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Abhishek Poddar: From teenage collector to a titan of Indian art

Abhishek and Radhika Poddar have built one of India’s most comprehensive collections of modern and contemporary art. The India Sale on 18 December in Mumbai will feature 41 of their superlative pieces

‘I don’t know why I collect, but I enjoy doing it,’ says Abhishek Poddar who, with his wife Radhika, has become one of the world’s most important patrons and collectors of modern and contemporary Indian art and crafts. ‘Often, I look at a piece and feel that if I don’t have it, there would be something missing in my life.’ 

Perhaps best known in India for Tasveer Gallery, dedicated to photography, and for their lifestyle store, Cinnamon, which is housed in a painstakingly restored 19th-century colonial bungalow, the Poddars have provided friendship, patronage and creative freedom to some of India’s leading artists, including Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Ganesh Pyne, Meera Mukherjee and Bhupen Khakhar.

Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), Untitled (Diagonal), 1975. Oil on canvas, 66⅜ x 51⅛ in (168.6 x 129.9 cm). Estimate INR10,00,00,000-15,00,00,00 ($1,500,000-2,200,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), Untitled (Diagonal), 1975. Oil on canvas, 66⅜ x 51⅛ in (168.6 x 129.9 cm). Estimate: INR10,00,00,000-15,00,00,00 ($1,500,000-2,200,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Now, in order to take their collection of Indian visual culture and design in exciting new directions, the couple has decided to sell 41 works collected over many years, all of which will be offered as a highlight of The India Sale on 18 December at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. 

Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), Untitled (Laxmi Emerging from the Ocean), 1973. Tempera on canvas, 19¼ x 22⅛ in (48.9 x 56.2 cm). Estimate INR80,00,000-120,00,000 ($1,300,000-1,800,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale - South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), Untitled (Laxmi Emerging from the Ocean), 1973. Tempera on canvas, 19¼ x 22⅛ in (48.9 x 56.2 cm). Estimate: INR80,00,000-120,00,000 ($1,300,000-1,800,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale - South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Of these important works, seven are classified as ‘National Treasures’ — an indication of the importance of the artists to Indian cultural heritage, and as such they are unable to leave the country. Of the remaining lots on offer, almost all were acquired directly from the artists themselves, who went on to become personal friends and who led the Poddars to other artists.

Thirty years ago, when Abhishek Poddar began buying art, collecting in India was easier said than done. There were very few galleries in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata and artists rarely had representation, meaning that they had to be tracked down to their studios across all points of the subcontinent. 

Abhishek Poddar was brought up amid a formidable collection of Raj-period landscapes, classical stone sculpture, silver, textiles, porcelain and modern Indian art, which had been assembled by his father Bimal. Art was an integral part of his life at home, not only through these objects, but also through the visits of family friends such as the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck and the collectors Suresh Neotia and B.K. Birla. 

In the mid-1980s, and having noted his teenage son’s interest, Bimal Poddar granted the adolescent Abhishek a modest annual budget with which to acquire art. Abhishek picked up his first work of art, a sketch by Jatin Das, soon to be followed by pieces by Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Meera Mukherjee, Ganesh Pyne, Gopal Ghose and Nikhil Biswas. When a work he liked was outside his allocated budget, he would somehow convince his father to buy it instead.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), Untitled, circa late 1960s. Oil on canvas, 64⅛ x 40 in (162.9 x 101.6 cm). Estimate INR9,00,00,000-12,00,00,000 ($118,000-177,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), Untitled, circa late 1960s. Oil on canvas, 64⅛ x 40 in (162.9 x 101.6 cm). Estimate: INR9,00,00,000-12,00,00,000 ($118,000-177,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

As a student at The Doon School, the famous boarding school for boys in the Himalayan foothills, Abhishek established a magazine, Akshat, which underlined his precocious grasp of the various genres and geographies of the art world. He wrote to several artists asking them to contribute to the magazine, and visited all those who replied. 

This established the pattern of personal relationships with Indian artists that would in time build into an extensive network. The most important relationship of all, arguably, was with the painter Manjit Bawa, whom Abhishek first visited in 1987.

Bawa is credited with cultivating the young collector’s eye for art and for introducing him to artists including Tyeb Mehta, Jagdish Swaminathan, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, Ravinder Reddy and Pritpal Ladi, among others, many of whom are represented in the sale.

Other artists Poddar met and befriended played influential roles in the evolution of his collection. His long friendship with Maqbool Fida Husain began by coincidence when, at the age of 14, Abhishek spotted him on the road outside his Kolkata home. The teenager invited Husain home for tea and the artist would regularly stay with the Poddars in Kolkata, remainimg in touch with Abhishek until a few days before his death in 2011.

After visiting the 1983 Vishawakarma exhibition in New Delhi, which was designed to showcase and revive India’s rich tradition of weaving and textiles, Abhishek’s eyes were opened to new areas. He and his wife have gone on to assemble one of India’s the most important private collections of folk and tribal art, textiles, craft and design.  

Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998), People in a Row, circa late 1980s. Bronze, 22 x 10¼ x 6 in (55.9 x 26 x 15.2 cm). Estimate INR50,00,000-70,00,000 ($74,000-103,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998), People in a Row, circa late 1980s. Bronze, 22 x 10¼ x 6 in (55.9 x 26 x 15.2 cm). Estimate: INR50,00,000-70,00,000 ($74,000-103,000). This lot is offered in The India Sale – South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art on 18 December 2016 at Christie’s in Mumbai

In 1992 Abhishek curated his first exhibition, the inaugural show at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, titled The Subjective Eye. The exhibition was not based on a particular school or style but on artists who had played an influential role in his life, including Arpita Singh, Jayashree Chakravarty, Manjit Bawa and Ram Kumar, all of whom who had deepened his understanding and exposed him to new art.

Perhaps the family’s greatest contribution to contemporary Indian art, however, has been to provide artists with a retreat at their home in Coonoor, a town in the hills of Tamil Nadu. At gatherings that came to be known as ‘art camps’, artists met to discuss their practice and exchange ideas.

For Abhishek Poddar, art has been a long journey of discovery, one that has spawned friendships with the finest artists and craftsmen in India. The collector is currently building a new private museum in Bangalore, the Museum of Art and Photography, while Radhika owns and manages Cinnamon. History also appears to be repeating itself: the joy of collecting has been passed down to the couple’s own children, who have come to regard artists like Manjit Bawa as members of their extended family.