A household name in India, as an actor and founder of legendary Mumbai nightclub Studio 29, Sabira Merchant is also one of the country's premier collectors of Indian art. Her 1972 programme What’s the good word? was the first English language show on Indian television and she has been acting for over 55 years. She bought the extraordinary Gaitonde offered in Boundless: India in 1975, and it has hung in her home ever since.
Sotheby's: What first sparked your passion for art?
Sabira Merchant: "I always was very, very fond of art because when I was in Switzerland for a year, I’d just gone to university and taken art as a subject. I was studying nudes in black charcoal, so I was doing the nudes myself in the university. I took art as a subject at school as well, and my parents were very, very fond of art. My father was an architect and a poet and so was my mother. My mother used to paint so I guess it sort of passed on to me; I paint in oil colours. At various times of my life I’ve painted quite a bit in watercolours, charcoals and oils, so I’ve been through that period as well."
S: Can you remember the first piece you ever bought?
SM: "It was in the 60s. It was the year I got married – I think it was just after I got married, in 62, 63. It was a small piece which I liked very much, then I bought various pieces of art. We had a very, very deep friendship with a couple who helped us do our home and the nursery and the living room – just helped us put it together, to design it. This was Piloo Mody who was also a member of parliament. He was a very wonderful architect and an interior decorator, and his wife, who was an American, happened to be an interior decorator and an architect as well. So they were very influential in my life as I was growing up, and I used to see a whole lot of art in their house. They had an unbelievable entry to their home. It was a circular room with an extremely high ceiling. It was an old, old bungalow which belonged to Sir Homi Mody so we’re going back to the British time.
They had an elephant chain, you know, the chains they used to tie the elephants with? She had it suspended right from the middle of the room and they had this huge, big piece of art hanging from it. The entire room, the whole circle of that room, was filled with art. They had a lot of Shanti Dave works. Shanti Dave is a very good artist from the 60s and 70s and they persuaded me, of course, to buy some – two of them. So they were also very influential, along with the gallerist Kali Pundole, in my collecting art."
S: So you’ve bought art to live with?
SM: "So I bought the Shanti Daves and I bought a K.H. Ara. At that time I bought two Aras, in fact, and one I have given to my son; the other – the nude – I still have. There have been some other inconsequential pieces of art, but really the important pieces I bought in the 70s.
I bought them just for my home. I wanted to live with those pieces and I just thought how wonderful a piece it would be to have, to share my life with that kind of art and that’s how I bought it."
S: Which brings me onto the Gaitonde, really. Did you buy that painting in 1974, the year it was painted?
SM: "No, I think I bought it a year after that. I loved the composition. I loved the colouring. The whole thing pleased me so much and it gave me a very deep sense of peace. I thought, this is what I’d like to have in my living room facing me when I sit on my sofa, so that’s how I put the piece there and it’s been there ever since."
S: Was it a conscious decision only to collect Indian art or did it just happen naturally?
SM: "No, it came naturally because it was around me, so I just wanted that. I didn’t think about collecting anything which was from abroad or anything that was foreign. It was always accessible and there was always Kali Pundole, who is my very good adviser. There was M.F. Husain and I did a serial on him. I did a very nice filming in my own home, underneath his own painting, and he was sitting there and I interviewed him. So that was a wonderful thing that happened. We’re talking about how he gets inspiration to paint and what motivates him.
Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of it. We never really completed it...which was a real pity, because we didn’t have any cell phones in those days so we didn’t take any pictures on the cell phone or anything like that. I’ve nothing to show you except my word for it that that’s what I did.
It was a remarkable one because the first part of the interview was in Kali Pundole’s art gallery itself, where his paintings were on view. I interviewed him sitting down but he was barefooted as always. He carried one of those storm lanterns that we have which lit up in the old days with kerosene. Then he was walking up and down and said, 'This is how I get my ideas. They flash like a light and then they go away. It just comes to me in a flash and I start painting.'
Then I took him to the mosque to get his opinion on what to do with prayers and what his feeling was about God, but as he was speaking, he saw a very beautiful woman coming out of the mosque. She had a burka on and there it was – he was totally entranced by her. He said, 'Listen, I’m leaving you. I’m not doing any more shoots. I’m going after this woman'. It was the most amazing thing that happened. He just walked away and instead I went to his house. I spoke to his wife and said, 'Can you do something?' She said, 'Nothing you can do. Once he’s gone, he’s gone.'"
S: Have you met most of the artists in your collection?
SM: "Yes, through Kali Pundole, with the gallery. I used to go to the gallery all the time and talk to Kali Pundole. We would chitchat and have a cup of coffee, and then I used to go to a lovely cafeteria where all the artists used to meet. So I used to meet them personally. It was really, really nice that there was this placed called Café Samovar, where all the artists and actors used to meet. So since I was in the world of acting, I used to go there and meet all these prolific people there. It was a great introduction, a kind of a get-together."
S: What are your memories of Gaitonde?
SM: "I met him before I bought the painting. He was just a very energetic man. I remember him as being very energetic but I didn’t really get to know him. I was just introduced to him by Kali Pundole and I met with him on one of his trips to Bombay. Then, of course, I saw his paintings and I loved his paintings so I went ahead and bought them. As I told you, I had to really pay by installments and that is the funny story. I loved the painting so much but I didn’t have the cash to pay the dealer, Kali Pundole, immediately. I had to do it on a deferred payment thing. I loved it so much, wanted it so badly, but I couldn’t possibly pay for it at one time. This was the way I bought almost all my paintings."
S: How has the Indian art market changed since you started collecting?
"Well, it’s changed dramatically. I mean in those days, you used to get paintings for a few thousand rupees. Nobody spoke about Gaitonde when I bought it; nobody had heard of him. He was a man of no consequence. Husain was up and coming. He was well-known at that time, but the paintings were still very low priced. Then suddenly, I think I would say about 20 years ago, I think the awareness just came into the market about Indian art in the world, and people started buying it and owning it. You can see the dramatic rise in demand and in the recognition of certain artists."
S: What one piece of advice would you give to somebody who wanted to begin collecting art?
SM: "If you like something, don’t wait for it. Buy it."