Private art collections in India do not find acknowledgement in public displays spaces unlike in western nations – or even in China and Japan which are witnessing museum booms. Museums and archiving institutions abroad reap the harvest of private collections — relying on donations of art by private collectors.
They are known to honour collectors by christening galleries and display sections after the donors; giving to the world an iconic legion of collectors and collections such as Peggy Guggenheim, Richard Seymour (Marquess of Hertford), Rainn Wilson, Charles Saatchi, Hollywood mogul David Gaffen, Leon Black, Doris F. Fischer, the Borghese collection, the Medici collection, the Charles Lang Freer Collection, the Leichtenstein collection, the Thyssen collection and the Wallace Collection to name a handful- who have played stellar roles in the history of collecting, conserving and archiving of art across genres.
In India, museums are still reluctant to identify private donors, partially because of the institutionalized nature of archiving, which is controlled by bureaucratic red tape and government protocols that discourages promotion of individual collectors in state-owned spaces. Officials say once a collector donates his collection to a government run archive, it naturally becomes the property of the nation — and are often categorised as national treasures depending on the antiquity (antiquarian) value of the art.
In this context of the complex legalese surrounding the provenance and ownership of private collections in India, the National Museum in New Delhi- the country’s national capital— jumped the bureaucratic bar to honour one of the country’s pioneering 20th century private collection of art — the Bharany Archive. The museum dug the collection – donated by connoisseur and art and textiles dealer C.L. Bharany — out of its archives for an exposition to highlight the role of private collections in building museum repositories across the country.
The exhibition which opened at the National Museum July 11 hosts a wide and curiously eclectic collection that donor C.L. Bharany and his father R.K, Bharany collected at random since the late 19th century partly in course of the Bharany’s textile trade in traditional carpets and essentially for the love of Indian art. The collection which spans nearly 1,000 years, includes 10th -11th century mythological sculptures in stone, wood and bronze, miniature folio paintings from 19th century manuscripts, calendar art, early 20th century spiritual paintings, wall panels, artifacts and a large assortment of colourful heritage textiles — embroidery from Kashmir, phulkari work from Punjab, kantha from Bengal and stitched apparel from 19th century. The textiles form the core of the collection — in delicate floral motifs assembled from nature that dictated the then design movement in the villages of India, where women steered the growth and evolution of hand-embroidered textiles and accessories.
“The museum in New Delhi has several private collections. But the Bharany Collection is the biggest in size and variety. We are trying to bring out as many collections as possible,” director-general of the National Museum Venu Vasudevan said.
The collection had been in the archives of the National Museum for nearly 40 years still the chance publication of an article in an art magazine, “Marg” about the pioneering giants in private collecting in India brought the spotlight to the collection. The head of the three-member curators’ team Giles Tillotson, who was involved in collecting material about the Bharany collection for the publication, used the article as an inspiration to bring the donation out to public space. The aim was to “show the importance of private collections in creating the nation’s art treasures and preserving cultural heritage”
The collection, handed down to Chhote Lal Bharany, by his father R.K. Bharany, who was a man of modest means. But he amassed a large collection of embroidered as a dealer of carpets in Amritsar and miniature art. He sold some of them to pioneering Sri Lankan collector of Indian art and art historian Ananda .K. Coomaraswamy, Karl Khandalavala and Rai Krishnadas around 1913-1920 — private collectors who helped foreign museums build their archives of Indian and Oriental art.
When Chhote Lal Bharany inherited his father’s collection — he was operating from Kolkata. Bharany junior was sent to Kolkata to study under Indologist Stella Kramrisch. His clients included connoisseur and bureaucrat M.S. Randhawa, an art scholar, who contributed to building the collection of art at the Chandigarh museum. Chhote Lal (now 87) collaborated with former directors of the national museum, Grace Morley, C, Sivaramamurti and Laxmi Sihare.
The theme of the collection is close to the Bharany hearts — mythology. “I am personally of the opinion that it is not possible to really appreciate Indian art without Indian mythological background because without it, you see only the body. The soul of the body can be seen in Indian art because the word Radha means so much to us — while ‘lady’ means something different,” R.K. Bharany writes in his memoirs. Curators Giles Tillotson, Pramod Kumar KG and Mrinalini Venkateswaran agree.
“It is an eclectic collection. The museum had been acquiring from them over the decades till the collection was donated in 1976,” co-curator Mrinalini Venkateswaran said. “We started curating on the premise that the core of the exhibition should be textiles and paintings, the soul of the Bharany collection. We wanted to start a conversation about what is art and its use in our everyday life – based on objects governed by practicality. We deliberately did not arrange the exhibits in a chronological sequence,” Venkateswaran said.
The strength of the collection is its breadth of its vision, co-curator Giles Tillotson told this writer at the museum. “Bharani specialized in textiles. He had a pre-eminent collection of Kashmir shawls, phulkari and folk embroidery,” Tillotson said. He pointed out that Bharany’s outlook to art was “unusual”. “He had a completely different aesthetic vision despite the fact that he collected Mughal, Rajput and tribal art,” Tillotson said. Using an aboriginal pencil drawing by a Gond (tribal) artist, Govind Jogi, dating nearly 100 years ago, “Ganesh Landscape” (that depicts a natural world shaped like Ganesha inhabited by creatures and nature of god)”, Tillotson said, “Bharany liked subtleties in art” and “interpretations of mythology”.
When questioned about the apparent restraint in bringing private collections from archives of national museums in India, Tillotson explained “over the years, lot of has been exposed”. “Part of the problem is that the cultures of national museums are moribund unlike in private musuems. I am working for the Jaipur City Palace Museum, of the erstwhile royal family, where the exhibits are not still state owned. The national museums across India have fantastic collections, but they are not well-managed and not well displayed,” Tillotson said. The curator is working on a project, “Collections in Partnership” to raise awareness about the importance of private collections in museums and the need for acknowledgement of private collectors who donate their art to museums.
“Archiving is a partnership between private collectors, museums, curators and related stake-holders,” Tillotson said.
The movement has taken off in India in the last two decades. Private collectors like Lekha and Anupam Poddar, Kiran Nader, Tina Ambani, (late) Kekoo Gandhy, Malvinder Singh (Religare Arts), B.K. Birla, Sarla Birla (Birla Academy of Arts and Culture), Sangeeta Jindal, Suresh Neotia, Ratan Tata and Dorab Tata (whose collection was donated to the Prince of Wales Museum), and Rajiv Jahangir – among many more either set up private archives, foundations, exhibited or donated their collection to international art houses and auctioneers.
The increase in disposable incomes, discerning taste in lifestyle goods, access to luxury, education, awareness, visibility, hand-holding initiatives for buyers have led to a new segment of collectors, who are younger and affluent. As years go by, these collectors are expected to mature and build “meaningful archives” for posterity.
“The museums have to reach out to private collectors to acquire quality archives and partner with them,” Tillotson said.