‘Find greatness that you can afford,’ suggest the collectors Jane and Kito de Boer. It would be wise to take their advice — the couple own one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of modern Indian art.
Having spent a quarter of a century amassing paintings, sculptures and photographs ranging from the late 19th century to the present day, the de Boers now have more than 1,000 works, many of which are displayed in their homes in Dubai and London. Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s Director of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, describes the collection as ‘a rarity in our field’.
On 18 March, more than 80 works from the de Boers’ collection will go on sale at Christie’s in New York, with an additional 70 lots being offered online between 13 and 20 March.
Dutch business consultant Kito de Boer and his wife Jane, an interior designer, knew little of Indian art when they first moved to Delhi with their three children in 1992. ‘We were just finding our feet in the city,’ they explain. ‘We had never heard of M.F. Husain or F.N. Souza. Paintings were purely images shorn of any contextual meaning.’
A chance invitation to the Kumar Gallery brought them into contact with a work by the reclusive modernist Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013). ‘It cast a spell on us,’ they recall. ‘He’s a very unsettling artist,’ says Kito. ‘Part of the reason is because he is trying to find a way of synthesising all the complexities of Indian culture into one image —there are all these layers, nothing is representational.’
‘His technique is very distinctive,’ adds Jane. ‘He used tempera in layers, building up this incredible depth and transparency.’
They bought the painting and started to collect Indian art as a way of engaging with the country. ‘Art is key to understanding a society,’ says Kito. ‘Painting, poetry, literature, music and dance are powerful ways to transmit what people stand for.’
The de Boer collection begins at a critical moment in Indian art in the late 19th century, when artists started to reject the Western academic teaching of the British Raj. ‘They begin to look East rather than West, to art innovations happening in Asia,’ says Nishad Avari, a specialist in South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s.
By 1900, a nationalist art movement had formed. It was called the Bengal School and it centred around the Government School of Art in Kolkata where its leader, painter Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of the Nobel Prize-winner for literature Rabindranath Tagore) taught.
The group’s philosopher, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, agitated for an all-Indian art, writing, ‘Nations are made by artists and poets’. His call was taken up by cultural activists keen to create a rich art immersed in ancient Indian traditions.
In the wake of the Bengal School’s nationalism came artists who wanted to create an Indian modern art. They included the highly politicised Calcutta Group and the influential but short-lived Progressive Artists’ Group, with its charismatic leader Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002).
The de Boers’ collection reflects this important shift between the early pioneers and the firebrands of the post-Partition era, many of whom are now household names, including Souza, Sayed Haider Raza (1922-2016) and Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011).
They join painters in the de Boer’s collection like Pyne, Manchershaw Fakirjee Pithawalla (1872-1937) and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978) — artists who played a significant role in the development of Indian art but who have arguably been ignored by the international community.
‘The first question I get asked a lot is why do you have so many paintings from Bengal,’ says Kito, ‘and I say, if you wanted to collect European art you would have a lot of paintings from Florence. Bengal is where Indian art started. At one time Kolkata was the fifth largest city in the world and the epicentre of the art world in India. Collecting art helped us appreciate Bengal and Kolkata.’
One of the joys of the collections, say the couple, is the relationships they have developed with artists over the years. Most notably their friendship with the contemporary artist Rameshwar Broota, whose reputation has risen since they first met him in the early 1990s.
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In fact, it was Broota’s monumental canvases that revealed to the couple that their collecting had become an obsession rather than a passion. ‘We bought them because we had no choice,’ says Kito. ‘It is a rare moment to confront a work that is magnificent… we were never the same again.’