Walking into Abhishek Poddar’s office is like entering a museum that is both a homage to as well an education in art. Nestled in a leafy lane in central Bengaluru, the office houses art, sculpture and curios. Each piece is exceptional in its beauty and is given a place of pride amidst decor that is all about celebrating the arts. Poddar is one of the foremost art and photograph collectors in the country and is now using this collection not for himself, but to give to a new project (one of the most ambitious in India) – creating the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), a state of the art, not-for-profit museum in Bengaluru.
Poddar’s love affair with the arts began early. He grew up in Kolkata surrounded by art, as his parents were also avid collectors. Not only was he surrounded by modern Indian art, Raj-period landscapes, silver, porcelain, textiles and classic stone sculptures, he also met the likes of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and collector Suresh Neotia. Poddar’s interest in art was strengthened at boarding school, at the Doon School in Dehradun, when he started an annual art publication called Akshat. Though the goal was to get an excuse to step out of school on the pretext of meeting the printer, it also brought Poddar into contact with several acclaimed artists, whom he wrote to, asking them to write for the magazine.
“It was these people who opened my eyes towards the arts, my gurus in the art world, in the various disciplines. I was very fortunate to come across these people, purely as chance encounters,” says Poddar. An artist who played a seminal role in Poddar’s understanding and learning of art, and who also introduced him to several other artists, was the legendary Manjit Bawa. Others who played a key role in influencing his artistic sensibilities include Jyotindra Jain (craft and tribal art), Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh (textiles), Dashrath Patel (design) and Dayanita Singh (photography), among others.
One of Poddar’s earliest trysts with buying art included picking up a few pieces for the family home in Coonoor, from an art fair in Kolkata, when Poddar was in his early teens. The first painting that he bought, from an allowance given to him by his father (who didn’t fail to notice his son’s growing interest in art) was a Jatin Das sketch. “A seminal show that left a lasting impression on me was one titled ‘Visions’, which featured the works of Ganesh Pyne, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Somnath Hore and Jogen Chowdhury,” he says. Poddar’s art collection, a three decade-long journey, features some of the most prominent names from the Indian art scene. Is there a thread that connects his work? “There has to be something to attract me,” he says. “I don’t know why I collect, but I enjoy doing it.”
Poddar’s interest in photography began in the 1990s. He describes this as a time when he was beginning to become bored with what he perceived as the growing “formulaic” nature of Indian art. Around this time, he attended a photography exhibition showcasing the work of three women photographers: Dayanita Singh, Ketaki Sheth and Homai Vyarawalla. “This was a watershed moment for me,” he says. “I realised it was the camera that made the picture.” It was Singh’s work in particular that captivated Poddar. “I thought anyone could be a good photographer,” he says with a laugh. “Seeing her photographs was when I realised that this goes beyond the technology. There is a complete mastery involved, whether it is the composition, the framing or the light.”
Thus began the evolution of Poddar’s formidable photography collection. He has among the largest collections of photographs in the country, which includes the works of Singh, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghu Rai, Prabuddha Dasgupta, Karen Knorr, Saibal Das and Achinto. His abiding love for the genre led him to start Tasveer in Bengaluru in 2006, the first pan-Indian gallery dedicated exclusively to photography.
His love for the creative arts isn’t just restricted to the disciplines of art and photography. Poddar and his wife Radhika (who runs Cinnamon, a beautifully curated boutique in a heritage bungalow in Bengaluru) have together amassed a collection featuring not just contemporary art and photography, but tribal and folk art as well as textiles, design and crafts. Poddar is not solely about collecting art, either. He has embarked upon
what is possibly his biggest philanthropic mission, with the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), in Bengaluru. “The arts have given me so much joy and learning and I want to share that,” he says. “I want to create a community around it and change the way the children of today look at arts and culture. At the same time, I want to make it relevant to everyone.”
In December 2016, Poddar and his wife gave a total of 41 of their paintings and sculptures to a Christie’s auction in Mumbai. These included the works of Tyeb Mehta, Manjit Bawa, Ganesh Pyne, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Nicholas Roerich, Vasudeo Gaitonde and Bhupen Khakhar, among others, all of which had been part of the family’s private collection. They raised Rs 35 crore from the auction, with the entire amount going to the establishment of MAP. The museum’s 42,000 sq.ft building will be located in central Bengaluru, opposite the Government Museum and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum.” I wanted MAP to be in the museum district,” he says, “and create a sort of a museum-going culture.”
MAP will be spread across six floors and will have five galleries, out of which one will be a permanent gallery, featuring, among others, pieces from the Poddar family collection: Poddar has donated more than 7000 pieces to the museum already. It will also feature close to 200 photographs that were given to Poddar by Deepak Puri, who used to manage the Time Life desk in India. Poddar met Puri in Delhi, and was soon invited to the latter’s home, where he was shown what he describes as “some of the most jaw-dropping, iconic images” of 20th century photojournalism, largely related to India.
There will also be an auditorium, research library, multimedia gallery, conservation lab, a classroom, cafe and sculpture courts. Apart from the photography and art, the museum will also house crafts, textiles, folk and tribal art and popular art. The classroom will feature a whole host of children’s activities, as well as having seminars and talks.
In order to ensure that the museum stays relevant, Poddar has ensured that technology is an integral part of the museum. This ranges from backend processes (ensuring humidity and temperature-controlled spaces) to the front end as well. These will include the ability to track the exhibits, sending yourself photos via an app, mapping your journey, using RFID and QR codes to access more information like details about an artwork, how much time you have spent at each gallery and so on. “The aim is to make things as engaging as possible for people who are visiting,” he says. There will also be a lot of technology-enabled features for one of the core
target groups – children. From interactive displays, motion sensors that allow the child to draw a picture and a lot of design and art-inspired games, the idea is to create things that will make the child come to the museum and have something to interact with.
While Poddar didn’t have any particular museum in mind as an inspiration for MAP, he says the idea was to come up with a collective vision and incorporate some of the best practices that he had seen across the globe. He talks about the technology used at Mona, the art museum in Hobart, Australia, the Cooper Hewitt in New York, the mapping and recreating techniques used at Fogg in Harvard and the ageing techniques at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. “I was very impressed with the design at the Patan Museum in Nepal, which I visited more than a decade ago,” he says. “We had also sent our head of technology for MAP, Mayank Manish, to the Cleveland Museum of Art, who are leaders in the use of techology in museums, and he came back with lots of ideas we can integrate from there too, including interactive walls and games that allow people to engage with the collection in new and interesting ways.”
MAP has a capital budget of about Rs 100-120 crore, 50 crore of which have already been given by the Poddar family. The rest is being contributed by the museum’s Founding Patrons, who include Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Puneet and Avantika Dalmia, Sasken Technologies, Tata Trust, Citi and the Manipal Group. “We have several in-kind donors as well,” he says. The museum is expected to be functional by 2020. “This has completely overtaken my life now,” says Poddar with a smile. “We want to give you reasons to make you keep coming back, and make this a part of your life.”