Bangalore based collector Abhishek Poddar is a self-professed ‘acquisition junkie’

It’s too early on a Sunday morning to be sipping masala chai at the Palms, the coffee shop at Mumbai’s Oberoi Hotel. But that’s Abhishek Poddar for you. Acknowledged as one of the most important collectors of contemporary art of his generation, Poddar, who lives in Bangalore, has his fingers in many an artistic pie. Time in his scheme of things is, undoubtedly, of great importance. Today, for instance, he has his morning chalked out: interview followed by a meeting, followed by a flight…and to think that it’s the day of rest. “I’m a workaholic as also a compulsive shopper…that’s one reason we started Cinnamon, the design store in Bangalore,” he begins with a boyish grin.

His eclectic passion was quite evident recently at the Post India exhibition that he organised at Mumbai’s chic Sakshi gallery. On show was a collection of cutting-edge designer household goods like vases, lamps and even beds created specially for Cinnamon by Italian artiste Andrea Anastasio. Also on display on the opening night was Potter’s understated style. Excess was visible only in the form of sundry socialites laden with diamonds. For the rest, the gallery was abuzz with understated style of art collectors who had travelled from as far away as Milan for the opening.

Lapsing occasionally into no hang-ups Hindi, Abhishek Poddar reveals the range of his aesthetic interest. His collection includes kanthas, posters, fine silver, textiles, ancient sculpture, terracotta, old mirrors, china, furniture, glass, bronze and now, contemporary design and photography. The paintings and sculptures number several hundred pieces, scattered over family properties in Bangalore, Cochin and Coonoor. After all this, the fact that he deals in tea and explosives for a living may seem quite incidental.

Poddar’s interest in art and his never-say-die spirit date back to his school days. As a young lad at Doon School, he plotted with a group of co-conspirators to invent a legitimate excuse to get away for a bit. Hitting upon the idea of a house magazine (which would require frequent visits to printer et al), the partners in crime left Poddar to deal with the esoteric subject of art. Unfazed, Poddar began by shooting off letters to artists like Satish Gujral, Anjolie Ela Menon and Bendre. Nobody really believed that he would pull it off. He did, and with considerable aplomb leading Ms Menon to even mention his project in an interview! 

Then there’s a story about how at age fifteen he saved up Rs 1,000 to buy a drawing by Jatin Das. The interest thus began early, and continues to grow even today despite a lack of formal education. Poddar, who acknowledges the contribution of Manjit Bawa and Shuvaprasanna in shaping his views, says, “The stuff I enjoyed years ago, when I began collecting, is not what I enjoy now. I buy what appeals to me at a particular time. Art grows on you. It moves then to a less important place till you don’t get excited about it any longer. It’s a lot like food. All five senses need to get excited.” “But,” he continues, “the problem with contemporary Indian art is that it’s very, very young. Moreover a very small amount of really good work is produced. To get quality out of this limited body is difficult.” The Poddar collection includes important paintings from the Bengal School, painters like Manjit Bawa, Jamini Roy, Jogen Choudhury, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Arpita Singh, as well as many by younger Baroda painters.

Renaissance Man: Meet Bangalore’s acquisition junkie, Abhishek Poddar, MW archives
Image courtesy: Namas Bhojani

Reflecting on his preferences and favourites he says, “I continue to like Manjit, Arpita and Jogen. Over time, the eye matures and you see the gaps. There’s been a lull for a while with everyone doing the same masala painting. Dhruv Mistry, Anita Dube and Anandajit Ray are the few who are doing exciting work.” His current passion though is contemporary photography. His favourites — Dayanita Singh, Ketaki Sheth, Jyoti Bhatt and Raghu Rai. “Contemporary photographs are about changing perceptions,” he says. He has also begun collecting contemporary design objects. “It’s a gut-feel. Design is big in the West. It can only grow here. I see it as art with utility value.”

Collecting has been a largely serendipitous exercise for this acquisition junkie. He has even chanced upon a couple of Souzas in a junk shop in Goa! The fact that he has been collecting way before people realised the worth of many of the artists who are bandied about today is another plus in his favour. He chanced upon film posters much before pop caught on and has been accumulating soapboxes and matchboxes for a while now. Of these, Poddar has been candid enough to remark:  “I know nothing about film history, or about how many posters were printed. Neither am I a film buff. I just collect them for their artistic value. What fascinates me is that they are so relevant to contemporary art. Imaging Mumtaz in blue or Nimmi in green requires a great deal of imagination.” His kantha collection, dating back 80 to 100 years, too carries its own share of stories, replete with the dust of personal history. The fragile collection was almost destroyed when his mother decided to wash all pieces!

Poddar’s ability to juxtapose the metaphor ‘art for art’s sake’ with the notion of utility has allowed him the scope to develop a range of home furnishing and silk tapestries designed by artists and executed by craftspeople from all over the country. He also organizes workshops.  “My objective was never to collect through them. In fact, artists were told that they didn’t have to paint.”

Over the years he has digressed naturally into curation, urging artists to create what they would normally shy away from. “I was only 23 when Mumbai’s Sakshi art gallery opened with the first show that I curated. It featured artists whose work had influenced me, artists like Ram Kumar, Manjit Bawa, Arpita Singh, Jogen Choudhury, Jayashree Chakravarty and Meera Mukherjee. Since then I’ve curated a few more shows.” Poddar uses his personal perspective on art to arrive at themes that bind a show together. So much so that he goes ahead, almost always, with his whims. At one time he even commissioned 25 well known artists to create a massive painted “bouquet” in celebration of his parents’ anniversary! “We need discerning buyers who will help develop the art market in the manner of the western art economy,” Poddar says, “We also need a few more years. India does not even have a single national auction house…we need awareness and education.  I don’t know why art is made to sound so intellectual.”

Anupa Mehta specialises in art management

This article was first published in July 2000 |Image courtesy: Namas Bhojani