One of the earliest and most astute collectors of contemporary Indian art, Amrita Jhaveri has been an influencer in Indian art for nearly two decades. As the London-based Jhaveri, who runs Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai with her sister Priya, bought works that ranged across media, materials and artistic vision, the Amaya Collection came to include early and exciting work by some of India’s most celebrated artists such as Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Shilpa Gupta and Anju Dodiya. With a selection from the collection being auctioned by Saffronart over December 4 and 5, Jhaveri talks about the impulses and choices that shaped her collection, the corporatisation of galleries and the much-needed correction that followed the Indian art boom.
How do you feel as you see selections from your collection in this sale? Why did you decide to part with them?
When I see these works in a new context, I think that yes, I would buy them all over again. The main reason to have to part with them is because I could no longer really look after them. All these pieces require time and attention. If you live with things on a regular basis, you see them regularly. But a lot of them were in storage for a long period of time, like the Subodh Gupta piece (This Side is the Other Side). I have loaned it for shows, but I’ve never found a way to live with it.
Was the process of selecting works for this sale difficult?
It’s not easy. I had to think about it carefully. I really tried to think about it also as an exhibition and as a catalogue. All the works echo each other. Like, look at Lakshmana Rekha by Pushpamala N and Devi II by G Ravinder Reddy. They’re both gilded, so there is this material resonance. There are a lot of works with the male nude in them. Some are politically quite tongue-in-cheek, like this one called Hierarchical Arselickers by Nataraj Sharma. There are landscapes of small town India, like this very early Atul Dodiya (Saurabh Society – 12 noon), which is from the ’80s. A lot of these works are early and interesting works by artists who have now become very big names.
When did you begin collecting?
My collection officially began in 1998 with an (untitled) work by Girish Dahiwale. I had a little bit of disposable income and I put it into buying this one work. I didn’t have my own home then. I was living at home with parents and I was working, but I was just so blown away when I saw that piece that I felt I have to have it. It accelerated in 1999-2000, and then it decelerated in 2005, when things got really expensive. I made a choice. A lot of these works that were bought early, were mostly all from artists’ exhibitions, with the exception of two drawings by Mithu Sen, which I bought at an auction. Everything else came from artists’ shows, which is how I collected. It’s really important for contemporary collectors to go to galleries and support the primary market. In these auctions, we all seem to be driven by numbers and values, and sometimes we lose sight of what this whole thing is really about.
In your conversation with Mortimer Chatterjee at the auction preview, you spoke about more “innocent times” when you began collecting. Could you explain that?
You didn’t have the shadow of the art market, as you do now. Collectors were not collecting for financial reasons. The financialisation of art is something that I’ve seen happen. Previous to that, people who bought art didn’t think of investment, of selling. There was no such awareness or conversation. It was collecting for pure aesthetic pleasure.
There’s been some talk that since the crash of 2008, the bottom has fallen out from the contemporary art market.
The bottom didn’t fall out. It went back to where it should have been. In those years, there were all these different players, corporatised galleries like Bodhi Art Gallery. They were primarily businesses, not passion projects. They came in, with multiple locations and they just doubled the prices of the works of art. They were selling Subodh’s works for millions. He’s still a working artist. He might make 500 more works. You can sell an Amrita Sher-Gil for millions, because supply is less than demand. So the elements that were external to the art ecosystem came in and messed it up. In a more normal, mature art ecosystem, you would have lots of galleries and a few auction houses. Here it’s the opposite. It’s very top heavy. To me, it seems very fair that artists of Subodh or Atul’s generation should get USD 50,000 or 100,000 for a work. It seems to be a fair price for that generation. You have to look at it as a whole. Look at where modern art prices are, where the contemporary and emerging art prices are. Obviously there needed to be a correction. We don’t need it to spike, we need it to grow, and the growth needs to be gradual so that it can sustain itself.