Patwant Singh: the Arbiter of Good Taste

Patwant Singh: the Arbiter of Good Taste

S otheby’s are proud to present these outstanding works from a collection put together by Patwant Singh, one of India’s most important tastemakers and scholars. The works, offered here for the first time, paint a vivid portrait of a remarkable individual. What is particularly delightful about Patwant’s collection is the sense one gets, not only of his personal taste, but also of the value he placed on the objects he surrounded himself with, in his magnificent home.

The works speak of a life well-lived. It is especially interesting to think of the stories that each of the works in the collection carry with them, having watched over the great and the good of the twentieth century who were regular visitors to Patwant’s home. Patwant, who enjoyed the process of collecting and would not have been a stranger to the auction salerooms of Sotheby’s London or New York, would have been quietly amused by the sale catalogue and ensuing auction.

"He could make a discussion incandescent with his unorthodox thoughts. But he never left a climate of anger or resentment. It was clear that driving his words was a deep passion compelled onward by his finely honed moral sensibility. To be angry with his words was like being angry at our human lot. He has to be forgiven if only to be granted the privilege of listening to him again."
Quote from a letter written by Dr. Bernard Lown to Patwant Singh’s family, 16 August 2009. Dr. Bernard Lown, Nobel Laureate and pioneering figure in cardiology, was Patwant’s physician.

The final judgment in good taste, as any aesthete would agree, is not the judgement of the mind but that of the eye. Born in 1925 to a family of real estate developers who built much of Lutyen’s Delhi, India’s new Imperial capital that was inaugurated in the 1920s, it is unsurprising that Patwant Singh was exposed to good taste and the logic of good planning at a very early age.

After working in the family’s construction business, he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in the early 1950s to begin a career in publishing. Being one of the few early advocates of modernism in India, Patwant was convinced, much like the young contemporary artists of the time, that post-colonial India needed its own aesthetic.

Such was Patwant’s conviction that he founded The Indian Builder, a monthly journal launched in 1953 for the rapidly growing construction industry. Besides this longstanding interest in construction, Patwant was also indefatigable in championing and promoting the interests of India’s design and art fraternity.

Ram Kumar, Ruins
Collection Highlight: Ram Kumar | Ruins
Patwant Singh was an important and early Indian patron of the arts. He had enduring friendships with artists, writers and architects, among them Ram Kumar, N. S. Bendre and Pilloo Pochkhanawala. Thanks to his friendships and his keen passion for fine arts, Patwant built his exquisite collection, exemplified by the Ram Kumar shown here.

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Patwant Singh with Philip Johnson at his museum, Glass House, Connecticut, c. 1980
Patwant Singh with Philip Johnson at his museum, Glass House, Connecticut, c. 1980
Image courtesy: Family of Patwant Singh

With his generous hand, unflappable joie de vivre, and desire to make aesthetics and visual art interesting to Indians, Patwant founded a new journal, Design: Review of Architecture Applied and Free Arts, in 1957. Through Design, which was revolutionary for its time, Patwant was able to provide Indian readers – until then, isolated and mutually uncomprehending onlookers – with an honest commentary on industrial design, interior design, furniture, architecture, fine art and graphic design. Patwant therefore set the tone for Indian urban living.

Because of his deep friendships and connections, Patwant was able to get the best minds of the time to be part of his editorial team. Isamu Noguchi, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, N. S. Bendre, Habib Rahman, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Nobuya Abe, Marcel Breuer and Charles Fabri were all on the editorial board. The journal ran for over three decades.

Patwant was also one of the world’s foremost scholars of Sikh history. A published author, he has a number of important books on the subject to his credit. Such works include The Sikhs (1999) and his final book Empire of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (2008).

Patwant’s home, originally an Art Deco villa owned by his parents in central Delhi and re-designed in the early 1960s by the late Canadian architect Luc Durand, is perhaps one of the most elegant modernist structures in Delhi. He filled this incredible space with mid-century furniture, lighting and contemporary art and sculpture, which he lived with until he passed away in 2009.

Ram Kumar's Ruins at Patwant Singh’s residence c. 1990s
Ram Kumar's Ruins at Patwant Singh’s residence c. 1990s
Image courtesy: Family of Patwant Singh

Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art Patwant Singh
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