The first work one encounters on entering the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) is artist Bharti Kher’s lifesize elephant sculpture. The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own, which depicts a fibreglass elephant down on its knees with over 100,000 sperm-shaped bindis arranged in whorls on its skin, made auction history at Sotheby’s in London in June when it sold for around 7 crore.

Monumental: (from top) Nadar in front of Sudarshan Shetty’s Taj Mahal installation (2008) at the KNMA; A. Ramachandran’s Genesis of Kurukshetra (2005); and Subodh Gupta’s Family on Scooter (2006). Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The KNMA opened its new premises at DLF Place, Saket, with a grand party during the India Art Summit last month. Art world moguls were in attendance, as were politicians such as Sheila Dikshit and P. Chidambaram. The museum had been operating temporarily out of the HCL campus in Noida over the last year. Nadar’s husband Shiv Nadar is the founder of HCL.

Nadar’s private venture makes for the largest museum of contemporary and modern art in the country. Open 8 hours a day, six days a week, at no entry charge for visitors, her initiative is at the vanguard of a new brand of cultural philanthropy in India. She is preceded by art collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar, who run the non-profit Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. The foundation was established in 2008, and its multi-level exhibition space hosts well-curated rotating exhibitions. But it is the location of Nadar’s museum —in a shopping complex with thousands of visitors everyday—that works to serve Nadar’s vision. She puts it simply, as she walks us through the art she’s been collecting for close to 20 years: “I want art to be accessible to the public."

The opening exhibition of the museum, Time Unfolded, traces a visual trajectory of modern and contemporary Indian art, featuring 70 paintings and sculptures that span works by early Bengal School artists such as Jamini Roy to contemporary multimedia practitioners such as Vishal Dar. A museum shop stocks books, prints and art memorabilia, and two docents are available to conduct guided tours for groups, especially schoolchildren, who Nadar hopes will form a large chunk of the visitors.

When Nadar started collecting in the 1980s, it was mostly for home decor. She would buy directly from artists such as M.F. Husain, even commissioning them to create specific works. When her walls were full, she started using the HCL office as a repository. Around 2003, she decided she had to do something with her bourgeoning collection. Putting works into storage didn’t seem reasonable. “I thought if I’m going to continue buying art, I should do something more substantial or I should stop collecting," she says.

What started out largely as a conundrum of space, broadened into a philanthropic vision. Nadar cites how parents and children come in pairs to museums in New York; how experiencing art is an easy weekend activity. “We need to reacquaint ourselves with the art we are producing as a country," she says, “and there are few avenues for that."

Nadar, 60, is an ambitious woman who started her career in advertising and is an international competitive bridge player, among other things. “Given what museums such as the Guggenheim have done for Bilbao or what the Museum of Islamic Art is doing for Doha, Qatar, we hope to build a definitive world-class museum that will add to the splendour of the city of Delhi," she says in her public statement for the museum’s launch.

Since she decided to set up the museum in 2005, she has been travelling to auctions around the world to bid and buy, a dream for any art collector, and one that Nadar has the resources to realize. She campaigned to have the ministry of culture give her tax benefits and is one of the first to benefit from an import duty waiver for artworks brought into the country for public display. She’s now rooting to make artist donations commercially viable. In the years to come, the KNMA, she says, will transform into more than an exhibition space, to a site of confluence. There will be room for art appreciation discourses, workshops for children, for the lay public and the specially abled, global exhibitions, performing arts and other ingredients that go into making an art hub. In the first week after it opened, the museum had an average of a hundred visitors a day. Nadar’s four-staff team hopes to hit at least 300-400 through promotional activities over the coming year.

A criticism levelled against the KNMA collection is that it is an assemblage of trophy art pieces. By way of contrast, take what Mallika Advani, former head of Christie’s in India and now an independent art dealer, has to say about Delhi-based entrepreneur Rajiv Sawara’s collection of pre-modern and modern Indian art: “It’s unusual to find a collection with such depth. They have selected works that best represent the artist, which is critical to being a good collector."

The exhibition at KNMA is broad rather than deep, with buzzy works by many artists rather than an in-depth study of any. While the show does have thematics, spread across eight categories such as “landscapes in the city" and “the body", they come across as an attempt to string together all the major works that Nadar has happened to acquire.

According to Roobina Karode, director of KNMA and the exhibition’s curator, over half the exhibits were acquired in the last year. “We had to have all the great works. The museum must have the wow factor," she says.

The KNMA is a peek into a private collector’s impulses, but it does present a valuable opportunity for the average Indian museum-goer. Where else can someone who doesn’t go to art fairs, museums and galleries abroad get to see an Anish Kapoor sculpture, an enamelled jewel-studded Raqib Shaw canvas and Sudarshan Shetty’s Taj Mahal installation, all at once?

This, however, is yet another temporary repository for Nadar. She plans to move to an 80,000 sq. ft space in the next five years and is scouting for what she calls a “permanent, iconic resting spot". She also wants to double her 300-work collection in that period. “This can’t be it," she says, indicating that one woman’s showing cupboard might really become the country’s largest contemporary art museum.


Highlights of the KNMA collection

The KNMA has several works that have barely been in the public sphere. Director Roobina Karode lists a few

Absence of God VIII, 2008 (acrylic, glitter, enamel and rhinestones)

Raqib Shaw

Raised in Kashmir and based in London since 1998, Raqib Shaw currently holds the record for the most expensive Indian contemporary work to sell at auction (‘Garden of Earthly Delights III’ sold for almost $5 million, or around 22.8 crore, at Sotheby’s in 2007).

At first, Shaw’s visually deceptive canvas leaves the viewer dazzled with its enamelled, gemstone-studded surface (a detail that is lost in photographs). A deeper engagement reveals gory details of a world in a state of collapse. The work—which can be read as a metaphor for his childhood in Kashmir—has never been exhibited in India.

Blue Abstract, 1965 (oil on canvas)

VS Gaitonde

This is a rare painting by the reclusive modern artist that hasn’t been exhibited in India in recent years. V.S. Gaitonde’s abstract art prompts the viewer to make connections between the tangible and the intangible. This particular canvas is a brilliant treatment of form and colour. The deep hues of blue, nuanced and raised in parts, evoke a strange tranquillity.

Birth of Blindness, 2007 (fibreglass and cloth)

GR Iranna

Iranna’s sculptural installation has 10 naked, blindfolded men in a posture of complete submission. Their overworked bodies are tense with impending torture. The installation is unsettling because of its implicit power dynamic. It was shown at the Aicon Gallery in London with only a short preview in New Delhi two years ago.

Genesis of Kurukshetra, 2005 (bronze)

A Ramachandran

This installation by the Padma Bhushan-winning artist A. Ramachandran is inspired by the Mahabharat. His interpretation of the epic is unusual, focused on the genesis, as the title suggests. It shows the two mothers, Kunti and Gandhari, orchestrating the tale. The sons of both mothers are pawns, the five Pandavas in gold and a hundred Kauravas in silver. With each wrong move, the mothers can lose their sons. Combining aspects of architecture, sculpture and theatre, the installation is something that must be seen in person. It was the last part of a two-week-long exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi in 2009.

Kaayam, 2008 (fibreglass, wood and acrylic)

A Balasubramaniam

The artist was one of the three finalists for the inaugural edition of the Skoda Prize this year. Though this sculptural work was shown at New Delhi’s Talwar Gallery a couple of years ago, it is worth a longer look.

The Bangalore-based artist is more interested in the mystery of the creative process rather than the end product. In ‘Kaayam’, selfhood is elusive. A row of crumpled casts of human figures on a wall are caught mid-air, inert yet floating. The sculpture attempts to capture the absent form of something essential, like the human shadow.