Advancing the Arts - Shalini Passi

An art collector, artist, and philanthropist, Shalini Passi has been an art patron for many years now, and has witnessed firsthand the rise of the Indian art scene. She holds a number of prominent positions in the field, including sitting on the advisory board of Khoj Studios and serving as a longstanding patron of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and Kochi-Muziris Biennale – India’s largest non-commercial art event. Most recently, she launched a foundation of her own, the Shalini Passi Art Foundation, which supports emerging artists and fosters arts education through year-round programming, including exhibitions, lectures, and awards. The foundation also supports an online art platform called MASH, which offers a space to showcase experimental new work and share information about significant cultural events from around the world.

When did you first realise that you were interested in art?
I think I have always had a sense of aesthetic appreciation; I used to paint when I was in school and while in college. Through this practice, I learnt to think of artwork in terms of colour, form, and texture. And so my appreciation of art developed from there.

As an artist yourself, what do you try to communicate through your art?
My artistic output is all about personal expression, whether that be with oils and acrylic on canvas, or with fashion and the design of my home. The art that I create is just as much an expression of my own individuality as the way I present myself through my personal attire.

What was your motivation to begin collecting art?
Partly, I collect because it’s meaningful to me to create a diverse collection where epochs and ideas can mingle side by side. Primarily I collect for myself; I have to have a personal connection with the pieces I buy.

When did you first fall in love with a piece of art, and what was it?
I have a personal and emotional connection to all of the pieces in my collection, but Anita Dube’s The Theatre of Sade (1998-9) is one of the pieces that I am most moved by. The installation comprises objects wrapped in black velvet and presented like theatrical props – alluding to the violent, perverse imagery of Sadian Theatre. The artist describes the libertine philosophy of the French writer Marquis de Sade as being about bondage and the triumph of will. Considering that the predominant feature of the Sadian experience is that of cruelty, Dube has tried to explore the psychology of the sensation of terror and its sociological impact. I love that she’s not afraid to use her artistic practice to speak out about the issues she feels most passionately about; for me that is the power of art, and indeed its purpose.

What is your focus regarding the artists in your collection? Are you more interested in emerging or renowned artists?
Over the years, I have collected numerous pieces by eminent artists, both Indian and international. However, I acquired these pieces not because of their names but because I had a meaningful connection with the work – that’s my main motivation. I am currently very focused on supporting emerging artists. As a collector and a philanthropist, I feel strongly that it’s vital to provide the necessary support to nurture and develop young artistic talent. We need to work together to develop an ecosystem that drives and promotes innovation and creativity, disruption and dissent, reflection and commentary that comprises the essence of stimulating and meaningful work. This means giving the artists unlimited creative freedom and seeking to support without influencing or compromising their work in any way.

Is there any particular type of art that has consistently attracted you, or anything that unites all the works you have acquired?
I’m currently very interested in Art Nouveau. It’s a style developed in the late 19th century, born of a desire to create a new style that went beyond imitative historicism. This is very much aligned with my own artistic aspirations. I’m always seeking to discover and explore practices that break away from what has gone before. The style was influenced by the experiments with expressive line by the painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but also partly inspired by the movement of the linear patterns of Japanese prints. Art Nouveau is about creating a fusion between structure and ornament, and the organic line that characterised this style has been employed across architecture, interior design, jewellery, glass design, posters, and illustration. This multidisciplinary approach to creativity – taking an idea and experimenting with it through different media – is still so relevant today and something that I seek to promote through my online art platform MASH.

What was the first piece of art you acquired?
The first artwork I acquired was from a fellow art student; a friend of mine had made a beautiful sketch of a portrait and I wanted that portrait, so I exchanged that with one of my own landscapes. After that my first serious acquisition was a work of M.F. Husain, which I thought was striking for its vivid and expressive mark-making.

Tell us a little about your journey as a philanthropist.
Over time, through my years as a collector and a patron, I have learned more about specific styles and movements in art. My appreciation has developed from that of a private collector to a committed stakeholder within the unique and dynamic contemporary Indian art landscape. I started the Shalini Passi Art Foundation to channel this energy into an initiative that I hope will play a significant role in developing and promoting a contemporary Indian aesthetic, by giving a platform to young emerging artists and creating opportunities for them to experiment and expand their practice.

Which of your philanthropic endeavours are you most proud of?
The focus of my philanthropy is to support new work that pushes the boundaries of both the medium and the message. I am particularly proud of the foundation’s work to develop performance art, which I love because it can exist outside traditional art spaces, and therefore makes the work much more accessible. Earlier this year my foundation hosted an absurdist performance piece by
Mithu Sen (which explored the theme “radical hospitality”) and an operatic performance (the first of its kind in India) by Meera George. It was a pleasure to work with talented and daring artists to create experiential work for new audiences.

How would you describe the philanthropy sector in India today, what are the main trends and challenges?
Private philanthropists in India hold a different and arguably more significant role than in other countries, due to a need to compensate for a lack of institutional and governmental support. Private philanthropists support the industry by raising funds, organising festivals and events, and promoting emerging artists. It’s very encouraging to the see that philanthropic arts initiatives in India have increased significantly over the last 10 years, with more than 32 new initiatives commencing since 2008 – that’s more than double the number of philanthropic art projects and foundations that existed earlier. I’m captivated by emerging models of technology-enabled art philanthropy such as crowd-funding platforms and online content portals. In the absence of government support, these can play a role in supporting art and cultural projects in the India of the future.

What are your other hobbies and passions?
Outside of art, my main interest is design – including architecture, fashion, furniture, and jewellery. I was very involved in the design of my home, and I actively collect furniture and design objects, as well as produce a number of pieces that I have designed myself.           – as told to Sumana