Dr. Nirmalya Kumar is Lee Kong Chian Professor of Marketing at Singapore Management University and Distinguished Fellow at INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute. As a consultant and speaker, Nirmalya has worked with over 50 Fortune 500 companies in 60 different countries. He has served on many boards of directors, each with billion dollars plus in capitalization.
As an author, Nirmalya has written nine books, a prolific case writer; he has won six Case Centre adoption awards and the Outstanding Contribution to the Case Method.
Nirmalya is considered one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategy and marketing. He was thrice included in Thinkers50 (the biannual listing of the top 50 management thinkers in the world), received their “Global Village Award” for his contributions to the business community’s understanding of globalization and emerging markets, and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2017.
Nirmalya Kumar is a passionate supporter of Indian art. Previously a patron of the British Museum, he has also served on the South Asian Acquisition Committee for Tate Modern. Over three decades, his collection of Bengal School, 1900-1950, has focused on Jamini Roy (considered to be the father of Indian modern art), Hemen Mazumdar (primary exponent of academic realism in Indian art) and Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel laureate 1913).
Nirmalya frequently lends works to exhibitions. For his contributions to South Asian art, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) awarded Nirmalya an honorary fellowship in 2012.
On a recent London visit, our reporter Raj Gill had the opportunity to discuss everything from what inspires him to continue collecting to the sound advice for a wannabe collector.
What drew you to the art world? (Pun intended!)
I got my first real exposure to visual artists at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I loved their Impressionist collection. It triggered a desire to learn about Indian art, first traditional, and then modern Indian art. A few ad hoc purchases were followed by my first sight of a Jamini Roy painting. It is this that ultimately injected the collecting bug in me.
Were there any artists or collectors in your family? What do they think of the fact that you collect art?
My family had no interest in visual arts. My parents were focussed on performing arts.
What in particular is it about Roy that keeps you coming back for more?
Since it was love at first sight, I cannot articulate what it was that moved me. Maybe it was the colors, the symmetry, or perhaps it evoked in my images I had subconsciously absorbed growing up as a child in Calcutta. By that time, I had purchased half a dozen paintings of different Indian artists. But, after my first encounter with Jamini, for almost a decade, whenever I considered buying paintings and saw a Jamini versus another painter, the Jamini always chose me.
Over time, as I learned more about Jamini, the ‘idea’ behind his work – defining what should be modern Indian art and how to resolve the tension of identity while living in a multicultural world – seduced me. Trained at the British run Government College of Art in Calcutta, Jamini achieved his first success painting portraits in the western academic style. But he grappled with the conundrum: How to be modern, unique, as well as true to oneself (which in the context of Jamini was being Indian)?
His resolution was inspired by Indian folk artists, especially the Kalighat style. Unlike western academic art that emphasized light, depth, and perspective, Kalighat artists drew an unbroken line, which was followed by quickly filling the plane with color. In his conceptual breakthrough of the “flat” technique, he took a diametrically opposing path from his earlier career as a portrait painter: the medium was watercolor instead of oil; the subjects were the rural rather than wealthy Calcutta patrons, and its technique was Indian in its representation in contrast to the Western realism. What I love about Jamini is that he borrowed, but never mimicked. Jamini’s line and perspective had the sophistication to transform indigenous folk art into high art.
As an immigrant, who has spent more than 30 years living outside India, in the USA, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and now, Singapore, the question of how does one connects to and be proud of, one’s cultural traditions while still being a global citizen resonates with me. As a result, my connection to Jamini’s paintings moved from the purely visual plane to the deeper emotional and intellectual levels.
Are you not curious about artists of other nationalities? And if so, who interests you?
I love western art. My favorites are the usual suspects: from Francis Bacon, Van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Turner, to my friend Howard Hodgkin, who passed away relatively recently. I may have liked to collect Western art, but unfortunately, everyone that I covet is far out of my budget. Anyway, the big idea in collecting is to limit yourself as only then can your collection become something. My focus in on Bengal School, 1900-1950. It is where I can make a difference.
Who would you recommend as an emerging artist of note? I.e., the one to watch?
Sorry, I do not follow contemporary art.
What is it that drives you to keep collecting?
To learn about, document, and promote the story of the emergence of modern Indian art as a movement that had its origins in Calcutta in the first half of the 20th Century. By the 19th century, the British had convinced themselves that India had no artistic culture in comparison to the West. A quote from the Official Handbook of the Victoria and Albert Museum of 1880 reflects this: ‘The monstrous shapes of the puranic deities unsuitable for the highest forms of artistic representation and this is possibly why sculpture and painting are unknown as fine arts in India.’ As a result, the British established the Government College of Art in Calcutta to train Indians in Western fine arts. As Indian artists joined the freedom movement, they questioned what ‘Indian modern art’ should be. The first answer was Indian subjects painted in the Western academic style. The leading exponent of this was Hemen Mazumdar, an artist who occupies a central place in my collection. My collection of more than 25 artists from 1900-1950 Bengal School rebelled against this western idea of art, and as a result, gave birth to Indian modern art.
And your all-time favorite artwork?
It’s an unanswerable question for me. These paintings are like my children, and I cannot choose one between them. Yes, some are dearer than others, but one, that’s too difficult a choice.
How do you know when you stand before a great piece of art?
It lingers in my mind after I have seen it. I talk about it with my friends. It haunts me and is historically significant.
How do you appreciate your collection? What goes through your mind when you sit and look at a piece?
In my London apartment, it is impossible to escape as the paintings surround me. Each painting was acquired because I fell in love with it. Not only do I appreciate the beauty of the work, its rareness, the touch of the genius behind it, and its proximity to me, but often the unique story of its acquisition. While I may possess 250-300 artworks, each is individual and was acquired as such.
What advice would you give to a wannabe collector?
Be curious, learn continuously, seek advice, and remember before acquiring an artwork that you have to live with it every day for the rest of your life. Would you still enjoy looking at it if it fell in value by half or more? Most importantly, be clear on your objectives. Are you a striver (buy art to demonstrate you have arrived), decorator (art complements your furnishings), investor (see art as an alternative investment vehicle), or a collector (motivated by passion and learning for the art you collect). Objectives should determine the collecting strategy.
You are open about the fact that you have made purchase mistakes; however, what would you say is your ultimate purchase triumph?
Surprisingly, it is not a painting by an Indian painter. Browsing through a 2013 auction catalog of British art in New York, I noticed a painting of Tipoo Sultan’s defeat at the hands of the British by Turner. A little research indicated that Turner did only five paintings of India and had never visited the country. This is perhaps why, even though he is considered the greatest colorist and painter of the sky, the colors resemble Egypt more than India. Tate Britain owns the other painting in the series. The opportunity to acquire it was irresistible. For an immigrant who left India with four hundred dollars and a one-way ticket to the USA, this Turner above my mantelpiece documents my journey. Whenever I see it, I feel truly blessed.
The painting is now slated to go on loan to Tate Britain for an exhibition that will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas.