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Confessions of a Collector

Art is meant for walls, not vaults, says Harsh Goenka

— Photo: Shashi Ashiwal



Patron of art in spirit and deeds. — Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

HARSH GOENKA, chairman RPG group of industries, barely needs an introduction that illustrates the success of a business empire established by this intelligent and artistically inclined person. Reckoned as the country's most prominent art connoisseur, this leader who thinks and acts out of the box, brought immense delight to the audience who sat absorbed and left richer by his speech that pertained to his origin and evolution as an art collector. Presenting a slide show of his collection at the recently concluded Business and Arts programme `Creativity Beyond Thought Leadership', organised by the Indian School of Business (ISB), Gachibowli in Hyderabad, Harsh made perfect sense in an ambience which defines management and simultaneously promotes the essence of creativity not just in philosophy but in execution as well.

Member of the arts committee of the ISB, his journey in the labyrinths of contemporary Indian art may be just three decades old, but his learning and observing process started much early when he was assigned the task of documenting the finest collection of miniature paintings in his family vaults. As he comfortably transcended into the tradition of family trade, enjoying the goodness of art was also inherited by him.

Classical arts, both visual and aural, groomed him to realise the aesthete in himself. The strains of `raag bhairavi' and resolutions of miniature art complemented the otherwise innocuous stream of his corporate existence. While cataloguing those miniatures Harsh realised a very essential and valuable lesson which he shared with the audience that, "art is meant for walls and not for vaults." In fact the academic chronicling process put an aversion for miniatures in his mind. Therefore, the analytics of art made ways to an emotive viewing. "I bought `Mother Teresa' by M.F. Husain at a time when she was extremely unwell. It was my first painting which I acquired for Rs. one lakh." Husain, for him then, was a brand, but it is also true that his seeking eye captured the essential the master created in his typical coloured layouts.

Although Harsh made a beginning with Husain, `a brand name', his impulse to understand contemporary Indian art was etching out very strongly. "I started off collecting decorative sorts such as Jaya Wheaton for instance. And I would say I was making mistakes." But these mistakes actually led him further to more discoveries. Therefore, Saturdays were committed to visiting galleries. And what he collected was proving to be a process which provided him immense pleasure. "Unlike gold or stocks my collection was up there for all to see. My home and offices are ideal spaces to display works of art."

Indeed, works of art are a pointer to a person's aesthetic quotient. While some may interpret it as a reflection of prosperity, for Harsh himself collecting art is an emotional response to finer aspects of life. "I never collected art as an investment. But what I acquired as Tyeb Mehta and Bendre once upon a time have definitely appreciated in value." A patron both in spirit and deeds, his artistic pleasures are derived not merely in collecting works but also holding art exhibitions, camps and sponsoring art exhibitions and artists.

The recent show was a montage of `Contemporary Art from Bengal' this year. The mention of Bengal underlines the fact that Harsh responds to this school with an allegiance which may sound like a prejudice. To support his favourites; he feels the Bengali painters are far more emotive in their content and renderings. Yet another interesting collection Harsh generally reminds us of are 225 portraits of artists of which some are self-portraits and the rest are painted by the subject's contemporary. Those which Harsh projected were Jahangir Sabhawala, Husain, Arpita Singh, Samir Mondal, Akbar Padamsee, T.V. Santosh, Baiju Parthan and others.

Sharing his preferences with the audience Harsh related the top ten from his collection: Bikas Bhattacharjee, Arup Das, Rameshwar Broota, Sanjay Bhattacharjee, Laxman Shrestha, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jahangir Sabhawala, Akbar Padamsee, Atul Dodia and Raza. Another revelation was his delight for surreal art. While Sanjay Bhattacharjee and Navjot are affordable artists in this genre, his secret desire is to "possess a Salvador Dali, may be when I can afford," he chuckles.

In the contemporary Indian veteran department (although their prices have gone up by 20 per cent) he recommends Ram Kumar, the late Bhupen Khakar, Krishen Khanna and Anjolie Ela Menon. He advocates Pritpal Singh Ladi, Karl Antoa, Shibu Nateshan, Jittish Kallat, Baiju Parthan and Atul Dodia.

Harsh surprises the audience a little when he mentions that he cannot respond to a few like K.G. Subramanian, Tyeb Mehta, Gaitonde and the great of greats Picasso.

"Any art lover will have his own biases and prejudices. I find I don't react to certain paintings at all. I find some of Picasso's paintings, for instance, pretty `ugh'. I react to strong paintings which have a strong emotional content."

* * *

Ten pointers

* Listen to your inner voice

* Apply intellect and feel your gut to decide

* Refrain from making snap decisions

* Look, look, and keep looking at works

* Read as much as you can

* Gradually one discovers different styles and over a period of time a pattern emerges

* Visit galleries as often as you can

* Buy works from reputed dealers

* Do not compromise on the quality of the work

* Collect a range of mediums, keep upgrading your collection

ATIYA AMJAD

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