LONDON - In the late 1990s, Amrita Jhaveri took a gamble when she paid nearly $500 for a painting by a young, unknown Indian artist. It was so large she had nowhere to hang it, and Contemporary Indian art was then barely recognised as a field in which to collect.
Three years later, in 2001, Tate Modern asked to borrow the picture – We Will Repay our Debt Sometime, by Girish Dahiwale – for its inaugural exhibition, “Century City.”
“I felt really flattered,” Jhaveri recalled on a recent afternoon over tea in the boardroom of Sotheby’s London offices. Moreover, Jhaveri sensed she was on to something: Contemporary Indian art was a field about to come of age.
Amrita Jhaveri’s Mumbai flat, the backdrop for the Amaya Collection.
Barely a decade later, her shrewd instincts and perspicacity have helped push this young field to maturity, through her combined activities as a gallerist, advisor, author and collector.
On 19 March, a defining moment will occur when Sotheby’s New York holds its first-ever international evening sale of Indian art—also the first single-owner sale in this category since Sotheby’s Chester and Davida Herwitz auction in 2000. On the block this time will be the , which Jhaveri assembled over the past two decades. The 43-lot sale is comprised of important Modern and Contemporary Indian art produced in the Subcontinent during the second half of the 20th century through to the early 21st centuries.
“Amaya,” Jhaveri explains, means “without illusion” in Sanskrit. “It follows a tradition of calling a collection something other than one’s own name. It sort of gives it its own identity. Amaya is also the name of my favourite Indian restaurant in London,” she adds with a smile.
A very dynamic and striking brunette, Jhaveri was born and raised in Bombay, as she insists on still calling the city. The daughter of a successful private jeweller and collector, she attended an Anglo-Scottish school in the metropolis before moving abroad to attend Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. Arriving there in the late 1980s was a bit of a shock, she recalls. “This was pre-social media. I hadn’t had much exposure to mainstream American culture. But it really opened up my mind, once I got adjusted.”
Interior of Amrita Jhaveri's Mumbai flat.
Following her graduation in 1991, Jhaveri moved to London and took Sotheby’s Institute’s course in Asian Art. “We learned about classical Asian art, of course,” she recalls. “But there was little attention to Contemporary Indian art then.”
A number of years later, around 2000, when Jhaveri had moved back to India, she decided to try her hand at collecting. “I had a flat in Bombay and empty walls. I thought, go ahead and buy things.
“But I wanted to do it in a systematic way. I’d been exposed to major collectors, had academic grounding and professional experience. I wanted to collect things from the time of India’s Independence all the way to the present; day. I wanted it to be a representative collection that would tell a story.”
Around the same time, Jhaveri set up an advisory business, and her clients have ranged from blue-chip Indian corporations such as Tata Consultancy Services, to collectors like Mukesh and Nita Ambani, the nation’s wealthiest citizens (and builders of the world’s tallest private home, the 27-story, much-talked-about “Antilla”).
In 2010, along with her sister, she opened a gallery: Jhaveri Contemporary. “I have had the space since 2005 – a beautiful building renovated by a young architect who has since become quite successful. Finally, I thought, this is such a lovely space it is a shame to keep it just for a few clients. So we decided to open it and start doing fun exhibitions with young artists. Slowly, it has been getting traction.”
G. Ravinder Reddy’s Family from 1997 is among the works from the Amaya Collection to be sold at Sotheby’s New York this spring.
But Jhaveri really put herself on the map in 2010 when she helped organise a major exhibition of works by Anish Kapoor. Though he was born in Mumbai in 1954, Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s. Surprisingly, he had never had a major show in his native country.
“I had met him when I was living in London, and I had bought one of his early works,” Jhaveri recalls. “We stayed in touch. He always wanted to show in India but he had never found the right situation, and maybe the timing wasn’t right. We started having conversations about doing a public exhibition, not a selling show. But we had to find the right location, and one that was large enough. Most of the gallery spaces in India are quite small.
“We looked at all kinds of unusual spaces where we could do it. It was not easy. Space in Bombay is at such a premium, and there is little business support for the arts. Nobody wants to give away a space for a non-commercial art project that they can rent for a lot of money. Finally, I found the perfect location – a film studio right in the middle of town. But I had to convince the family who owned it to let us use it. In Bollywood, they shoot 24 hours a day, in two shifts. When I met with the owner, by luck he had just seen a piece on the BBC about Kapoor. Before then, he’d never heard of him. But, to my astonishment, he said, ‘okay, fine.’
“It was a two-part exhibition. The other half was at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi, where everything was very official, including the opening, which had a lot of speeches. In Bombay, we had this great fun opening party, which was totally relaxed.”
Amrita Jhaveri's Mumbai flat.
Jhaveri recently decided to part with a portion of her own collection. "Everyone told me the timing wasn't right," she says. "But the timing was right for me. My only advantage – against collectors who are far wealthier than me – is that I know my subject well and I get there early."
“I’m not one of those people who can keep acquiring things without letting some go. I think the way you collect today, you need to take stock every decade or so, and it builds something stronger.”
Parting with this collection, however, did not come without a struggle, she says. But once committed she decided to go all the way. “I thought, if I’m going to do it, I have to put my best foot forward. I feel strongly that if what you offer is the best, and you put your full confidence behind it, people will be interested, and it will make a change.
“Organising the auction with Sotheby’s – some of the proceeds from which I will use to underwrite a project space at Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi – we decided to do it during the evening in New York. The Indian sales there had always been held in the morning, to allow people in India to bid on the telephone at a reasonable time there. But my gamble is that we will get the bidders in the sale room, create an event around it and bring some drama to it. We’re doing something that has not been done in our field before. Hopefully, it will set the right tone, and raise the bar.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]