by Deepika Sorabjee
Anurag Khanna says he has always been a hoarder. That is probably the first manifestation of most collectors. He had a penchant for renovating the house every few years. It was marriage that brought his first art buys into his life. On a pre-wedding visit to Mumbai, specifically to shop for his new home, he bought a paper cutout diptych by Manisha Parekh from Sakshi’s summer group show, a Sunil Padwal oil painting on board from the Birla Academy and a Samir Mondal watercolour work. Says Khanna, “I don’t know if you would call this an informed buy, but this is how I started.”
Since these early buys, Khanna has come a long way in how he sees art. Self-taught, well travelled, and ensconced away from the hype of the big city art world, his unique introspective way of collecting has fascinated me. It’s a mark of a true collector: a sole vision counts, an assurance in the artwork’s merit and knowing what to buy to best fit your budget. Only after great thought and research into the artist’s practices and their work, will he add new works to his collection. Living in Gandhidham, where the family business as raw material providers to the steel industry and as coal importers is based, his wife Payal is a keen supporter of all that surrounds her in their home and office. Not one to seek auction trophies, it’s refreshing to see Khanna’s dedicated, contemporary engagement and here he talks of how it all came to be.
Deepika Sorabjee (DS): I know your art collection is varied, not just in the kind of art you buy, but it’s no longer limited to just Indian art. How has your collection evolved from those first three buys?
Anurag Khanna (AK): In the beginning I started collecting paintings, but with time photography, prints, etchings and drawings got me interested as well. For a brief period, I was looking at a lot of Indian and Pakistani art and was constantly buying miniature (paintings) and other kinds of art. Thomas Erben introduced me to video art – with works by Tejal Shah and Matthias Muller, and that really got me very interested in videos and films.
If I like a certain artist, I have always liked to follow that artist and collect their works in depth. I found I was constantly buying, but finding that art was becoming insanely expensive in India and prices were going through the roof, I decided, if I have to spend this kind of money, I needed to start considering what this money can buy me elsewhere. I started subscribing to different international magazines, and I was getting 8 magazines a month at home, and I was reading constantly and trying to learn as much on contemporary art as I could. I started ordering books from Amazon and started picking up art books on my travels.
This made me more curious and I started contacting galleries abroad and I realized that much of Indian art was not of very good quality, super expensive and in my heart I felt I had to start considering buying art from other places as well. I am so glad I have never bought Indian art at insane prices. One makes mistakes but in my case I feel they are not that many, and the sum spent on them was not very much. Collecting is a learning process, so I can’t expect that everything I buy will always be curatorially significant.
DS: So it was the price factor that made you look beyond Indian contemporary art?
AK: I guess it really was the price factor that made me look elsewhere. I was already talking to gallerists like Tommaso Corvi-Mora for works of his other artists. When I started looking at the CVs of many of these artists – the kind of shows they had done in museums and the kind of collections their works were already present in – it made me realize that they seemed to be working in a more mature art environment.
I still buy art here as well as abroad. There are some artists who make exceptional work in India and they have not been part of this price frenzy, so I am always interested in what they are doing.
DS: Being relatively isolated from the art metropolis and the subsequent hype, do you find that isolation makes you look at art works sans the clutter of art world ‘baggage’? Is it easier to see the merit purely?
AK: Living in Gandhidham, I don’t feel isolated from the art world at all. No one stops me from going to an opening, but it’s just that I think I am a bit shy and like to look and think about art from my own perspective and not try to talk to too many people about the artists and works all the time. I do have friends and people in the art world whose opinions I respect and I share long emails with my friends abroad about shows and artists.
At times, there is a desire to see a particular show, but work does not let me take time out as much as I would like to. The internet and other mediums of communication have really blurred the boundaries and one does not need to be physically present always to see the works. With sculpture and film, how the works are installed and the feeling you get by being in the space makes a lot of difference, and I miss that at times. It’s that high one gets going to MoMA or Tate and seeing a show, and perhaps acquiring a work of that artist having seen it thus.
DS: How do you go about researching artworks you may be interested in acquiring?
AK: In my inbox, you will be amazed, I have emails from one of the directors of Gladstone Gallery in New York, whom I have never met. I just happened to write to the gallery for (information about) some artists and since then we have kept in touch and she writes long emails about her shows or art that moves her. I write to her about what I have seen or works I collect, I have not bought anything from the gallery as yet.
The art world is a business for many people, but some that I know in the West, seem to be more involved with art for ‘art’s’ sake, than money, and this includes both gallerists and artists and that makes me reach out to them more than I would to others. Some of the biggest and busiest galleries in the world are very responsive to my emails. If I show interest in an artist that they represent, within a few days, I receive a huge Fedex package delivered home, with books, catalogues, reviews and preview copies to read that can keep me engaged for months. Galleries in Berlin have walked me through shows on Skype!
My research really starts with reading all the material sent to me, asking questions and ordering more books if the gallery has left out any. Then I start considering the works, get a feeling from looking at the images or videos. I leave it for a while, and then go back to them. Videos and films demand constant, repetitive viewing all the time to help me understand my feelings towards the works.
If I like something then I try and get an iconic work that I have responded to that is within my budget. We spend time with it and see if I feel like standing in front of the work again and again, only then start looking at the artist in depth. At the same time I also buy works that I may not have the space to display them in at the moment, but feel they are significant works and over time they find their own space.
DS: So, much like a film buff would, you sit down in your lounge with friends and family and slip in a DVD from your video collection! How do you display video works, store them?
AK: I had Jai Danani design my storage and I am very happy with it. He came for a site visit to see the kind of works I had collected over time and what I was intending to do in the future. All two dimensional works are on racks and videos and films are in cabinets, all under temperature and humidity control. The weather here is supportive of the art we have so that is a plus point.
In the dedicated lounge in my office space we have the possibility to show single and double channel video works. I never imagined our small office and lounge as a space to show video art, but we do use it now and I am thinking about future shows I should plan in the space. Currently I have works by Naeem Mohaiemen, Bani Abidi and Walid Raad, all speak of social, historical and political concerns.
I think the three artists work well together and I hope I can keep changing the shows as I keep acquiring works. The space helps me collect art that can engage with each other and makes me sort of curate my own shows, which I find interesting. I already have two shows I want to do in the future in mind and I am targeting artists and works accordingly for the collection. This helps in keeping me focused.
DS: How often do you travel specifically to see art? What draws you more, museum and institutional shows or art fairs?
AK: I travel once or twice a year for art. If I go to Basel, I spend a few days looking at the fair as well as the museum shows around and then I skip it for a few years as otherwise it becomes very monotonous. I rarely buy at fairs. Fairs are really places to meet the galleries and see works of some of the artists, perhaps unexpectedly, that I would probably consider buying in the future and for conversations. In a way they are just a starting point.
The past few years have been a learning process. Earlier, when an Indian artist would show in a group show at an international venue or art fair, that was exciting enough for me to start thinking about the artist seriously. Now, I look out for mid career artists who are doing great solo shows at museums or galleries of repute, or selected say, for Venice or documenta. In my budget I can only get a few works, so it’s important to look for quality.
I don’t have a team of curators traveling and looking or filtering art for me to buy. I read, look around and follow things on my own. Gallerists and friends suggest artists and shows I should look at. Like Rosemary Trockel or Moyra Davey at museum shows in Switzerland. I have known Walid Raad’s work for a while but only managed to see his works finally at the Basel Art Fair. It gave me an opportunity to consider works to collect from the series that appealed the most to me.
DS: What do you think of the current Indian art scene? Who do you find promising? Are there artists whose works you have been following and would like to acquire?
(In his collection are works from around the world. Natalie Djuberg, Gerard Byrnes, Leigh Ladare, Tom Burr, Alejandro Cesarco, Matthias Muller, Joachim Koester, Simryn Gill, Shahryar Nashat, Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari and Hassan Khan to name a few. It also includes South Asian artists like Nikhil Chopra, Tejal Shah, Dayanita Singh, Aisha Khalid, Zakkir Husain, Yamini Nayar, Rashid Rana, Naiza Khan, Mohammad Ali Talpur …)
AK: I am not very happy with the Indian contemporary art scene at the moment and for a long time have not come across anything that has blown me away. I find Gauri Gill promising, I don’t have her work as yet, still considering it. Of course, I have works of artists like Bani Abidi and Naeem Mohaiemen, who I have followed them for a long time. I hope to continue acquiring their works in future – if I find their works interesting and fitting into the kind of art I have.
I do feel it is a phase and I am sure things will change soon and we should be able to see some good art around here itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.