He owns more than a handful MF Husain works now,but when Arun Vadehra set out to acquire his first in 1989,the gallerist recalls that it was the artists generosity that enabled him to make the purchase. Husain was willing to take the payment on an installment basis as Vadehra could not pay Rs 2 lakh for the acrylic that now hangs in his office. I sent a message with his son Shamshad (Husain),and he immediately agreed, says Vadehra. Numerous conversations followed and the two went on to become close friends. He was at the gallery all the time. He painted more than 500 works here and used to fix meetings in the space, adds Vadehra,narrating his association with the artist. This year,the Delhi-based gallery completes 25 years and Husains presence will be missed.
Back in 1987,when Vadehra set up the gallery,the world of art was different. The young designer was initiated into the field while helping the Taj group of hotels with their interiors. It took only a few months to inaugurate the gallery in Defence Colony. There was no market research. We just opened the gallery with a group show featuring Jai Zharotia,Kanchan Chander and a few others, recalls Vadehra. None of the works sold. When the exhibition concluded,Vadehra bought one work of each artist. The experience also led to the realisation that art was serious business and an art gallery entailed ample responsibility. I travelled a lot to the West to understand the market. There were also several attempts made to get Christies to organise an auction of Indian art,which finally culminated in an auction in 1995. The fact that there was Indian diaspora spread across,helped, states the gallerist,who is an India consultant for the auction house.
Approaching artists required effort. VS Gaitonde refused to meet Vadehra when he first visited him at his Nizammudin home. Eventually,Ram Kumar introduced us and we remained great friends till his demise, says Vadehra,pointing out that during the initial years,artists were skeptical of galleries. They used to ask what would we do with works. Gallerists were considered people who just bought and sold art, recalls Vadehra.
In the coming years,the gallery organised several landmark shows. These included public-private partnerships with the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) with retrospectives of artists such as Husain,Kumar,SH Raza and Raghu Rai. It was important. If you go back into history,Pablo Picasso had an exhibition in Louvre,David Hockney at MoMA. None of our living artists had retrospectives at NGMA, says Vadehra. He also organised the first exhibition of Pablo Picasso in a private gallery in India in 2006 and brought Yoko Ono to Delhi in 2012. The market took a turn around 2005. The formative years were romantic and then it was marriage. Initially,the market comprised international collectors such as Chester Herwitz and traditional collectors such as Birla,Tata and Air India. The number of collectors has now gone up and so have the prices, says Vadehra,who has daughter Roshini and daughter-in-law Parul working with him at the gallery.
The gallery now works with artists such as Atul Dodiya,A Ramachandran,Anjolie Ela Menon,Gulammohammed Sheikh,Raza and Shilpa Gupta. There are plans to reach out to connoisseurs across India through exhibitions. But before that,Vadehra is gearing up for an exhibition which will open at Lalit Kala Akademi on April 5,to celebrate the gallerys 25 years. This will be a true representation of the workings of the gallery that features both Moderns as well as the Contemporaries.