Feroze Gujral: India’s very own Peggy Guggenheim?

Feroze Gujral is a philanthropist, art patron, and co-founder and director

VENICE, ITALY - MAY 04:  Feroze Gujral, Director and Founder of The Gujral Foundation poses at My East is Your West, presented by The Gujral Foundation on May 4, 2015 in Venice, Italy.  The exhibition, which opens today, unites the historically conflicting nations of India and Pakistan for the first time at the Biennale, with artists from both countries exhibiting their work. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images for The Gujral Foundation)
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Is it possible to live many lives in one lifetime? Feroze Gujral, philanthropist, art patron and co-founder and director of the esteemed non-profit Gujral Foundation, has proven it is. We meet briefly during a private viewing of the foundation's most recent exhibition, Property of a Gentleman, Stamps from the Nizam of Hyderabad's Dominions, in New Delhi, which has attracted a sizeable number of guests. She tells me how shocked she is by the response that the show has elicited: "We've done close to 50 shows, this is the maximum reaction we've had in India."

A force in the art world 

Gujral, 54, has been quietly leading the charge when it comes to promoting South Asian art in the Indian subcontinent and globally. Over the past decade, her foundation, co-founded with her architect husband Mohit Gujral (chief executive of DLF India, son of famous painter Satish Gujral and nephew of former Prime Minister of India, Inder Kumar Gujral), has supported innumerable artists irrespective of genre or form. It has also built art-specific spaces such as Studio G Spot and 24, Jor Bagh, and has organised subcontinental exhibitions at the likes of the Berlin Biennale and Tate Modern.  

The foundation has engaged intimately with India's bottomless artistic heritage. Gujral is on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale's board of trustees (she also co-founded the biennale, India's first), and is on the boards of the ­Guggenheim Museum in New York and Serpentine Gallery in London. She was the force behind the V S Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York and My East is Your West, a collaborative show between India's Shilpa Gupta and Pakistan's Rashid Rana at the Venice Biennale, both in 2015. Her daughter Alaiia is also an artist who curates for Canvas Chicago. Art runs in the family, and she may well be India's very own Peggy Guggenheim.

Feroze Gujral. courtesy The Gujral Foundation.

"It's so refreshing not to be referred to as a former model," Gujral tells The National. With countless campaigns to her name in the '90s, she finds the enduring reference odd – despite the fact cover shoots for magazines and the like were once staples of her life. This is also possibly why she's famously reticent, preferring her art in the limelight instead of herself. And India is her passion project. "We are a foundation that's for India, of India, by India," she says.

Over the past three months alone, Gujral has overseen two big-ticket showcases, as well as the stamps exhibition. There's Astha Butail's site-specific immersive experience, In the Absence of Writing, which explored memory traditions – hymns and poetry passed down through chanting – drawn from ancient Vedic, Zoroastrian and Jewish philosophies, and was a part of India Art Fair's Parallel programme, and In January, Colomboscope, an interdisciplinary arts festival in the Sri Lankan city, where a variety of artists converged to delve into maritime histories and oceanic ecology. Gujral's interests are diverse, and as such, the foundation "is not focused on any particular form or genre", she says. "We don't need to be."

Reflecting India's diversity 

Considering the width and depth of Indian art, past and present, Gujral's resistance towards traditional boxes is understandable. "India doesn't evolve, it jumps," she points out. "There are pockets with no toilets, and Kawasaki motorcycles in other places; some regions have no electricity, and in others, smartphones and internet connectivity are all the rage. Similarly, there was no evolution of Indian art; there just came about a huge jump from crass to contemporary across mediums, from theatre to films to even ceramics. We lost a lot of time in the process."

the Penny Black - Year of Issue: 6th May 1840; The world’s first pre-paid postage stamp, was engraved with the image of Queen Victoria and was popularly known as the Penny Black. From the very beginning, British stamps have always displayed the reigning monarch’s head. courtesy The Gujral Foundation.

Through a variety of grants, mentorships, scholarships and recommendations, Gujral has been instrumental in providing opportunities for a new generation of artists, collaborators and cultural curators, but she rather dislikes using the term "education" to describe the foundation's endeavours. "It's more knowledge-building. The new generation is information-led, not experience-led. We want to address that." The bar is also high; the foundation supports young and budding artists who already possess some degree of skill and are looking to advance their techniques or simply broaden their horizons. "That is where you can really make a difference," says Gujral.

The Gujral Foundation is engaged across the artistic spectrum, from light, sound and performance art, to photography, architecture and design. The hubbub of activity is thanks to India's exploding contemporary scene. "Textiles, fashion, architecture are all booming," says Gujral. "Popular decorative arts are thriving, and great design is coming out of India. We have a huge market for everything."

Seeing Hyderabad through stamps 

A prime example is the success of the Hyderabad stamps show, not only among philatelists, but also millennials and those of Generation Z, which has pleasantly surprised Gujral, as well as curator Pramod Kumar KG, who runs Eka Archiving. The collection, carefully developed and astoundingly well-preserved over decades by the Ewari family, particularly Gujral's brother, Hanut Ewari, offers a rare and incredible peek into the history of Hyderabad, the largest and most powerful princely state in colonial India.

Chand Minar stamp sheet - Year of Issue: 12th November 1931; This sheet of Chand Minar 1 Rupee Yellow stamps are the most prized stamps that are part of the Ewari Collection. courtesy The Gujral Foundation.

“This is the first time this collection has entered the public domain,” says Kumar. “We learn so much of Hyderabad’s history through it.”

Dating back to the time of Nawab Iqbal Hussain Khan, the postmaster-general under the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad in the first half of the 20th century, the stamps, more than anything else, present a stunning visual timeline of Hyderabad's monumental progress – the nizams famously patronised architecture and design. "It was almost like a planned campaign," Kumar muses.

"The Nizam was predisposed to preserving heritage. Every stamp printed by Hyderabad from 1869 to 1949 is in the collection." And the success of the exhibition has Kumar seriously considering taking it to Hyderabad, where it's rooted. For Gujral, the exhibition has evoked an intense nostalgia, and the refinement and elegance of a bygone era. "It signifies a lost world; people just don't write anymore."

Over the summer, the Gujral Foundation will revive its Studio Makers series, where a group of artists come together for three to four months to create site-specific art in an old factory space in Okhla. A bunch of workshops and talks, as well as a show by an emerging artist is also on the cards, but the details aren't available just yet. In the autumn, a sculpture exhibition is planned at CEPT University in Ahmedabad.

It seems there is no slowing down for Gujral just yet.