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In end-March 2011, Richard Armstrong, the director of Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York, US, met Rajiv Savara at his home in New Delhi on his first visit to India. “It was here that I first made a pitch for Guggenheim to consider hosting a retrospective of V.S. Gaintonde’s works," recalls Savara, chairman of the board and founder trustee of the not-for-profit The Savara Foundation for the Arts, which he runs with his wife, Roohi, and younger brother Rahul.

Sitting in the living room of Savara’s house, one is surrounded by paintings and sculptures of some of the icons of Indian art—F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar, S.H. Raza, Meera Mukherjee, Somnath Hore, every wall and surface has a masterpiece on it.

The eye gets drawn to a magnificent oil painting by Raja Ravi Varma, depicting the forlorn Sita in Ashok vatika, Ravana’s garden in his palace in Lanka, where she is held captive by ogre-like custodians. Another wall is illuminated by two sublime abstract paintings by Gaitonde, executed in soft green and earthy red, respectively, imprinted with winged shapes. The meditative calm and hypnotic energy commonly associated with the master’s style are in full evidence here.

Kultura, litograph on colour, adhered to board, 1957
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Kultura, litograph on colour, adhered to board, 1957

Alongside the buying of works of art, Savara spends a small fortune on acquiring books and documentaries on art and architecture. His sustained accumulations have resulted in a rich library of resources. “We were mentored, amongst others, by a Japanese Meiji art dealer who would always say, ‘You are not building a zoo, but creating a collection’," Savara says. Because of this early training and counsel by some of the most prominent dealers and gallerists both in the West and in India, he spends 3-4 hours every day educating himself. A mentor to numerous collectors across the world, Savara is a member of the advisory committee for Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, US. He has also completed his term as a trustee at the renowned Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia which has perhaps the most distinguished collection of Impressionist Art in the world.

The Savaras do not attend exhibition openings or auctions and seldom entertain guests at home. Their hermetic presence in the art scene is devoted to one mission—to leave behind a legacy. Inspired by the tradition of philanthropy in the US established by great art collectors, the Savaras intend to donate their holdings to a worthy museum in the future.

The Savara Foundation for the Arts is closely involved with the promotion of Indian art. They have sponsored exhibitions and made grants to museums (for instance, it was the principal sponsor of the exhibition, Rhythms Of India: The Art Of Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), which was a collaboration between the Union government and the San Diego Museum of Art in 2008). Yet, loaning their collection of one of modern India’s greatest painters has run into insurmountable hurdles.

“After I made the pitch to Armstrong, the Guggenheim decided to host a show of Gaitonde. But on their requesting us to loan Gaitonde’s work from our collection, they could not come back to us with a convincing recovery plan, considering the challenges the export and re-import of art pose," Savara explains. “Works have been damaged in the recent past after being held-up in the Indian customs."

Monetary compensation is a poor recompense for the range and complexity of the paintings and prints that the Savaras own. “We have works by Gaitonde from 1949 to the end of his career," says Savara, who bought his first work by the artist from Bowrings (art seller) in 2002. “Frankly, I cannot imagine letting these out of my sight. After all, these are treasures that I wake up to every morning."

The evolution of Gaitonde’s aesthetics is not only baffling to follow but provides a striking contrast to the signature style with which he later became identified. In the 1950s, for instance, he was making prints and watercolour that are remarkably influenced by Paul Klee, while in the later years, the figurative approach dissolved in an explosion of colours. Compared to Souza or Husain, Gaitonde worked with a more muted palate, though the intensity of his work remained undiminished till the end of his career.

One particularly haunting abstract work at the Savara residence knocks the wind out of the viewer’s sails. An expanse of grey with black strokes is suddenly punctuated by a daub of white paint—the sheer audacity of the gesture, its immense suggestive potential, leaves the viewer weak-kneed.

But, as matters stand, the world will be deprived of such shining examples of Gaitonde’s art. The Guggenheim brings together only 45 of his works, with neither the expanse nor the quality that one senses from the Savara collection. “From the 1950s, Gaitonde started using a roller to paint. That makes it virtually impossible to restore his paintings, should they be damaged, regardless of what those in the business may claim," Savara says.

“My response to the hushed criticism being expressed in the world of Indian art on various aspects of the Guggenheim exhibition is that the shortcomings, if any, are understandable in the light of the fact that this exhibition perhaps represents the aspirations of over 1.2 billion Indians," he continues, “the entire project should be seen, to borrow the words of another Armstrong, as ‘one small step for man, but one giant leap for modern Indian art!’"

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