Interviews

The Piece that Started My Collection: The Batra Family

By Katie White

T he Batra family’s passion for collecting has evolved in surprising ways over nearly thirty years. Since the 1990s, husband and wife collectors Neeraj and Radhika Batra have been assembling a remarkable collection of Southeast Asian and Indian art featuring works by famed artists F.N Souza, S.H Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Amrita Sher-Gil, among many others. In 2004, the Batras launched Great Banyan Art, an online gallery of their collection that has become, in the years since, a resource for those learning about Southeast Asian Art—as well as a network for collecting.

Recently, with the help of their now grown daughters Sanjana, a celebrity stylist, and Sonali, a collector and curator of Great Banyan Art, the Batra collection is moving into the next generation with eclectic additions of international contemporary art. Recently we spoke with the entire Batra family about their hopes for the future of their collection, how art inspires their daily lives, and which works they wish they collected when they had the chance.

Neeraj and Radhika, how did you find your path to collecting?

Neeraj: My wife Radhika is essentially a self-trained artist. She studied briefly with the artist Rameshwar Broota. In the 1990s, I started visiting art galleries with her. Initially—and like most other people—we were only looking to purchase art that was pleasing to the eye. A work by Arup Das was one of our first serious buys.

Arup Das (Untitled).

Radhika: We visited several art shows and galleries including the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy, where we interacted with several struggling artists and learned of their hardships as they painted with very limited resources.

Neeraj: I thought that despite their struggles, these artists truly opened a vein when they painted. Visits and conversations with these artists created episodic memories that affected our sensibility and sense of aesthetics in a profound way. Over time this helped us to gain confidence in our eye and allowed us to purchase more serious art.

Radhika: We both learned to appreciate the stillness of art and how it contributed so much depth and colour to our home.

From those early days, how have your tastes evolved?

Neeraj: By 2005 both Radhika and I also wanted to collect historically important works. We were very lucky to collect a wonderful and rare work, Amrita Sher-Gil’s In the Ladies Enclosure due to the guidance of leading gallerist Arun Vadehra. This painting is the piece de resistance in our collection.

In time we also learned how to find comfort within the discomfort and angst in works by artists like Tyeb Mehta and Souza. I must also mention that our thoughts have also been influenced over multiple conversations with our dear friend Howard Henry Sneyd, Sotheby’s Chairman of Asian Art, Europe and Americas, over our annual breakfast meetings during his sojourns at the Indian Art Fair.

Amrita Sher-Gil’s In the Ladies Enclosure (1938)

Radhika: One of my favourite works in the collection is a rare still life in which Souza has used crosshatch to great effect.

Neeraj: We have over 150 major artworks in our collection today. These include Indian Modernists and Southeast Asian contemporary artists balanced with Western contemporary works and—of late—20th-century masters. The key, of course, is the sensibility to buy great art. The genre is unimportant. It helps to have four sets of eyes in that. Over the last 30 years, we have discovered that art is the only way we can calm the existential dilemma of this life’s ups and downs. We would like the collection to have representations of all key genres of art. Owning such a collection would be like purchasing a part of the plurality of human consciousness.

F.N. Souza, Blue Landscape

"We were lucky to see beautiful works of art in our home every day. Subconsciously I think we absorbed a lot visually, and this shaped the way we perceived all forms of art and even our careers – be it design, interiors or fashion."
Sonali Batra

Sonali and Sanjana, how do you think your parents’ collection influenced your own tastes?

Sonali: Growing up around art definitely helped develop my eye from a young age. We were lucky to see beautiful works of art in our home every day. Subconsciously I think we absorbed a lot visually, and this shaped the way we perceived all forms of art and even our careers – be it design, interiors or fashion.

Are there any artworks from your childhood you have special memories of?

Sanjana: The Amrita Sher-Gil unquestionably. I was only 17 when we got her home. I love the understated sense of pathos, romance, nostalgia, family and the indolence of the countryside of a bygone era that the painting captures. In some ways she was the Frida Kahlo of India; bold, avant-garde and unique in the way she lived in her time – and of course due to her rather tragic demise at a young age. I feel very connected to her.

Sonali: I have a special memory of this surrealistic painting Storm Chasing Dog Chasing Girl Chasing Storm by Filipino artist Geraldine Javier. This was one of the first international works we acquired. It was the first painting that ever resonated with me. Even at a young age, I found the painting easy to understand. More importantly, it didn’t intimidate me. The work is inspired by the Wizard of Oz and depicts a young girl, her dog and a ribbon. It felt like it was out of a storybook.

Geraldine Javier, Storm Chasing Dog Chasing Girl Chasing Storm.

Sonali, you’re now a collector in your own right. Tell about how you began collecting.

Sonali: It started at home, then took off after my first visit to the India Art Fair. Soon after, I began planning trips to Frieze New York, Art Basel Hong Kong and the Dhaka Art Summit. Eventually, I applied to study a course on contemporary art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. This exposure led me to develop a deep interest in international contemporary art and a desire to expand our art collection to artists outside of India. During my time in New York, one of the artists whose works inspired me was Jeff Koons. I loved his kitsch style and the grandeur of his sculptures! I had never seen anything of that size, nature or scale in India before.

And what do you see as the role of Great Banyan Art in evolving your family’s collection and as a tool for collectors?

Sonali: Great Banyan Art has evolved over the years and now includes newer genres such as Pop art, Street Art and sculptures by several international artists. One of my focus areas has been to bridge the gap between Indian art collectors and international contemporary art. A key mission of Great Banyan Art has been to democratize art and make it more accessible for young collectors. We have launched a collection of artworks for first-time buyers that is accessible in price and available to purchase online.

"Give great importance to provenance since it's highly critical to ensure the integrity of your collection. Start buying art through auctions by leading and well-established auction houses since in some way they are curators and the breeding grounds for bankable art."
Neeraj Batra

Neeraj, what advice would you give a collector who is just starting out?

Neeraj: Educate yourself and read prolifically; start with The Eye of Duncan Phillips. Visit as many auctions, exhibitions, art fairs and art shows as possible. Talk to collectors, artists and gallerists and gain perspective and insights. Stick to your own sensibility and let the taste and collection evolve organically. Give great importance to provenance since it's highly critical to ensure the integrity of your collection. Start buying art through auctions by leading and well-established auction houses since in some way they are curators and the breeding grounds for bankable art.

Is there any work you wish you'd bought when you had the chance? What was it and why?

Neeraj: A fantastic Raza Church and a Steeples’ work from the 1970s. There was also a large and exceptional work by Souza, The Birth, where I was the under-bidder but it finally stretched to a price way beyond my budget. And a fantastic oversized Yue Minjun which was available for less than $15,000 at one point but somehow I just hesitated and now it’s probably well over a few million dollars!

Sanjana, you’re a highly sought-after stylist. Your very popular Instagram account is often dotted with incredible artworks. Do you ever find inspiration for fashion through art?

SAB: I draw inspiration from anything beautiful and visually engaging around me. I would imagine this process is somewhat subconscious to a large extent. Art, film and travel have all been very large and integral influences in my life since a very young age, thanks to my parents. All three have played a large role in shaping my aesthetic and determining my ever-evolving sartorial choices. I think fashion and art definitely go hand in hand. If you cut the layers these are symbiotic influences and enhance each other greatly.

As a family, what do you have on your wishlists?

NB: The wish list is long and may well remain a wish list given the astronomical price points of these artists but works by Raja Ravi Verma, V.S. Gaitonde, Mark Rothko, Basquiat would be the first names that come to mind.

SOB: Tracey Emin. I love her neon light installations.

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