Museum in the tower

Swati and Ajay Piramal open up their private art collection in an inclusive space where paintings come with Marathi labels and archival material is accessible to students and scholars

Dr Swati Piramal vividly remembers the first painting she gifted her husband Ajay. It was 1977, and the couple was celebrating their first wedding anniversary. “I bought him a [Prabhakar] Barwe painting — an orange one with a beautiful sun — for a princely sum of R5,000,” says Swati. It was her first art purchase. “We were young then. Now, we are more knowledgeable; we make that effort to understand art. But, we go by the painting rather than the artist. We purchase a work only if we like it,” continues Swati, vice-chairperson of Piramal Enterprises Ltd.

Smriti, the first exhibition at the Piramal Museum of Art at Piramal Tower, Lower Parel, opens on Thursday to the public. PIC/BIPIN KOKATE
Smriti, the first exhibition at the Piramal Museum of Art at Piramal Tower, Lower Parel, opens on Thursday to the public. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Which is why the new Piramal Museum of Art, which opens to the public this Thursday, promises to be an intimate setting, where name-dropping, grandstanding and extraordinary pricing will be avoided. Of course, there will be the strapping Souzas and the elegant Ravi Varmas, but more importantly, the first exhibition of 60 works, titled Smriti, is a mélange of the distinct personalities of the Piramal family, tied-up neatly by Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of the Piramal Art Foundation.

The museum resembles a cube, but works like a nautilus; you move from an outer shell of the Bengal School to reach a core of contemporary artists like the Dali-esque duo Thukral and Tagra. “That’s part of my daughter Nandini’s collection of contemporary art. It’s so eclectic that I cannot relate to it. As a family, we are all different,” says Swati, whose prized collection is a set of 12 Persian-influenced miniatures. Her husband takes to the Bombay Progressives, whereas son Anand goes in for the more emerging lot.

Ajay Piramal and Dr Swati Piramal
Ajay Piramal and Dr Swati Piramal

On the tenth floor of Lower Parel’s Piramal Tower is Ajay Piramal’s office, where the corridors are ridiculously spacious — sunlight filters in, well-heeled executives make their calls seated under canvases by Raza and Husain, and suits talk money around coffee tables shaped like lotus leaves. It is sometimes-gallery, sometimes-meeting area. And it is on the ground floor of this very tower, with its blue-panelled façade like every other corporate edifice in Lower Parel, where the Piramal Museum of Art is housed. Corporate executives hover around the museum, and some are stopped in the nick of time from touching the artworks. Curiosity runs amok in the tower these days. “Lower Parel is in the heart of the city and is known for its restaurants rather than museums. This will make it a new art destination for the public,” says Swati.

Smriti, a museum of collections, is the tangible avatar of a book by the same name published by the Piramal Art Foundation in March this year. At 537 pages, the book is heavyweight; it tracks the chronology of 57 artists and over 160 works, all part of the Piramal collection. For Rajagopalan, who co-authored the book with Vaishnavi Ramanathan, this was an understanding of the family’s “tastes, choices and ideas”. Rajagopalan joined the Piramals in 2009, advising them on their art acquisitions, marking the transition for the family from buyers to collectors.

The dynamics between family and advisor-director is where emotional buys and historical value strike out each other to shape a well-rounded collection worth your time. “We think of the ‘best’ works — those which will be recognised over time and where there is sizeable information for them. The Piramals are not visible buyers and shy away from price tags. So, we don’t have a major Amrita Sher-Gil or a Tyeb Mehta. We prefer FN Souza’s landscapes to his Birth [the highest-selling Indian work of art],” says Rajagopalan.

“While museums label their collections in Marathi, most galleries don’t. Keeping in mind the average local visitor, we wanted to be inclusive,” Rajagopalan explains about the neat Marathi instruction at the bottom of the wall-text. At Piramal’s annexe building, the museum’s research centre boasts of reams of literature on Indian fine art, and doubles-up as Rajagopalan’s office. The director calls it a “democratic” space, where archives, essays and catalogues will be open to both students and art-scholars, preferably by appointment. Next month, the Foundation opens an art-residency in Thane, on Piramal’s ongoing realty development project, where mid-career artists can spend time and resources on-ground. Emerging artists will find one more name they can approach for support.

By opening up their private collection to the public, the Piramals join families like the Nadars and the Poddars. “We have to encourage art to the public, or we lose our sensibilities as human beings and forget the finer things of life. Art should be in everyone’s lives, irrespective of the economic strata you come from and we hope to achieve this by supporting artists and building collections that people can enjoy,” says Ajay.

But, we Indians love a good struggle and hard-earned rewards, so what will we have to say about an art collection coming from Ajay, who has a net worth of $8 billion and ranks among the 100 richest Indians in Forbes’ list this year? “Mr Piramal is known to be a spiritual man. That you go to work to ‘make’ money but not ‘for’ money is what he is known to live by. What do we remember the Rockefellers for?” says Rajagopalan.

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