Fresh Philanthropist: Feroze Gujral

My East is Your West (2015) at the 56th Venice Biennale by Rashid Rana. Photo by Mark Blower

PHILANTHROPIST AND art fanatic Feroze Gujral eases into a conversation about her projects and the Gujral Foundation with an affable ease. In this ambassadorial role, Gujral epitomises a new kind of entrepreneurial spirit that is progressively galvanising the arts in India away from its institutional inertia along with personalities, such as collector Lekha Poddar, gallerists Prateek and Priyanka Raja, (Experimenter, Kolkata), artists Jiten Thukral, Sumir Tagra, and designer Ashiesh Shah. They all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Gujral remains positive, whether it is explaining the macro details of facilitating the Venice project, dealing with the foundation’s logistical involvement with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, or helping those less fortunate than herself. This year at Venice, Pakistan and India are united in an exhibition, sponsored by the Gujral Foundation, in an unprecedented project to bring the countries closer together. It involves two top artists from India and Pakistan – Shilpa Gupta (India) and Rashid Rana (Pakistan) in My East is Your West.

Asian Art Newspaper: Can you introduce the audience to your background in philanthropy.

Feroze Gujral: The first thing to say is that India is so big, that no matter what anybody does, it will only be a tiny drop in the ocean. It is like a pixel of a pixel, in terms of effort. Secondly we are, (the Gujral Foundation) tinier than the tiniest pixel! We are really very new in terms of giving to the arts – just over the last five to seven years. But I think the thing is it not the arts, it is not culture,  it is not any of that – for us it is really the giving. When you live in India there is such a need for so much that it just comes from giving. So very often people ask me, ‘How come you are not a collector?’ We are not, we do not collect, or buy art in a particular manner. We do not acquire work from anyone with whom we work. I will not give you a project and say ‘In return you have to give me a piece of art’. That never happens, so if I want to buy a work I will buy it. Basically, it started by being a Muslim and giving, as my mother is a Muslim she gives back that little 10 percent, or two percent. This attitude starts very young, so when we have had Eid,  a big celebration, or a big birthday, we feel the need to do a little bit for someone who is not as lucky as we are. This snowballed into bigger and bigger things, I also have a delightful husband who is a happy giver! I must say I have a feeling that I thought previously I was getting the two percent back,  but now I am getting the two percent of the two percent, of the interest of that two percent. But it is still a small amount of money, but we hope that we use it in a larger way.
I believe even a small amount can go a long way.

AAN: You give without any wish for anything in return?

FG: I have great ideas, but they are always odd! For example, I would love to have a cultural institution like those in London. There are, I believe, 1,500 listed buildings and 240 museums. To me, it is here that the power lies. I wish I could build a public space – a great library, or a great archive, even a great university for India. So the deal for me was that I was going to go to Oxford (university) and study, but unfortunately I got married the same year I applied. I did go, but left immediately. It is the great places of study that remain beyond your life time. So the trick for us is to find things that will stand long after we have gone so that we promote them so they will survive. I did not grow up in India, I came to live in India and I find it very difficult to look around and see where we are now. A country that is an ancient civilisation with great refinement, but we have very little – in the sense that we have very few cultural elements and even these are badly run.

AAN: Do you think India is suspicious of philanthropy?

FG: Every morning I get up with a really good/bad idea! And every evening I think carefully and decide why do I not just spend this money on buying some art. I think if in one’s lifetime you can do something you should.  I normally never do interviews – I rarely say much publicly about the arts. However, I think every day I genuinely feel a great loss for Indian craft, culture, art and design skills, as they are all disappearing. It is becoming so rare and also becoming so expensive. Another appalling thing is that every time you find something spectacularly Indian, it is across the water somewhere in a museum, where it is revered and well looked after, and valued. Not in India. I have seen exquisite Indian artefacts, even contemporary art, however, I see better contemporary art elsewhere.

AAN:  Is that not as a consequence of the significance of industry over art in India?

FG: I think it is relevant, I just think we do not see it (the arts), as a special thing. It is normal for us to eat off silver, to buy beautiful carpets, beautiful shawls, and saris. Every sari is different. Now some are being printed on poor-quality commercial nylon, but essentially every single sari is hand woven and every sari is different. There are two million women who buy 20 each, that is 40 million saris. So you can tell me in this country that it is nothing special to be special, but it is, it just means we are used to it. I think that is part of it –  we have always needed the outside eye to say ‘That is exquisite let us put it in a museum’. So then we Indians go to the museum and say ‘Oh isn’t that exquisite!’. Then we need to go back home and look again at these things with fresh eyes.

AAN: How do you encourage your audiences to value their own culture, if that is what you are trying to do?

FG: I think the gallerists are trying, but if you had to think of being a professional straight out of school, no one is there saying ‘I would love to be a gallerist.’

AAN: Is being a ‘gallerist”, or more specifically being a ‘curator’, something with which Indians are not entirely savvy?
FG: I think there is very little infrastructure for the arts in India and there are no clearly defined art history courses. One or two and at post-grad level one. For our generation the arts were not an option as a livelihood. So nobody wanted to go into the arts, because what would you do? How would you manage? I think that the galleries are also dealing with a whole lot of infrastructure problems. There are no real curatorial courses, or museum courses. We are trying very hard and there is some good work being done. Priyanka and Prateek (of Experimenter) run a very nice curatorial hub, which has been an overwhelming success. I have not had a chance to attend, but I do check it out on Facebook. There are so many more people than expected who attend these courses who do not have an arts background – all wanting to learn and hear great voices. The good news is that it is coming along. So for me the ‘up-side’ is that nobody can ignore India, it is too large, we have spectacular talent. Yes infrastructurally we are sorely lacking, as we do not have the schools or the courses, or the magazines and a huge range of galleries. In India, we do not have the taste for very contemporary, minimal things. I think India takes great leaps –  we do not evolve. We are lagging behind and then suddenly the internet comes and then we are lagging behind and then something else happens. And in that ‘lagging behind’ there is the loss of evolution.

Whatever it is, it is possible in India and that is something that we, as a foundation, are trying to promote. So we deal with contemporary art, we deal with dance, and other related things. Why we focus on ‘the contemporary’ is only because it is what I can do now, of what is there now. I do not consider it in the same vein as ‘contemporary art’, which denotes a certain style of art. We are interested in contemporary India, because every contemporary Indian artist is working on a really strong issue that is peculiarly Indian. So that is the nugget of the debate. Also how do we save some part of the past?

AAN: So it is this that provides you with your unique perspective of an outsider looking in?

FG: It does, because I look at the simplest thing and I think that is incredible, and why is it being lost? And why can we not bring it into our home? If you look to the museums they celebrate everyday objects that are stunning. India has thousands of these beautiful implements that still serve the country. Contemporary art is a whole different ball game. And unfortunately I am the most unknowledgeable out of everyone you will speak to, because fundamentally as a foundation we are not looking exclusively at contemporary art – we are looking at the arts, and we are looking at culture as a whole. My husband’s father is an artist, Satish Gujral, so we are conscious of the artist community and know them all. We have known them for many, many years and we have seen how they have struggled. We just want to help.

BY RAJESH PUNJ

The 56th Venice Biennale runs until 22 November, 2015