The catalyst named Feroze Gujral

Ten years of The Gujral Foundation and plans to activate an arts community are just the latest for this fashion icon and art patron

Feroze Gujral is in London when we get her on the phone, at the Tate Modern. Though we aren’t privy to the why of her visit, as one of India’s leading patrons of South Asian art, we are expecting interesting projects in the near future. She is, after all, the impetus behind initiatives like the VS Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim (2014), and My East is Your West collateral event — a collaboration between India’s Shilpa Gupta and Pakistan’s Rashid Rana — at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).

Currently, The Gujral Foundation — which has completed 10 years — is hosting Astha Butail’s solo exhibition, In the Absence of Writing.

On firm footing

Feroze’s life has been ‘curated’ with such serendipity that the feisty patron, philanthropist, businesswoman and media personality has never strayed far from the arts. Marrying architect Mohit Gujral, now vice-chairman and CEO of DLF India, at 18, and her subsequent interactions with her father-in-law, painter, sculptor and muralist, Satish Gujral, she says, were life defining. She recalls her formative years being “such a vibrant time, with constant conversations about literature, dance, cinema, politics and arts. I was lucky that I married into a family that was political and art inclined; it makes for a heady mix”. The former model, now 54, reminisces how “celebrities, artists and world leaders were constantly at our home, which was fertile ground for a young person who was interested in India”.

Admittedly, in the beginning, she was looking at art and culture from afar — the intervening years, after Feroze moved away from modelling, saw her run a boutique called Fizzarro, host a TV talk show, dabble as a tableware ceramics exporter and write columns — but it “wasn’t long before I found myself immersed in the art scene”. Today she is a trustee for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, on the international board of institutes like the Guggenheim Museum and London’s Serpentine Gallery, and spearheads The Gujral Foundation, which she co-founded with her husband in 2008.

The catalyst named Feroze Gujral

“At the Foundation and the Biennale, our endeavour is to usher in change, as India needs massive support to grow in the right direction, what with such little support from the government,” she says. “Watching my father-in-law struggle over the years, it became apparent to us that there was not enough support for the fine arts, which is why the Foundation works mainly with young people who are starting out as artists, curators and writers.”

Learning on the job

A polyglot, Feroze had a multicultural upbringing. Born to a Malayali father and Hyderabadi mother, she was brought up in Egypt, Algeria and France. In her teens, she cat-walked into fame at the Lady Sri Ram college festival, and soon became the face of brands like Lakmé, Palmolive and Raymond. But her lack of formal education in the arts has never been a deterrent. As she told Vogue magazine, “The world over, gurus debate if curation should be taught or be left to instinct. I think it should be a mix of both. I spend a lot of my time studying and learning because I don’t know everything, and I think we have to keep ourselves informed and updated. I ask myself two simple questions: what are the gaps that need to be plugged? And what would I like to see out there? Between these two, I find the projects and artists I want to support.”

Turning a large, semi-derelict house opposite Lodhi Gardens, into a thriving experimental art space was the first step. The Foundation has hosted several avant-garde exhibitions at 24 Jor Bagh, including the Raqs Media Collective’s House of Everything and Nothing, that wrapped the entire space up as an installation, Vishal Dhar’s experiment with light, Sonia Khurrana’s Oneiric House, and Israeli artist Achia Anzi’s Heidegger-inspired installation, The Silent Call of the Earth. “It’s been 10 years and we’ve worked with over 150 artists and done close to 50 shows. We’ve received good response, but contemporary art is still not taken seriously in this country. We have to realise that today’s contemporary artist is tomorrow’s modernist, and the day after’s antiquity,” she says.

The catalyst named Feroze Gujral

She has taken up projects under the aegis of the Foundation to Shanghai, the Berlin Biennale, and the Tate Modern. “We are a massive sub-continent and we cannot be ignored. We need more philanthropy for the younger generation,” says Feroze, who counts among her advisors Richard Armstrong of Guggenheim, Amin Jaffer of Christie’s, patron Anupam Poddar, gallerist Devika Daulet-Singh, among others.

Heir apparent
  • Alaiia has always loved the colour blue. “I think that is what led me to the Indigo Project,” she says, when we connect over an international call. “The whole idea of being covered in a pigment, especially blue, appealed to me and it became an obsession. It was only later that I began to look into its colonial underpinnings, like how the workers are exploited. That really opened up the project to a larger social context,” she says.
  • The youngest of the Gujral clan, who studied Print Media and Fibers at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently involved in a number of projects that look into community building, public art and city planning. Her approach is multi-disciplinary and cuts across mediums and genres.
  • “My initial interest in indigo was spurred by watching [the family’s 200-year-old Portuguese house in Goa] being painted post every monsoon,” she adds. The paint — a mixture of natural Indigo pigment, eggshells and glue — is not purely decorative, but used for its cooling effect and insect repellent properties. “Indigo pigment is a living, breathing colour that has completely consumed my artistic life,” she says.
  • Building community
  • The Indigo Project has taken many forms, from installations to garments, performance art, and digital media. It also extends to her new project, Xenophilia, which questions the global political climate characterised by fear, suspicion and aversion to the other. “The exhibition imagined a different reality in which fear is replaced by curiosity,” says Alaiia, who co-curated and participated in the project that featured a dynamic selection of painting, sculpture, textile and photo-based work. Another project that she is currently working on is Forward Thinking, which brings art fashion and technology together. It looks at transforming rough neighbourhoods with art and theatre.
  • While she admits her mother and she have distinct tastes in art — Feroze is drawn to conceptual art and Alaiia to the process — her mum is her constant support. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a great art collection of her own. On her recent birthday, her father surprised her with one of her grandfather’s early paintings, which he’d created when in Mexico with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. “I love it and its my prized possession,” she signs off.

The Gujral stamp

A little over a year ago, she opened her newest venture, Studio G Spot, at Delhi’s Meher Chand Market. Her first official headquarters (she laughingly states that the foundation was run from her dining table till then), it is an interdisciplinary space where art, design, architecture, crafts and fashion interact. In her role as catalyst and connector, she shares that the space will not just be a gallery, but will be instrumental in her plans to activate an art community, through regular workshops, round tables, lectures and performative talks.

Feroze is also one of the pioneers behind breaking the white cube gallery format in the country. From ensuring Aspinwall, the sprawling waterfront property in Fort Kochi (which belongs to DLF), is reserved as the primary exhibition site for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, to encouraging people to lend her their abandoned properties to host art projects, she is pushing the boundaries of space and presentation. Reports state that the Foundation is also planning to launch new art spaces in the National Capital Region, an abandoned house in Gurgaon and an unused factory in Okhla Industrial Area.

Her next project is a personalised exhibition featuring stamps from the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Dominion. Titled Property of a Gentleman, it is slotted to open at Bikaner House on March 8. “Things just happen organically in our family. One day we were at Bikaner for one of our Art Induct talks. Director Priya Pal and my brother, Hanut, who has a massive collection of stamps, got to discussing the forgotten and fading art of letter writing and the postal stamp. And we came up with the idea of hosting an exhibition of the Nizam of Hyderabad, a city that’s close to my heart,” she says, adding that the Foundation will also bring out artist books soon and an online publication to broader their base.

Paying it forward

It is no wonder that the ‘art bug’ has been passed down to her two children — Armaan, 27, who works in finance, and Alaiia, 25, who is with Canvas Chicago, an artists’ collective. “My son is a techie, but he is also a collector. He makes long rides to see Dali and Matisse,” she says. Meanwhile, Alaiia has entered the art scene with her Indigo Project, which comprises art installations and performance art. “Besides her own work [a textile installation at the London Design Biennale that shows the tangible application of indigo], she also helped significantly with the 2018 Biennale, showcasing the foundation and the work we do. Her own project, Activate, in Chicago, works with art communities across the city using street art, plays and spoken word poetry. What is exciting about her art is that it’s all inclusive and she is not intimidated by boundaries. She is more free-wheeling and experimental, and I learn a lot from her,” concludes Feroze.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 1:05:51 PM |

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