Framed Art

What happens to passionate private collections once their patrons are gone?

Revived: The pichwais on grand display in Amit Ambalal’s private collection.

Revived: The pichwais on grand display in Amit Ambalal’s private collection.   | Photo Credit: Anuj Ambalal

Private collections need state support and museological expertise

The banks of the Sabarmati encased in impenetrable cement seem to hold a lesson for the cultural life of Ahmedabad. Once accessible from the steps of Sabarmati ashram, the rambling riverfront, home to small communities and even the popular circus, was messy, vibrant and dynamic, much like the city. That is now consigned to memory and photo archives. The concrete bank seems to serve as a metaphor for another kind of ossification, in the city’s art resources.

Textile tour de force

Ahmedabad, unlike Mumbai or Kolkata, other cities with a mercantile past, continues to be a city of privately held museums. While the Tatas, the Readymoneys and the Gurusaday Dutt collections passed into government hands, Ahmedabad has largely held on to the phenomenon of the patron-collector. Inaugurated by Nehru in 1949, the The Calico Museum of Textiles, housed in the former Sarabhai residence, remains a gem of collecting endeavour.

The profound attention to the textile wealth of India make this museum a one-of-its-kind repository. Gautam and Gira Sarabhai’s initiative, however, needs more contemporary and informative ways of sharing — a more informed guided tour, for instance. The museum as repository of knowledge rather than a dazzling rushed tour, which is what it is at present, would perhaps be closer to the spirit of its founders.

Two other private museums are more recent and modest in scale but nevertheless speak eloquently of the city’s private collections. Amit Ambalal, author of Krishna as Shrinathji and originally the inheritor of a textile fortune, is both collector and artist, who has given a decisive turn to the readings of art production in the Gujarat-Rajasthan region.

Recognising the Krishna haveli painting of Nathdwara as a distinct sub-school, he initiated from the 70s an extraordinary collection of Nathdwara Pichhwais. While the large-scale, early Pichhwais of the Sarabhai collection point to one phase of the aesthetic of haveli painting, the Ambalal collection is dynamic, tracing from the mid-18th century painted fragment to the diffuse ‘iconic’ images of Narottam Narayan and Ghasiram that combined photography and painting.

Remarkably, Ambalal has recently transported a late medieval temple from Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh to his home. According to his son Anuj Ambalal, during the 16th century, the Sultan of Burhanpur had invited jewellers from Patan, Gujarat, to settle in Burhanpur. The Jain jeweller migrants built a temple dedicated to goddess Padmavati, using skilled wood-carvers from Patan. With time, the old temple deteriorated and was dismantled, and a couple of years ago, brought from Burhanpur to Ahmedabad. Based on photographs of the original, master craftsman Prabhudas Mistry reconstructed this compact architectural jewel in the sprawling Ambalal lawns, where it now houses 30 extraordinary Pichhwais of Krishna as Shrinathji in the Nathdwara style.

All at home

The third significant collection, born of an enduring relation between printer Anil Relia and M.F. Husain, is on display at the Relia residence, Amrat. It has Husain’s rich and vigorous oeuvre in spontaneous sketches, a mobile scenography for the film Gaja Gamini (2000), a family portrait, even a glass mural for the swimming pool, and paintings from different Husain narratives. Together with the impressive Relia collection of portraits and rare pieces like Ravi Varma’s ‘Sita Bhoomipravesh’, the collection straddles some masterpieces from the colonial period to the present day. These three private collections — and there would be others in the city — are poised in a limbo of sorts. Supported entirely by their patrons, they have closed or very limited access. They exist outside state support, and there’s no readymade template for such passionate collections to weather the passage of time.

No longer sleepy

In contrast, another institution has seen an extraordinary revival. Visitors to Navajivan over the last few years might remember the Gandhi archive and the repository of his writings and his early printing presses as a sleepy institution. In the last two years, a team of photographers — Vivek Desai, Himanshu Panchal and Mitul Kajaria — have helped transform it into an active hub, lending the archive a contemporary buzz.

Navajivan now has a printing lab, one of the finest in Ahmedabad, that works mainly with young photographers. It has Café Karma, a popular eatery, a shop with khadi and handicrafts, and, what is perhaps its most significant achievement, the Satya Gallery, which offers free space primarily for photographers to share their work. In the shrinking institutional space for photography, Navajivan is helping build audiences and interest in the medium, even as Gandhian thought hovers gently in the background.

Ahmedabad, the locus of ‘the Gujarat model of development’, is perhaps an accurate example of the state of the country’s cultural institutions. As long as there’s a dedicated patron, the collection flourishes, but once it is overly settled or deprived of fresh finds, it starts to ossify.

The L.D. Museum of Indology, with its extraordinary treasures including the N.C. Mehta Jain medieval paintings, and even the Sarabhai Calico Museum, are instances of once vibrant centres that need more energy and better viewer interface. The state can be a distant patron but not a disinterested one, or else important repositories might petrify for want of funds and museological expertise.

Gayatri Sinha is an art critic and curator who, while preoccupied with her art website, is also contemplating a book

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 7:06:42 PM |

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