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The de Boer collection: A history of Modern Indian art

  • A new book by Mapin uses the prominent collection of strategy consultant Kito de Boer and Jane Gowers to trace the history of 20th century Indian art
  • The collection started as a journey for the couple to understand India

Collectors Jane Gowers and Kito de Boer.
Collectors Jane Gowers and Kito de Boer.

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Known today as the largest foreign collectors of Indian art, Kito de Boer and wife Jane Gowers remember their first purchase—a Ganesh Pyne titled Lady Before The Pillar. The couple spotted the painting at Delhi’s Kumar Gallery, one of the oldest modern art establishments in the country. Knowing nothing about the artist, they set out to learn more about him; the painting today graces their London home and is also one of the first works to be discussed in a new publication, titled Modern Indian Painting, brought out by Mapin ( 3,500).

The book, which was released in Mumbai on 9 April at Pundole’s, traces the history of modern Indian art, highlighting important episodes through the de Boer collection, which has about 1,000 works. De Boer, a strategy consultant, and Gowers, who were there for the event, think of Pyne as “their first connection to Indian art”.

The publication owes it cohesiveness to editors Rob Dean, a gallerist and art consultant, and Giles Tillotson, consultant director of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur. Modern Indian Painting has a choice set of critical essays and interviews by Partha Mitter and Yashodhara Dalmia, among others, who shed light on artists and schools that often get eclipsed by the stardom of the Bombay Progressives.

Conversations with de Boer and Gowers in the book offer readers more than a glimpse on how they built their collection. Much of the collection was created after de Boer arrived in India, in 1992, to set up management consultancy firm McKinsey & Co.’s Delhi office. He says, “Art and culture, in general, create a great bridge across civilizations and brings people together.” This was true of the couple and their three children, who set out on an expedition to get closer to India, visiting its great sites of cultural significance, such as the Taj Mahal. But it didn’t seem enough.

Gowers, an architectural designer who does private residential projects and advises people on art, says that back in the 1990s, there wasn’t enough information on Indian art in English. “The World Wide Web wasn’t there either,” she laughs. She used her time in India to travel and meet artists, gallerists and other collectors.

The collection, which started as a journey for the couple to understand India, also cemented their marriage. Gowers says spouses can often operate in their own spheres—de Boer had his office and she looked after the children—but the art collection is something they built together. De Boer says Gowers has a trained eye and “got to paintings much faster than I did”. Such was the case when, in 1994, they met a collector in Bengaluru who pointed to a bright red painting on his wall. “I liked it but Jane loved it. The collector spoke about wanting to sell it for 15 lakh. Jane said we should get it. We both had never heard of V.S. Gaitonde before. But I wasn’t sure, until after a month later. By then, it was too late. It was the one that got away,” says de Boer. It is a missed chance for the collector couple, but Gowers avows that there can be no journey without a few regrets—something budding collectors would do well to remember.

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