kiran nadar© KNMA

Kiran Nadar Opens Up About Her Precious Art Collection And More

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Shashi Sunny

One of the world’s leading collectors of Indian art opens up to HELLO! about MF Husain’s personal touches on the art in her home, her billionaire husband’s adoration for Ravi Varmas and the significance of the recent national honour bestowed upon her. She’s building a second museum to accomodate her extensive collection.

kiran nadar©KNMA

From acquiring a B. Prabha at Gallery Chemould back in the ’80s, confident enough to veer away from the recommended Tyeb Mehta, to amassing a collection spanning 13,000 works of both Indian and global origin, one might assume you’d want to rest on your laurels. Not if you are Kiran Nadar, renowned as one of the world’s foremost collectors of Indian art. Beyond cultivating her private collection, she is a museum builder, a patron for talented new artists, an enabler for laymen and children to view, understand and learn about art, as well as a promoter who showcases maestros and fresh talent. There is nothing she won’t do to democratise art and bring it to the purview of ordinary people, a mission she has been dedicated to for three decades. So when her efforts were acknowledged with a Padma Shri this year, it was richly deserved.

“It’s a matter of pride to receive a national honour and also a validation. I am pleased that the work I have put in the field has been recognised,” says the ebullient philanthropist, resplendent in a beautiful black and gold ensemble at the opening of a retrospective of photographer Raghu Rai at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Saket, New Delhi, with all the hoi polloi of the city in attendance.

However, she is quick to point out that this is not just a moment of personal elation, but rather an acknowledgment of her efforts to effect social change through art. “I am happy that not just artists but also people who serve the cause of art are being recognised. I firmly believe that art makes for a better society in so many ways.”

A Collection Rooted in Resonance

“I can’t paint to save my life!” Kiran says with a laugh, but she admits that when it comes to acquiring the works of others, she just couldn’t stop at one. Her brush with art truly began 30 years ago, when she and her husband Shiv Nadar, founder of HCL Technologies (and the third richest man in India, according to Forbes), were transforming their palatial residence in Friends Colony East, one of New Delhi’s most coveted addresses, into a home. “My mother had an interest in art and she took me to museums. I enjoyed visiting the world’s best — MoMA, the Louvre, V&A, Guggenheim — during holidays. My tastes were somewhat honed by the time I was picking up art for my new home in 1989.” A story she’s shared previously, her first art acquisition for the house was Runners, a male nude by Rameshwar Broota. “Initially, my husband was horrified when he realised I wanted to hang it in our drawing room (my mother-in-law lived with us at the time) but then once he saw the actual painting he knew why I wanted it,” she recalls.

kiran nadar©KNMA

A slew of masters followed — M.F. Husain, Manjit Bawa, Krishna Khanna, Amrita Sher-Gil, and many more. “Fortunately, our house has space for all of them even though they are all large works,” she says, revealing that the Husain was commissioned especially for the house while it was still unfinished. “I showed him [Husain] the spot and a few days later he came back with two paintings, Mahabharat and Mother Teresa. I kept both and whenever Husain came to our house, he would repaint bits to make them better. I found this very touching. I still retain it — the work has a feel of belonging to the space,” she explains, adding, “That is how I collect art; I buy whatever I connect with and contrary to what people may think, I never buy art as an investment. I collect because it resonates with me at some deep recess of my mind and heart.”

Art Journeys Beyond The Home

The Nadars’ residence now boasts a vast array of masterpieces, including spectacular works like S.H. Raza’s Saurashtra and F.N. Souza’s Birth. In addition to the previously mentioned masters, treasures by Raja Ravi Varma, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta adorn her home, each with its own enduring presence. Kiran says she rarely rotates her art (the COVID months were an exception), but she is always open to lending them to her museum for sharing with the public. “You don’t have to own art to love and appreciate it. I am happy to share with everyone who wants to look at it,” she declares.

kiran nadar©KNMA

The choice of art is primarily Kiran’s, with husband Shiv rarely intervening. “He never interferes with any of my decisions regarding art. The only work he just did not like was from Mrinalini Mukherjee’s hemp work collection. He asked me to get rid of it and so I gave it to Neville Tuli’s auction house, Saffron Art, and then, years later when I realised it was still available, I bought it back! I still have the piece, just not at my home though,” she shares.

Kiran has honoured a few requests from her better half. “My husband did ask me to acquire two Ravi Varmas — a Saraswati and a Laxmi. He had grown up with calendar art images of them in his home (in South India, Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings of gods and goddesses were often reproduced on calendars), so it was a memory from his childhood. I now have them in our bedroom where he can see them every day.”

Initially, all of Kiran’s acquisitions found a resting place in her visually stunning mansion with its large rooms. Later, when all the walls were taken, they adorned the Nadars’ offices. As she confesses, “I couldn’t stop buying, and the collection outgrew the house as well as our offices. So then I thought I would build a museum,” she says. Established in Saket in 2010, KNMA is a vibrant centre for various art and cultural events, all funded privately, with free access for the public. This year, construction on the second museum has begun.

From Canvas To Cards

The new project, envisioned as a museum and cultural centre set to open by 2026, will span a vast 100,000sq. metres off the national highway near the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Designed by the renowned Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, celebrated for his work on projects such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Princeton University Art Museum in the US, it promises to be a monumental endeavour.

kiran nadar©KNMA

An ambitious undertaking, Kiran anticipates that the project will consume much of her time in the coming months, allowing her limited opportunities to pursue her other interests — such as bridge, cricket, and most importantly, spending time with her beloved grandsons, Armaan and Jahaan, daughter Roshni and her husband Shikhar Malhotra’s children.

While Kiran’s passion for art has been extensively documented, her inclusion in the bridge team for the Asian Games in 2018, at the age of 67, came as a surprise to many (resulting in a bronze medal win). Earlier that same year, her team, Formidables, secured a gold at the fifth Commonwealth Nations Bridge Championship. “It’s a game I thoroughly enjoy, from one competition to the next,” says the doyen, who started playing with her father at the age of 10. She is drawn to bridge for its mental exercise, decision-making challenges and strategic elements. It’s a family favourite — as she shared in an earlier interview, she and Shiv played recreationally after marriage, and it was during a break from work after Roshni’s birth that she began playing professionally.

Tips For Emerging Collectors

The Padma Shri award winner offers advice for burgeoning art collectors. “Now is a good time to invest in art. I buy both old masters and new. Lately, Manjit Bawa, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza and Tyeb Mehta are gaining a lot of traction. Among contemporary artists, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Arpita Singh are in demand at the international level,” she shares, emphasising the importance of also considering young contemporary artists. She admits not being a big fan of bidding wars. “Although I’m guilty of being undisciplined at auctions; I bid really high for F.N. Souza’s Birthand I am now the proud owner. I would say, do not go over 15-20% of the price you have in mind when you are buying,” she advises. With a laugh, she concludes, “I would suggest sipping the champagne after, not during, the auction.”

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s March 2024 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!