by Ina Puri
It was during Art Frieze 2010 that Nirmalya first invited me to view his invaluable collection of art. I had spent the earlier part of the day at Regent’s Park viewing the exhibits at Frieze, meeting friends, making plans for the week and it had all been fairly stressful and exhausting. Then, there I was, ringing for the porter to let me in to this grand mansion Nirmalya called his home. The door opened and it felt I had been transported to another time, another milieu. The high ceilings allowed for more wall space and every inch of the space had been given to paintings of Jamini Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. As Nirmalya began the tour around his gracious home, I realized what the collector meant when he claimed that collecting Jamini Roy was ‘like collecting many artists because of the diversity he displayed in his nudes, portraits, western impressionist landscapes, as well as the more well-known stylized works with their inspiration drawn from Byzantine mosaics, home-drawn alpanas, Kalighat paintings, pats, Kantha stitch work, Bishnupur temples, and so on.’ It was a joy to be walked through the rooms, looking at rare paintings displayed according to their themes. I was personally drawn to the Christ works, to the mother and child paintings and also to a series of paintings in shades of quiet pink, which was quite unlike his usual repertoire that tended to lean primarily towards the earthy shades of deep reds, rich ochres, indigos and dark greens. Occupying pride of place was a stunning portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in tempera, in luminous shades of turquoise, indigo and red.
Nirmalya prefers to call himself custodian rather than a collector and is more than willing to share his unique collection with those interested. This has become his major preoccupation, the primary one being that of a full time academic at the prestigious London Business School . He is of a belief that acquiring art is a bad investment and one should buy only if one is passionate about it. Having said that, Nirmalya admits to have acquired many of his paintings at international auctions and on occasions for a very high price, but that, he adds, is because he is an avid admirer of Roy and is forever on the lookout for that unique painting that he does not possess, like his Ibrahim and the Angel.
The interest that became an intoxicating passion began way back in Calcutta when he was first exposed to art as a young boy but his first acquisition was a Pichhwai, which he still has, at the entrance of his apartment. He also owns some rare works of other artists, namely Sunayani Devi, Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore. Some of his Rabindranath Tagore works are especially hauntingly beautiful, in the poet-painter’s signature somber, dark hues, sourced from William Elmherst’s collection. But, as Nirmalya confesses ruefully, once he set his heart upon Jamini Roy, his entire concentration focused on the urban patua’s work and he has since remained steadfast and loyal to Roy. When I inform him that I was gifted a Jamini Roy at my wedding by his eldest son Mrinal Roy, and bought another in later years, (for modest thousands, incidentally) he nodded in agreement. Jamini Roy’s works were affordable for years after the overnight collectors discovered art in the country. Which prompted my next query; I ask if he was aware that Roy had fetched very handsome prices in the international auctions recently? Deities and Cows estimated $8,200-$13,000 sold for £12,000. Pleased to hear this, he then reiterates that either way, he is unaffected by the market trends as he is not looking to sell his works. Jamini’s prices, Nirmalya states have been fairly low all these years because it has been believed that the reputation for circulation of fakes keeps the prices down. Not agreeing with this hypothesis, he finds the revelation unsatisfactory as it still does not explain the generally low prices at international auctions where he has never seen a fake being sold.
A Saffron investor, I tell him once stated that Bengal lacked museum buyers or serious one (except for the decorative genre) and did not fetch higher prices since it was mostly on paper/board (except for the Bikash and the occasional Jogen). To whichNirmalya tellsthat people tend to promote local art in Bengal and wealth is being created in parts of India other than Bengal, and as such, Bengal art in general is depressed in prices. Indian buyers are relatively new wealth chasing markers of social and economic success. These buyers see themselves as being part of the new modern India unshackled by past centuries old traditions. There is still, with a few exceptions, not a deep knowledge base of art history amongst these collectors. As a result, they prefer the modern looking works of artists, even if they are derivative, to Jamini who is seen as folk inspired “old” art. Jamini may be seen by them as something their parents would collect so they want to distance themselves from it.
Before embarking on my next subject I take a deep breath and a long sip of the cool glass of Chardonnay, ‘How about fakes?’ I ask, ‘After all, anyone who knows something about Indian art knows that there are any number of unscrupulous dealers who hock fakes of Roy. Infact, no one is to be trusted, everyone is in the racket’. Nirmalya doesn’t get offended, instead readily acquiescing, he says that while it is true that more fakes than originals are doing the rounds, it was also the tradition of the patua to have an atelier painting along with the artist. Having studied Roy’s styles carefully over the years, Nirmalya can distinguish between a fake and an original but feels that the painter made it difficult for collectors/art historians by deliberately not dating the work and also by ‘copying’ his own work over and over again. However, there are subtle but substantial differences in the execution. With time, one is able to discern the remarkable and magical from those which done by the master are sloppy. And in the lacuna that exists in the absence of an Authentication Board, ultimately the onus is on you!
I come away from the aesthetically done up apartment with the memory of Roys and Tagores which remain etched in my mind but quixotically I recollect in the midst of the old-world paintings, the powder room with walls of silver, displaying Bikash Bhattacharya, Jogen Chowdhury, Ganesh Pyne, Souza, and yes, an M.F. Husain!!!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ina Puri is an arts impressario, curator & writer. In her capacity as a film producer she won the National Award for her documentary on Manjit Bawa.