It has been three years since Kiran Nadar Museum of Art opened in New Delhi. Chairperson-art collector Kiran Nadar tells Shailaja Tripathi that she and her project are on track

Her wide smile electrifies the surroundings transforming a regular meeting room into a space brimming with energy, just like her museum Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA, Saket) which has unleashed energy into the art scene here. Kiran is in a very happy place, so is KNMA. Never mind the low footfall and the land issue, KNMA is otherwise on track. The private museum, a first-of-its-kind, has added a new dimension to the new museum movement being crafted by the policy makers and cultural intelligentsia. When she launched the ambitious space in Saket in 2010 during the India Art Summit (now called India Art Fair), Kiran says, she didn’t have any strategy to follow nor any models to look up to. All she had was a desire to share her sterling collection with people and enliven the museum culture in the country. “A lot of what I saw in the West, in the U.S., a lot of private museums exist. In fact, barring the Smithsonian or some State museum, they are all private. Be it MOMA, The Met, The Frick, Guggenheim, they are all private endeavours, so there was this vision but was very hard to emulate especially because they are institutions which have been around for so many years and have reached where they have after a long time and I am very nascent, just three years. And in these three years, we have achieved a fair amount. We have a limited team and gained respectability in the museum space. It has been learn-as-you-grow sort of experience for us,” says Kiran.

Besides her desire to make art accessible to ordinary people, it was thanks to her growing collection that the idea of starting a museum got solidified in her mind. An avid art collector since 1989, she wanted a proper space to store and display. In 2009 Kiran launched KNMA in the premises of HCL Technologies in Sector 126, Noida, a company owned by her husband and well-known industrialist Shiv Nadar, and a year later, Kiran unveiled another museum at the more challenging and strategic location of DLF South Court Mall, Saket. With no strategy in mind except the target of making it an engaging space, Kiran rolled out with “Open Doors”. Three years and eight exhibitions, five talks, three symposiums and several outreach programmes later, KNMA’s latest offering currently on display, ‘Difficult Loves’ has earned the reputation of not just a must-see exhibition but an unforgettable experience. ‘Difficult Loves’ comprises a tribute to Amrita Sher-Gil, a major retrospective of acclaimed Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi and an exhibition of seven contemporary artists.

“A lot of it is instinctive. I don’t know if I worked on a plan. A lot of shows that we are going to have now have been planned in advance. Earlier on, it wouldn’t be planned so much in advance. This is the first time we had a retrospective, it was quite an ambitious plan. While we have about 35 works in our collection, 100 works have been taken on loan and that was quite a tedious process. We had never done it before. Yes, this has been our most popular show. It is more professional, more focused and more curated. I think we have graduated with every show,” feels the Chairperson of KNMA.

With her museum gaining significance with its work, Kiran’s image also changed in the industry. From being a collector known for her acquisitions such as S.H. Raza’s “Saurashtra” — which she bought for a staggering Rs.16.4 crore at Christie’s, London, she became a part of the art world’s think tank. She is now part of the jury of prestigious art prizes, an eminent speaker on various forums and a powerful voice. “When I came on to the art scene… even though I had been collecting for a certain length of time, I was still an unknown person in the larger sense of the word. That has changed because I have become very visible and become a part of various forums on art. Visibility has changed dramatically and along with it has changed the acceptability. Initially, when I came on to the art scene, there was a certain amount of scepticism whether I will be serious enough to carry out what I am endeavouring to do or whether sustainability will be there.”

Curatorially led by Roobina Karode, the museum has come to be taken very seriously. “It is not just somebody who is a dilettante doing this as a whim or an indulgence,” says Kiran, who is, incidentally, also a national level bridge player. “The seriousness of what we have been doing has been appreciated by the art world as a whole. To a large extent, I am probably the largest collector there is, so obviously you get a certain standing; that wasn’t my aim, but that is something that has happened because of the museum. Most artists today, not from the financial aspect, would like to be in the museum collection, which is quite gratifying. It is important for contemporary artists who have not been collected so far to be included in the collection.”

She is pursuing the Government to give land for the permanent museum, though the efforts haven’t yielded anything so far. “We are looking at it as a public-private initiative but we will now have to look at other options, like having a museum in a not-so-centrally-located space. Land is the biggest component of a budget and there is a limit to how much you can put in. We don’t have enough space to do other activities. It is just because this mall is not very busy that we get to use the outside area.”

Kiran, who was in the Forbes’ list of Asia Pacific’s most generous business personalities in 2010, is not disappointed by the not-so-positive response of the Government. “I would just say that the Government involvement with the art sector is limited. In the CSR Bill as well, they have removed art and culture now. We would have expected more support but it’s fine. Overall, it has been a gratifying journey. We had wanted it to be a place for dissemination of knowledge and it is going on that line. The Indian art market is in a very strange place right now. Let us not compare ourselves to the U.S. but at least we can compare ourselves to the Chinese art market, but even then we are so tiny. Christie’s had a major sale recently and total Indian art that got sold in that comprised just 10 million. I think Indian artists deserve much more recognition.”

And maybe more museum spaces!

Educating the educators

According to Kiran, KNMA’s outreach activities have also done their bit, like the current project, a five-day programme called Art and Culture. “We are looking at school kids and teacher training. So it is a major project with NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training). It is a symposium through the day and an entertainment package in the evening. It is to create visibility and to get students and teachers involved with the museum,” Kiran informs us. A recently held performance piece by Nikhil Chopra, “Blackening”, which had the artist engage with the mall environs of the museum, followed by a three-day intensive workshop on performance art by Chopra, Madhavi Gore, and performance artist Jana Prepeluh, is also something Kiran likes to add to the list of KNMA’s highlights.

Wish lists

Kiran says she now acquires works with the aim of filling gaps in her collection. “I am not as whimsical as I used to be. I am much more focused. I look for artists I don’t have in my collection.”

When we last met her in 2011, Kiran had talked about “not covering the Early Bengal School well”. Has that gap been covered now? “Yes, since then I have collected a lot of Bengal School. I am not ecstatic about it but I am happy. Certain periods of the progressives were missing earlier which I now have, like an early Husain (M.F. Husain). I just acquired a landscape by Souza (F.N. Souza). In the museum we have an informal list of the works we should acquire, but I think it will be a good exercise to have people make a wish-list of the works they would want the museum to acquire,” quips Kiran.

A bit more about Kiran

The collection runs into 700 plus art works and includes pieces like a 1894 work by Raja Ravi Varma, F.N. Souza’s Nude with Fruit done in 1958, an early 1970s Ganga by MF Husain, a Raqib Shaw, S.H.Raza’s Saurashtra, Anish Kapoor’s untitled electric blue disc besides other well-known contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta etc.

Kiran is a national level Bridge player and has represented India at the World Bridge Championship.

She has a background in advertising and founded NIIT along with Rajendra Pawar and Vijay Thadani.