Why she matters: An institution by herself, her mission to make art and culture the ingredients for social change is exemplary. With more than 10,000 works in her collection, the philanthropist and founder of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art—and a gold medallist at competitive bridge—is now ready to offer a world-class cultural centre to India, finds Sanghita Singh.
It’s not every day that you meet someone who has two great passions that double up as full-time professions. Kiran Nadar, known to the art world as an aficionado, collector and promoter of art, is also a world-class bridge champion. Her days are packed, connecting with people from the art fraternity, buying, understanding art, and building on her ever-expanding collection with some very rare pieces to talk about. But these days, when she takes a break from art, she puts in the hours to prepare for the upcoming World Bridge Championship and the Asian Games, where she’s won medals and laurels for India.
The interest in sports was a childhood hobby, but the pursuit in art developed over a period of time. She played bridge with her parents and later with her husband and started acing it in time.
In art, from being a novice collector, whose first but memorable acquisition was a nude by Rameshwar Broota, titled ‘Runners,’ she has come a long way in setting up two private museums. These boast a curated and diverse collection of South Asian art, with a focus on the historical trajectories of 20th-Century Indian art, alongside the experimental practices of young contemporaries. The collection includes sculptures, paintings, films, videos, miniatures and other antiquities.
With her first purchase, it felt like the tigress had tasted blood. It ignited an interest that was indefatigable. She hungered for more. “I was looking to decorate our home in Delhi, and I have to admit, it was quite a bold purchase. The work is a very graphic male nude, and my husband was horrified. He said, ‘How can you have a male nude photograph in the house?’ My daughter was very young at the time, and his mother lived with us. So I told him since I had agreed, he’d have to accompany me to meet the artist if we now said no. I took my husband to Rameshwar’s studio, and in meeting the artist in person and taking one look at his work, he was entranced—and we haven’t stopped collecting since,” she recalls the beginning of the journey.
Her husband, HCL Founder and Chairperson Emeritus Shiv Nadar, has been her primary supporter in helping her build this formidable collection, which has earned her a global position as a connoisseur and avid collector. Over the past decade or more, she has closely collaborated with renowned museums, including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Tate Modern (London), Musée Des Arts Asiatiques, (Nice), and Musée Guimet (Paris).
“My husband has been my biggest aspiration for everything he has accomplished in his life and the amount of support he has given me to fulfil my wishes and dreams. Both my husband and daughter Roshni (Nadar) are quite supportive, and I’ve indeed consulted them on a few occasions about acquiring a work of art,” she says of her family’s contribution and interest in what she does.
But in all honesty, the way she’s honed herself into being a collector extraordinaire, she deserves a position and a distinct identity of her own minus the trappings of her last name. While it’s now fashionable for the women of affluent business families to collect art as a hobby, none can match her zeal. She was the OG trendsetter and a conversation starter, building public interest in art, and is actively engaged in bringing art closer to the masses.
Artist and friend, Bharti Kher, sums up Nadar’s journey: “Kiran is the biggest collector and supporter of contemporary art India has known. The breadth of her collection is immense. It’s not easy navigating this road of philanthropy and collection when the path hasn’t been cut by anyone else. She and her team will be remembered as pioneers that made one of India’s most ambitious privately funded institutions.”
In many ways, today Nadar is celebrated as the foundation on which the Indian art world started to rebuild its pillars. She single-handedly helped catapult the value of artworks with some formidable prices she was willing to pay—not for her need to acquire, but for her understanding of the worth an artist creates when they transfer their creative urges onto a canvas.
Currently, Nadar is busy with her most magnificent project, geared towards revamping the cultural landscape of the capital—a cultural centre designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the plans for which were showcased at the Venice Biennale. Set to launch by 2025-26, this million-plus square feet of space will be a melting pot for seekers of art and culture from all walks of life.
“It’ll be a place for cultural discovery, a place for confluence and diverse conversations, with high engagement across a broad range of audiences. At the heart of KNMA (the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art) is the notion of giving back to society, preserving treasures of the cultural past and nurturing a young generation of creative practitioners and thinkers,” explains Nadar.
A distinctive feature here will be dedicated galleries that will showcase KNMA’s permanent collection, curated and presented in unique ways.
“That’s why we are trying to make it open to everybody—be it for rickshaw drivers or the elite—to visit. I firmly believe that the appreciation of art should be a shared experience, unbound by social oreconomic barriers. I have been deeply passionate about promoting inclusivity and cultural awareness,” she adds.
There will be art lovers, promoters and collectors in the future. But none can take Kiran Nadar’s position, the original game-changer and the woman who deserves the crown for single-handedly transforming the artistic fortunes of this country.
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