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Indian Essence
Text by Shirin Mehta and Photograph by Ritam Banerjee
Published: Volume 19, Issue 5, May, 2011

Richard Armstrong, director, Guggenheim Museum, New York, visits Mumbai’s hardcore art collectors, galleries and collections...

"Perhaps I should be slightly apologetic here,” says Richard Armstrong, director, Guggenheim Museum, New York. “You cannot have a global collection without including India, so I am actually catching up.” The tall, bearded Armstrong was in Mumbai on a whirlwind ‘culture’ tour, taking in art collections and the Elephanta Caves. Admitting to being a victim of the usual clichés on India, he claims, “India has a robust economy and the potential to be a leader not just in money, but in ideas. You have had such a philosophical head start...you already have the power of ideas.”

Shirin Mehta catches up with him at Indigo restaurant in Mumbai, and discovers plans to include Indian artists in museum collections in New York and the under-development Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Mumbai pictures
I discovered very strong galleries and a vibrant artist community here in Mumbai. We had a really great day looking at the Nicholson Collection.
I have seen some staggering pictures here. What is apparent is the Indian essence, despite modernism, and a very deep attraction for narration. India is a country of cordial exchanges. People talk a lot to each other and you find that in the paintings as well. The connection to literature too is more than what I see in other countries. It’s all accurate to the culture. I cannot recommend names of Indian artists…I am better at saying that I liked all of them so far.

Colour matters
In India, I have witnessed a different palette, more venturesome, a frequent use of red. I have seen a few nights with the sun going down and can understand where that is coming from. The palette is shaped by the sun. We, on the other hand, live in a palette of white and grey, which comes from the clouds. The light here has a different quality as I witnessed on the boat to the Elephanta Caves. The vegetation too is so different – you live in a giant garden, you never have a frost, it is another world altogether. This being an agrarian society, the colours remain more natural.

The Guggenheim
The Guggenheim is a completely radical thing based on the idea that art can change human behaviour. When the Frank Lloyd Wright building came up in 1959, it resulted in a total radicalisation of art. The spiral design of the building, almost like a parking lot, made art so much more democratic and approachable. I wish to reconnect to that beginning. ‘Beauty will save the world’ it has been said but I am not sure that I always believe in that. We are trying to redefine beauty for ourselves.

Anish Kapoor
Yes of course India can claim Anish Kapoor as its own. I am surprised he has not exhibited here earlier. We made a large commission to him and the work is exhibited in Bilbao. He is one of those landmark artists who changes his era. His work remains unusual, unique and very ambitious. He has been working steadily for the last 20 years and somewhere along the way, the world caught up with him.

M F Husain
I see his canvas every morning at the hotel where I live. I enjoy its tremendous vibrance. I have learnt that he is no longer in India and unable to return. It is a terrible fate but a wonderful endorsement about the power of art. Though I guess it is totally inconvenient for him.

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