Walking into Danny Mehra’s private studio, which houses his extensive collection of tribal carpets, is like stepping into colour and design heaven. There are carpets as far as the eye can see, mounted on walls, stacked on beds and piled on the floor. Each one is beautifully maintained, bursting with colour, and has a story to tell, stories that Mehra, 60, a former global financial markets executive, tells with the flourish of a raconteur. “I find great joy in this,” he says with a smile.
Mehra’s tryst with tribal carpets began thanks to his mother-in-law, from whom he received a wedding gift of two carpets, picked up at a friend’s store in the United States, where he was living at the time. “I liked them, but I didn’t know they would turn out to be a passion,” says Mehra, who describes himself as an ‘accidental collector’. His first brush with collecting pieces began with furniture in the early 1990s. The clean lines of Mission furniture pieces as well as the rustic appeal of SWAT Valley pieces was what drew him in, and laid the foundation for his aesthetic sense. Several of these pieces can be seen in his studio – an oak chair whose clean lines bely the fact that it weighs around 50 kg, a table with rustic motifs that was put together without any nails (a hallmark of SWAT valley furniture).
Slowly, Mehra began to notice carpets as well. It was on a visit to Delhi in the mid 1990s that he bought tribal carpets for the first time, picking up two pieces from Hauz Khas Village. Ask him what attracted him to these carpets, of which he is possibly the only collector in India, and pat comes the reply. “I like naive art,” he says, “things that are ‘perfectly imperfect’. I look for nuances, and hallmarks of the individual weavers; the formal carpets weren’t for me.”
Mehra’s tribal carpets are essentially those woven by tribes largely in and around the Central Asian region, covering the time period from the 18th century to the 20th century. These nomadic tribes belonged to five geographic regions: Caucasus, tribal parts of Iran, Anatolia, Central Asia and Kurdish. Each carpet was woven by one woman weaver, and most of Mehra’s carpets are made of wool. Sheep formed an important part of the livestock of the tribes, explains Mehra, and the men sheared them. Then, the women wove with the wool and finally the men dyed them with colour. Most of the carpets – gabbes, darris and killims – have several icons that have been woven into them, including paisleys, stick figures, birds, dogs, scorpions, the four forces of nature and many more. “The weavers took the symbols they liked, to convey the story they wanted to reconstruct,” he says. The stories are elaborate – one carpet tells the story of a family in which the husband committed a crime and was executed; he was carried to heaven, while his family continued to live on earth, surrounded by livestock, which would be the source of their livelihood. “None of us will ever know the true story, though,” says Mehra . “The weavers took what made sense to them, which is all open to interpretation today.”
Mehra’s journey began with two carpets and two books on them. More than 25 years later, he has a collection of close to 300 books on carpets and spends every waking moment researching, learning and trying to look for his next acquisition. And carpets? “Enough to put some on every floor of the Burj in Dubai and then some more,” he says with a laugh. Most of these have been purchased from auction houses like Christie’s, Sothebey’s, Rippon Boswell and Nagel Auktioen (in Germany), from other collectors in Europe and the US, dealers, pickers (who go into villages hunting for carpets and procure them via barter with the tribes), at marketplaces as well as online. In turn, he is often contacted by other dealers and collectors to sell his carpets. While Mehra has sold a fair few, the carpet he says he will not sell (though close to five buyers, including a prominent collector, have already shown interest) is a Konya rustic carpet that is Kurdish in origin, belonging to the late 19th-20th century period. The bright red and yellow tones, the braided edges and the geometric motifs make this carpet, according to Mehra, “a typical example of a nomadic carpet”.
Apart from carpets, Mehra has begun collecting carpet fragments as well, which once washed are mounted on a cloth or canvas background. Once a carpet is procured, Mehra gets it washed and restored, if required. It is then placed on a flat pile in a light and airy place. “With my studio, I can finally see my carpets,” he says, “otherwise they were kept in piles, and I would only see their photos.” The studio took him around three months to finish; he had the kitchen removed and track lighting installed. About half his collection is here, and the rest is still in his house. “My wife is happy that we are finally getting our living room back,” he says with a laugh.
Ask Mehra about his favourite carpet, and he says it’s hard to pick one. He points to a horse cover, designed by the Luri tribe in the early to mid 20th century. Mehra has names for all his carpets – “I call this one Chaos. The bright, red fabric is covered with a whole mélange of motifs, but it all comes together so beautifully,” he says. Another rare Luri that he is very proud of has an uneven banana shape, which he explains is due to a change in the warp tension, as the tribe would have migrated downwards and the loom would have been disassembled and then reassembled. A carpet whose acquisition most excited him in the last one year is what he describes as the Amu Darya mystery. This was found by a picker in the Amu Darya region, and was probably woven by someone belonging to the Bashir tribe from North Uzbekistan. Mehra says he has never seen a carpet like this, with its indigo, maroon and camel-skin colours, liberally scattered with bird and animal motifs and geometric shapes, and is unlikely to see another one in the future. “Such finds are becoming increasingly hard to get these days,” he says. Mehra had it washed, and now plans to mount it with a canvas or jute backing, so as to preserve its threadbare condition.
Apart from showcasing his carpets at his museum, Mehra has held exhibitions across seven cities in India, and plans to keep doing so. He has his eyes set on his next acquisition: a Bakhtiyari Gabbe from South Western Iran, from a dealer based in Istanbul. “The thrill is in finding the next piece,” he says. “I don’t know it till I see it, but it is like love at first sight.”