The Beholder : Conversation with Mukeeta Jhaveri

by Ina Puri

Mukeeta and Pramit Jhaveri at their residence. Image courtesy: Ina Puri and Mukeeta Jhaveri.

Mukeeta Jhaveri had strolled in with her children in tow and spent the evening explaining what she thought of the paintings to them. This is my first memory of her, from an exhibition held at Sakshi, maybe 15 years ago. As we became friends, and I visited her beautifully appointed home on Peddar Road, Mumbai, what had impressed me deeply was the very personal style with which she had displayed the art on her walls. There were the magnificent works by Souza and Husain, Manjit Bawa, Akbar Padamsee, Chittrovanu Mazumdar jostling for space with a bewildering range of exquisite miniature paintings, cheek by jowl and despite the diversity of styles and mediums the overall effect was stunning.

While in her role as art advisor, Mukeeta is known to caution her clients to consider many points before they commit to an investment, but from what I’ve seen of her, this is something she doesn’t quite follow herself, falling prey to temptation, acquiring a work simply because she likes it. It is another matter that even in her own acquisitions, she has never made any wrong decisions till date.

We have spent many a day in pursuit of art, catching shows and visiting museums, sharing our views on new artists, disappointed at times when we felt let down by someone we had especially liked. There have been moments too when one wondered how seriously the recession would impact the art world, but throughout these times, I have seen the pride & joy with which she has spoken of her collection, come what may, here is a collector who continues to be driven with her passion when it comes to art.

Ina Puri (IP): What started the passion for collecting? Was it love of art or was it about other considerations?

Mukeeta Jhaveri (MJ): I bought my first works of art in ninth grade over thirty years ago – a pair of monochromatic Altaf heads. In hindsight, it was a pretty depressing buy for a teenager. So yes, I would say love was the only consideration then. My passion for collecting started very clearly from a ‘eureka moment,’ when I discovered a coffee table book on Picasso in Sunderabai Hall while still in school in 1979, at a book exhibition. A stray comment soon thereafter, describing Husain as the Indian Picasso lead me on a hunt to Dadiba’s Pundole Art Gallery and Husain’s show ‘C.V. Raman Effect’, I think. Pramit bought me my first Husain from a thumb nail image. I was so computer illiterate then, I could not enlarge the image.

IP: Have you, since then, had any cause to regret acquisitions? Do you and Pramit always decide together or is it most often your decision?

MJ: Of course, many regrets. So often you end up picking weak works from strong shows or ‘bargains’ or you simply outgrow works. Frankly, as junior collectors, beauty sometimes lay in availability, and sometimes in price. In the early days of our marriage, I bought works. As the works became more expensive, Pramit had cheque-book veto. As he became more engaged, and more discerning, he started demanding aesthetic veto, especially for larger formats. Now, it is a bit of both. The collection is beginning to reflect him as well.

IP: I remember your son, then a mere lad, sitting on the floor of Sakshi Gallery and having an animated conversation with Manjit, during his show in Bombay. In later years, I have seen how responsive your children have been to art. For instance, the art in their rooms show very definite preferences. Would you consider changing art works at their request?

MJ: As kids, they have always been around art. It has just been something that was part of their lives. Other kids went to toy stores, but mine went to galleries and museums in strollers, all over the world. It was quite a revelation for him when one day some of the boys from school came over and counted thirty two paintings in the living room. Till then it hadn’t occurred to him that it was excessive. The embarrassment probably lasted all of ten minutes.

I remember a huge outrage as they were little, when I sold a Yusuf Arakkal without their permission. I had no idea that they liked the work. I was quite pleased with their vehement response.

Now I pay heed to them only in their spaces! I must. They are quasi-adults at 17 and 15. The Sunil Padwal with a strong silent male protagonist is a ‘boy-painting’ and so hangs in Prithvir’s room. Luckily it is on wood, so it survives the onslaught of his football. Nynika chose and made us buy the K. K. Raghava work of the nude girl. After hesitating initially, she was happy to hang it in her pink, lime and mauve room. The abstract Jain Pushkale, she tolerates. We negotiate, but on matters of art, their mother does get the final say, I will confess.

IP: From the time we’ve been friends, 15 years or more, you have impressed me with your very strong and informed choices. You have followed your instincts and the result is evident in your fantastic collection today… But tell me, have you ever taken the odd risks or preferred to play safe?

MJ: I am not sure what you mean by playing it safe. But the truth is, I don’t know any other young professional couple who have spent as large a proportion of their time and net worth engaged in art as Pramit and I have, without doing it as a livelihood. Choosing to buy this much art as opposed to real estate, some would say was risky! Time will tell. Everything is relative. Was the proportion of art risky? Were the choices risky? All will vary, depending on the yardstick used to measure it.

IP: You have been a much sought after art advisor in your personal capacity apart from your long association with Osian’s. What would your advice be today for new collectors in these dire days of recession?

MJ: Firstly Ina, recession technically means negative growth. India is growing at 6.5%. So I am presuming, by recession you mean the recession in the art market. Beautiful, well-executed and well-preserved art has held value, historically. What is not an antique today will become so in time. One needs to marry aesthetic with price and value. The greater the store of knowledge you develop with yourself, the less you rely on someone else and more you enjoy the buying process.

I would say that your mantra should always be to ‘see-see-see before you buy-buy-buy’ in any market. The more you train your eye, the more you can trust your own instincts, and the more confidence you have to write the cheque you choose to write for whatever kind of art choose to buy – contemporary, modern, antique or tribal.

IP: On a different note, what have your fears been when you’ve seen fake works of artists you have acquired in your collection?

MJ: No merit in my joining the chorus of lament for lack of academic scholarship, authentication, etc. Hence the mantra I mentioned earlier.

IP: Share some interesting anecdote associated with this long adventure with me, I am reminded of Manjit’s last work you bought and how it made its way to your home.

Her son Prithvir with Manjit Bawa. Image courtesy: Ina Puri and Mukeeta Jhaveri.

MJ: Many years ago, when Prithvir was a toddler, Geeta Mehra at Sakshi will remember an untimely, unsolicited ‘Yuck’ from him over a dark Souza nude, which almost cost her that sale. In hindsight, wish I had bought it. It would fund a year’s tuition at Harvard!

If I were to ask you Ina, to chronicle our journey you would actually be writing my marriage diary. So many acquisitions would be milestone markers, so many would be near deal breakers. Nandalal Bose’s sketch, Mahishasur Mardhini, for sure would count among the latter. Pramit did not understand, how I could buy that historic, tattered piece of nothing instead of a cubist Sabavala. He bought me a cowboy for our first anniversary without even realising that it was a chemical alteration work by Souza. Frankly, it took me many years to realise it was not just a plain drawing! Many works have an intimate memory or a story attached that make them unsellable, even if you outgrow them aesthetically.

IP: I love the many moods I see on your walls, from Chittravanu to the older masters like M. F. Husain. Then Remen Chopra! How on earth do you manage to display the works together so aesthetically?

MJ: Ina, you are very charitable to my clutter. The truth is that minimalist chic appeals to collectors when they dine in restaurants. When they go to other collectors’ homes, they love to be voyeurs of their journeys, their changing tastes, their greed and their passion. They relate to their desire to share, to display memories, milestones and auction trophies like spoils of war. Sometimes when you see a familiar work, it’s almost like meeting an old friend. I too plead guilty.

IP: We have often spent an entire day visiting galleries, looking at art with admiration and exasperation, what is your take on the artists who have become superstars?

MJ: More power to them. I can understand and appreciate that every career must have some weak shows. Just wish they would have their own in-house quality control department. In this day and age a poor finish really rattles me.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ina Puri is an arts impressario, curator & writer. In her capacity as a fi lm producer she won the National Award for her documentary on Manjit Bawa.

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