The most exhaustive and profound trajectory of Indian art just found a new address at Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad, says Shashi Priya
The cognoscenti in the country has been bestowed with a new axis to converge upon. It takes the fine form of a heritage house with antique contents that history alone can generate. On display is a timeless affair between objets d’art and their paramours that climaxed in February when the Tagore family collection, covering an extensive journey of Indian art, was thrown open to the public. Meticulously assembled in the early 20th century, under the rarefied sensibilities of the Tagores, it focuses on the Deccan, Pahari, Rajasthani, Mughal and Persian schools, Tibetan thangkas, Company School portraits, monochromatic Cubist paintings of Gaganendranath and Nandalal Bose, and other well-known painters of the Bengal School. The collection greets you at Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, Ahmedabad’s new cultural address, which has been crafted from the desires of the eponymous business family to propagate a page from the annals of history to art lovers and laity alike. While the illustrious Tagore Collection remains the showstopper here, a string of other famous artworks attracts as much attention.
In the early 1940s, when the Tagore family of Bengal put up its unique collection of art on sale, Kasturbhai Lalbhai brought it home. “Dadaji was not a collector, but he was prescient enough to understand the significance of the collection and didn’t want it to get scattered,” says Jayshree Lalbhai of her husband Sanjay’s grandfather, who co-founded the textile major Arvind Limited. All these years, the collection was rarely seen outside of the immediate family. After Kasturbhai’s death, as the clan prospered beyond the walls of the grand ancestral house, it decided to transform the colonial mansion into a family museum, a concept fairly rare in India. Architect and conservationist Rahul Mehrotra was brought in from Mumbai to give a makeover to the 112-year-old property, and Pramod Kumar KG of Eka Archiving Services was roped in to catalogue the collection. Jayshree joined in as the curator.
The refurbished colonial-era building, once home to the families of brothers Chimanbhai, Kasturbhai and Narottambhai, is now a public space with heirlooms animating it. “We didn’t want to change anything in the house, to give visitors the feel of seeing art inside a home,” says Jayshree. It is to Mehrotra’s credit that the original character of the two buildings, across which the museum is spread, has been left intact. The halls, bathroom, library and master drawing room retain their original look and have on display an eclectic range of 2,000 years of Indian art. The assortment also includes art in stone, metal and wood. Chola bronzes from the 9th century and a Gandhara head compliment the colonial-era furniture in the living room. However, the highlight is the Khamsa of Nizami, a Persian-style notebook that eternalises in its pages – in fine calligraphy – the couplets of Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th-century Persian poet. The manuscript is preserved in a glass case, but an iPad allows visitors to leaf through it. The adjacent building, designed by illustrious British architect Claude Batley in the 1930s, hosts exhibitions from across the globe. “To begin with, it will display my personal collection. We intend to keep hosting contemporary art collections too,” says Sanjay Lalbhai. Like his grandfather, some of the finest works of modern art have caught Sanjay’s discerning eye and in the building you see Syed Haider Raza rubbing shoulders with Subodh Gupta, and Anjolie Ela Menons keeping company with Amrita Shergils.
A unique attraction of the premises is a submerged museum, which will soon be ready to showcase the history of the Lalbhai family across 17 generations. An amphitheatre will offer space for discourses and performances. In the final reckoning, the family intends to make the museum a much-needed and much-talkedabout cultural hub in Ahmedabad.
And while there’s no meandering away from the spirit of philanthropy espoused by the progenitors in the family, the place intends to magnify the visitor’s experience by keeping the crowd to a minimum: only 20 guests get to visit in a day. The Lalbhais are clear that they do not want this sanctum commercialised. “No commercial venture or sale of art will take place here. A public space loses its significance when money gets involved. We just want to share art,” says Sanjay. Kasturbhai’s legacy seems to be in safe hands.
The author is a senior journalist and travel writer and the views expressed in the article are her own