Gurcharan Das on how he set up one of India's earliest corporate art collections
Renowned widely as an intellectual and a prolific writer based out of New Delhi, there is a lesser-known side to Gurcharan Das, the art connoisseur
The transformative moment for me was not the Renaissance or the encounter with Rembrandt in college or the Dutch masters or the Impressionists, but the Bauhaus school of architecture. It was what introduced me to Modernism and it's the reason why I find Tyeb Mehta fascinating," says Gurcharan Das.
Renowned widely as an intellectual and a prolific writer based out of New Delhi, there is a lesser-known side to Das, the art connoisseur. In an upcoming sale of South Asian modern and contemporary art by Christie's, to be held in New York next month, one of the highest estimates is for a painting by Tyeb Mehta from Das' collection. Painted in 1975, the piece is titled Diagonal XV. The Diagonal series marked Mehta's maturity as an artist by putting form above content.
"Tyeb's works aren't figurative. He looks at form, and the Diagonal series is an interesting way to break up space and colour," says Das, 74. Das' interest in modern and contemporary art can be traced back to his days as a student in Harvard, where he graduated in Philosophy, but was exposed to various other subjects, including art and architecture. Musing that he nearly thought of becoming an architect, Das joined Richardson Hindustan Limited (RHL) as a trainee in then-Bombay in the 1960s. "I would look longingly at paintings in galleries such as Chemould and Pundole's. My interest sort of grew from there," says Das.
When he became the CEO of the company, which later became Procter & Gamble India, Das built one of the earliest corporate collections that the country had seen. Comprising nearly 150 works, the collection boasted of Modernists, such as MF Husain, SH Raza and VS Gaitonde. There were also works by Jamini Roy, KG Subramanyan and Jagdish Swaminathan that Das brought into the collection.
Das quit the corporate sector in 1994. But in the interim, he purchased some of the works from the Procter & Gamble India collection, including Diagonal XV. "My private collection is a modest one. I purchased those that I could afford," he says. Among them are works by Sudhir Patwardhan, whom Das remarks as one of his favourites, especially since the artist frequently evoked the city. Eventually, the remainder of the corporate collection was sold off entirely to a Japanese collector, Masanori Fukuoka. Das believes that the move was a hasty one, made before Indian modern and contemporary art could command the kind of prices it does today.
Das is also known for his interest in primary education and bettering its infrastructure in India. He is one of the co-founders of Ashoka University, and says that the proceeds from the sale of the Diagonal XV will be to raise funds towards the philanthropic cause. He is also awaiting the imminent launch of his latest book, Kama: The Riddle of Desire, talking about which, he says, "India is the only civilisation to elevate kama to a goal of life. Kama means desire and pleasure — one might as well surround oneself with beauty and be a source of pleasure. It was what led me to set up the corporate collection, too. It was a way for the employees to be surrounded by objects of beauty," he says.
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