘Mother Teresa’ series.”
Bitten by the bug, Gaur’s art collection grew swiftly and steadily. In the 90s and early 2000s, aided by his professional role in the tech industry (a field that was doing spectacularly well at the time) and the modest pricing of most artworks in those days, he was able to build his collection rapidly by acquiring a number of contemporary Indian art made by the likes of Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Jitish Kallat, among other renowned names.
Almost 30 years later today, his passion has taken on a different turn. He’s now looking to place his art collection, under select curated themes, in major cultural institutions for the public to view, appreciate and learn from. The publication of his latest book, Paper Trails: Modern Indian Works on Paper from the Gaur Collection, edited by Professor Tamara Sears of Rutgers University and published by Mapin, is the most recent step in this direction. The book was released in late 2022 to coincide with an exhibition of the works included in it, at the Grinnell College Museum of Art in Iowa, USA.
Explaining the change in the trajectory of his art collection over the years, Gaur tells us how he had first started collecting art to merely decorate his home.
“We’d buy a few things and add them to the décor. Then it became about sharing these artworks with everyone. So when we entertained guests, they would get a full tour of our collection. The joy of educating people on art began then. Later, we got involved with the Zimmerli Museum (at Rutgers University, New Jersey) after organising the first major exhibition of Indian art works outside the country. Now, our focus is more on scholarship. In this respect, we produced three books in the past few years, and each was quite a journey.”
The first of these books focussed on his photography collection. Its publication served him well as it attracted the interest of the Smithsonian, which then led to his works being presented in ‘Unstill Waters: Contemporary Photography from India’. This exhibition — on view till June 2023 — shows work that highlight global environmental and social issues.
Similarly, the second book on Gaur’s tribal art collection led to a travelling exhibition of contemporary art from four indigenous and folk artistic traditions in India called ‘Many Visions, Many Versions: Art from Indigenous Communities in India’. With the publication of Paper Trails, Gaur hopes his collection of works on paper, which he considers some of his favourites, will also find a worthy home in a prominent institution.
“I think this is our strongest book yet,” he says. “(My editor) Tamara put in a lot of work. It took about six months to a year to put it together, with the photography, writing and planning. A significant contribution of mine came towards the end, when the book was almost ready, but I felt it needed a few more elements — a few more Zarina Hashmis, Anupam Suds, Krishna Reddys and others. Delhi Art Gallery was extremely helpful with this.”
The collector’s interest in displaying his goldmine of artwork to the public began in 2002, when he spearheaded the first major exhibition of Indian art outside of India at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey. Zimmerli was a good fit for the first presentation of major Indian artworks from private collections in the US because of the significant population of the Indian diaspora in the city. This seminal exhibition became the first one of Indian art to be reviewed by Holland Cotter of The New York Times and was appreciated by both the American and Indian art fraternity across the board.
“Most of all, it made us enjoy working with museums. So when it ended after three months, I wanted to do it again! We followed it up with more focussed exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art, the University of Pennsylvania, Fairfield University and others,” Gaur shares. This philanthropic gesture of donating his vast collection to educate the public further cements Gaur’s position as one of the most significant art collectors of our time.
“As our collection matures and becomes bigger, we almost think of ourselves as a small institution, so we have the ability to curate our own exhibitions of about 50 to 60 works periodically,” he adds. “Our home gallery has become an incubator to develop these exhibitions. As a collector, you have the privilege of enjoying these beautiful works and of seeing them all the time. These works will outlive us. They live forever, so we might as well find them a great home, where they will be cherished, protected, preserved and exhibited for a long time. This is why we work closely with institutions. There’s lots more to look forward to, so keep an eye out!”
This has been adapted for the web from a story originally published in the March 2023 issue of HELLO! India. Get our copy of the latest issue right here!