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Partners In Art
Text by Geeta Rao and Photographs by Ankur Chaturvedi
Published: Volume 14, Issue 7, December, 2006

She is cool, calm and collected, the logical thinker, the perfect consultant. He is the art school grad-cum-industrialist who likes breaking new ground and taking risks. Together they make a dynamic couple who have made art accessible to Indian and international buyers through their portal saffronart.com. Dinesh and Minal Vazirani enjoy their tête-à-tête with Geeta Rao and reveal how they turned their passion for art into an innovative business enterprise

The brushstrokes of their relationship and partnership are spectacularly confident as they play out against the burgeoning Indian art market and a global canvas that is splashed with the imprints of Boston, Manhattan, Mumbai, Paris, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. They have just completed their autumn on-line auction which generated sales of $4.5 million and significantly set new auction benchmarks for contemporary artists like Anju Dodiya, Jaganath Panda, Ashim Purkayashta and Jayshree Chakravarty. A year ago, their winter auction was sold out, exceeding the Sotheby's and Christie's auctions and generating $13 million in sales of the masters - F.N. Souza, S. H. Raza, M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee.

As you walk down the vibrant, colourful Saffronart gallery at Prabhadevi in Mumbai, you share some quiet time with the contemporary brigade and the Masters skillfully hung on the wall as they wait their turn to be shipped out. There is a fuchsia and black Justin Ponmany facing the terracotta and green hues of Tyeb Mehta, Surendran Nair's Stygian Oath cocking an elegant snook at an early pre-Bindu Raza, Jitish Kallat's Rickshawpolis having a face-off with a cryptic Ram Kumar. This is their gallery space with another in Manhattan's Flatiron district. But it is the website, saffronart.com, that is the core anchor of their business and the nerve centre of the on-line auctions.

The husband and wife team of Dinesh and Minal Vazirani are passionate about Indian art and making it accessible and easy to view for international buyers and lovers of art who may not always be able to go to the galleries of Mumbai and Delhi. The portal on the verge of closure three years ago is vibrantly alive and their summer, spring and autumn auctions have beaten all records, their winter auction previews will be opening in Manhattan and Mumbai in December as a prelude to the winter on-line auction. But as with all stories of love and shared passions it didn't quite start here and growth wasn't as seamless.

They walk into the gallery late but are charmingly apologetic about the delay and the first question that arises is how they curate their own personal lives against the backdrop of art, culture, global wandering and transitions. Is it simpler when you translate a shared personal passion into a viable business model? And of course, the most important question is, how do spouses work together successfully? "When we started Saffronart, both of us knew we had to create something bigger than ourselves. Our objective was never to create another Indian company. We wanted to reach out to international buyers who are people like us…well travelled, comfortable in world cultures, willing to experiment," says Minal.

On the face of it, they seem to be very different personalities - she is the focused, calm and logical thinker, the chemical engineer-turned-retrovirologist-cum-quintessential consultant. He is the art school grad-cum-industrial engineer-cum-industrialist who likes to fly against the wind, takes risks and wants to do things in a hurry. A chance meeting at a Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco turned into a heated debate and culminated in a hot coast to coast pursuit - he was at Harvard completing his MBA, she was at UCLA finishing her Masters. Suddenly, from being composed elegant interviewees analysing the art market, they are back to being young grad school students, as they break into a mock serious spat as to who chased whom, who made the first move. There is laughter and the ice breaks but Minal has the last word. "He chased me with his video camera all evening and left ninety messages on my answering machine." Dinesh protests weakly but it does not work. Both agree that the interest sparked that weekend was the real and mutual thing. Married in 1994, they followed different careers, she in consulting, he in the family business of manufacturing industrial cranes.