AN EYE FOR ART

Apart from set­ting up one of the largest con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries in east­ern In­dia, Richa Agar­wal, the direc­tor of the Emami Chisel Art gallery, has been proac­tively pro­mot­ing art by or­gan­is­ing art fairs and ex­hi­bi­tions that cater to the masses and the

Marwar - - Contents - Text Vinita Kapoor & Ran­ja­bati Das

Richa Agar­wal, the direc­tor of the Emami Chisel Art gallery, has been proac­tively pro­mot­ing art by or­gan­is­ing art fairs and ex­hi­bi­tions that cater to the masses and the elite alike.

SOME­WHERE AT THE BACK OF OUR MINDS, we al­most always ex­pect most women en­trepreneurs to don a tough per­sona. So we were pleas­antly sur­prised when we caught up with the soft-spo­ken yet ar­tic­u­late Richa Agar­wal who man­ages Emami Chisel Art (ECA), a unit of Emami Group Frankross Limited. It’s not too dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Agar­wal lost in her own world as she gazes at a Jamini Roy mas­ter­piece, or pic­ture her por­ing over art books at, say. the li­brary at the Tate. She comes across as the sort: quiet, re­served, pas­sion­ate, dig­ni­fied.

So how did her in-laws view art—that “most in­tense mode of in­di­vid­u­al­ism”, as de­scribed so suc­cinctly by Os­car Wilde? “We are a big fam­ily with di­verse choices,” Agar­wal says. The truth of her state­ment is ev­i­dent from the fact that Emami, the fruit of a 40-year-long part­ner­ship between R S Agar­wal and R S Goenka, has moved far be­yond its flag­ship FMCG in­ter­ests. And be it ce­ment, re­tail or health care, the moves were al­most always based on in­di­vid­ual in­cli­na­tions. “When it came to our art col­lec­tion—also owned by both families jointly, like ev­ery­thing else—it meant that we had the luxury of wit­ness­ing a wider va­ri­ety of art than most col­lec­tors. It am­ply re­flects the many dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences of

our huge fam­ily, where no two peo­ple have the same tastes,” says Agar­wal.

Con­versely, be­cause ev­ery­thing is shared by mem­bers of the two families (who con­sider each other sib­lings, un­cles, aunts, etc, as if they were re­ally re­lated by birth), it of­ten hap­pened that a cer­tain piece of art that had ear­lier adorned a par­tic­u­lar wall in the Goenka house, had been moved to the Agar­wal house, or vice versa, be­cause a mem­ber of the other fam­ily had taken a sud­den fancy to it. Agar­wal loves this bor­row­ing, sharing, in­flu­enc­ing and shuf­fling. She also loves the fact that the two houses were strate­gi­cally lo­cated just a few build­ings apart for years till about a month ago, and that de­spite the Agar­wals’ re­cent move, the families still live only about three kilo­me­tres away. She would even go as far as to say that it is this mu­tual de­pen­dence that is key to the group’s con­joined suc­cess.

“Our own col­lec­tion, which I keep ro­tat­ing, fits very well in the gallery which be­came more of an ex­ten­sion of our fam­ily’s pas­sion for beau­ti­ful things.

The be­gin­ning

In 2008, when the multi-storeyed Emami Tower was be­ing built in east­ern Kolkata, the idea was to do up the cor­po­rate of­fices with con­tem­po­rary paint­ings. They imag­ined that it would add much-needed warmth to the cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment. As time passed, the idea grew big­ger till it took the shape of an art gallery that would ul­ti­mately take over a 15,000 sq ft space spread over the ground and first floors of the build­ing. “Since we had a big space, we thought of util­is­ing it, and thus the gallery was born,” says Agar­wal. A key in­flu­encer was her fa­ther-in-law, she says. One would as­sume that she is talk­ing about R S Agar­wal, whose pas­sion for po­etry, art and sculp­ture is well-known. But, Agar­wal clar­i­fies that by “fa­ther-in-law”, she refers to both Mr Agar­wal and Mr Goenka, an­other keen con­nois­seur of art. For her, the two families—headed by the two pa­tri­archs whose friend­ship is the stuff that le­gends are made of—are but one.

Dis­play­ing the best

The gallery dis­plays the Emami Group’s per­sonal col­lec­tion which is a beau­ti­ful bal­ance of paint­ings, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tion arts. “Our own col­lec­tion, which I keep ro­tat­ing, fits very well in the gallery which be­came more of an ex­ten­sion of our fam­ily’s pas­sion for beau­ti­ful things,” says Agar­wal. The col­lec­tion, a com­bi­na­tion of rec­om­men­da­tions by con­sul­tants and the per­sonal choice of sev­eral mem­bers of the Agar­wal and Goenka clans, con­sists of works of mas­ter painters like M F Hus­sain (Emami Chisel Art has ac­quired seven paint­ings from his Cal­cutta se­ries, apart from a num­ber of cut-outs cre­ated dur­ing the painter’s Gaja Gamini days back in 2000), Satish Gu­jral, Je­hangir Sabavala, Ak­bar Padamsee, Jagdish Swami­nathan, Tayeb Mehta, F N Souza, Bikash Bhat­tacharya and S S Raza amongst oth­ers. Sculp­tures found at the ECA in­clude works by Him­mat Shah, Chin­tan Upad­hyay, Bi­mal Kundu, Bi­man Be­hari Das, Gopal Prasad Mon­dol and Subrato Biswas.

At the mo­ment, one of Agar­wal’s favourite beau arts cre­ation is a re­cently ac­quired in­stal­la­tion piece by Sir Anish Kapoor which graces her home, which is al­ready adorned with about 300 pieces of art at present. Not one to mince words, Agar­wal hon­estly opines that her trea­sures have not merely been picked up be­cause of their aes­thetic value, but be­cause they are in­vest­ments too. She, like so many oth­ers, is not blind to the fact that art is a wise op­tion to park money in.

Cul­ture slant

Emami Chisel Art also or­gan­ises talk shows, ex­hi­bi­tions, ret­ro­spec­tives and art fairs—the last, roughly, once or twice a year. Be­sides host­ing com­pe­ti­tions and events, th­ese shows ex­hibit sculp­tures and col­lectibles made of ter­ra­cotta and brass, apart from draw­ings and paint­ings by both renowned painters and lesser-known ar­ti­sanal com­mu­ni­ties of Ben­gal. They also play a part in pro­mot­ing new and up­com­ing artists like Tapas Konar, Aditya Basak, Ashok Bhowmick, Sa­tra­p­ati Datta and many oth­ers whom Agar­wal finds par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive. In an ef­fort to gen­er­ate in­ter­est in art among city res­i­dents, the gallery also houses a read­ing (not lend­ing) li­brary that boasts ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 books re­lated to art.

“We also hold an an­nual month-long arts ex­hi­bi­tion (which con­cen­trates purely on paint­ings) where we re­ceive hun­dreds of en­tries,” says Agar­wal. “This year, we re­ceived 550 ap­pli­ca­tions, out of which we chose about 160,” she adds. The best en­tries won a to­tal cash award of R2.5 lakh.

The ECA also sells col­lectibles—

es­sen­tially art­works on home dé­cor items like cush­ion cov­ers, lamp­shades, fab­rics and fur­ni­ture. “We have en­sured that th­ese are af­ford­able as we strongly feel that art is not just for the elite but for ev­ery­one to en­joy,” adds Agar­wal. “But if you’re look­ing for a good deal, then the art me­las, where artists sell at ridicu­lously low prices, are where you should ded­i­cate a day,” she tips us off, adding, “A piece that would nor­mally cost

R50,000, usu­ally goes for about R35,000 here. It’s a real steal and some of the young artists are un­be­liev­able! There are about a thou­sand artists to choose from and the an­nual show is a three-week af­fair.”

Art phi­los­o­phy

Grow­ing western in­flu­ences on our think­ing and pref­er­ences may have re­sulted in an up­surge in the de­mand for con­tem­po­rary and mod­ern art, but for Agar­wal, tra­di­tional art, es­pe­cially of the In­dian and di­as­poric va­ri­ety, which deals with sub­jects drawn from our rich her­itage of mythol­ogy and spir­i­tu­al­ism is “ev­er­green”. “As In­di­ans, I think we are always look­ing for a con­nec­tion to God, a spir­i­tual link to our roots. Tra­di­tional art helps us es­tab­lish that con­nec­tion,” she muses.

To en­sure that ev­ery­one is able to en­joy art, the mother of two strives to make art ac­ces­si­ble to the gen­eral public. This is why her gallery is open to all, and their art me­las sell pieces at throw­away prices, de­spite the qual­ity of the work. For Agar­wal, it is all about ap­pre­ci­at­ing the finer nu­ances of life and tran­scend­ing so­cio-economic bound­aries to en­able ev­ery­one to con­nect to their cul­tural and spir­i­tual roots. Her dream is to or­gan­ise art events that the whole of Kolkata can look for­ward to and cel­e­brate. And it is with th­ese key goals of ed­u­cat­ing and in­spir­ing the public that she plans to move ahead.

For some­one who feels so deeply about art, it is nat­u­rally not just an in­vest­ment. In­stead, she con­sid­ers art as an ex­ten­sion of one’s own phi­los­o­phy. “You have to love what you see. If you see art as in­vest­ment you’ll keep it locked up like your jew­ellery,” she pauses for a mo­ment and then re­veals, “For me, art is some­thing I want to live with, as I was brought up in a very artis­tic fam­ily.”

All in the fam­ily

Her grand­fa­ther, K V Mit­tal, always en­cour­aged ev­ery child in the fam­ily to learn to play an in­stru­ment or sing, as he be­lieved that mu­sic went a long way in help­ing one at­tain peace and be­come “one with the self”, Agar­wal rem­i­nisces. As a re­sult, Agar­wal was also ini­ti­ated into clas­si­cal Hin­dus­tani mu­sic as a young girl of 11. Agar­wal’s mother, Anita Gupta, paints, while her aunt, Seema Goyal, teaches Tan­jore paint­ing (a clas­si­cal South In­dian style of paint­ing that she has taught Agar­wal too). Goyal’s shows of­ten sell out days be­fore­hand.

Our con­ver­sa­tion grad­u­ally moves to her chil­dren: her son Vib­hash Vard­han is 15 years old while daugh­ter Vidula is 13. Does she wish them to cul­ti­vate an in­ter­est in busi­ness or art, I ask. “Having been ex­posed to art since their very child­hood, they def­i­nitely have a strong sense of aes­thet­ics which might turn into some­thing more pro­found in future, if they wish to go that way,” Agar­wal says ru­mi­na­tively. But she would be happy as long as they grow up into grounded hu­man be­ings with strong val­ues.

Beat­ing the odds

With a com­merce back­ground and no for­mal train­ing in con­tem­po­rary art, Agar­wal did have her share of hic­cups. She made “wrong in­vest­ments” and had shows that “were not up to the mark”, but sup­port came from fam­ily and friends. Set­ting up an art gallery in a city that al­ready has many fa­mous gal­leries and a dis­cern­ing art fra­ter­nity was a chal­lenge. “I def­i­nitely owe a lot of my suc­cess to my Mar­wari genes and back­ground which have con­di­tioned me to stay fo­cused and over­come chal­lenges in the face of ad­ver­sites,” says Agar­wal, who made the most of her ed­u­ca­tion, util­is­ing the knowl­edge gleaned from com­merce classes to plan the gallery’s fi­nances.

And how did she con­vince the el­ders in the fam­ily that she could man­age the mam­moth re­spon­si­bil­ity? “My ear­lier in­volve­ment in the fam­ily busi­ness surely helped,” says Agar­wal. How­ever, I have a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that her pas­sion was equally in­stru­men­tal in land­ing her this present role. “When I took up the re­spon­si­bil­ity of run­ning this gallery, I felt a sur­real sat­is­fac­tion that was akin to the emo­tion felt by a woman when do­ing up her home,” she muses, and with that I am left with no doubt at all.

Above: An untitled paint­ing by Ra­mananda Bandyopadhyay; Right: A cut-out by M F Hus­sain

Above: Emami Chisel Art gallery Be­low: A bronze sculp­ture by sculp­tor Som­nath Hore

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