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A passionate collector’s priceless treasure
Renowned art patron Jehangir Nicholson’s comprehensive collection of nearly 800 paintings, drawings prints and sculptures, spanning nearly seven decades has recently been thrown open to the public. It comprises several monumental works by over 250 Indian modern and contemporary artists that now have become a prized possession now.

It’s a reflection of his vision as a collector in spotting talented artists, all not perhaps as renowned and as established, but possessing unbounded talent that he spotted in them, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Jitish Kallat, and Anjolie Ela Menon, to name a few. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum) now houses the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery. A major portion of its recently constructed 2nd floor annexe is now taken up by the captivating collection, a visual treat, a true testament to the zest and passion of an avid lover of modern Indian art.

Known to be one of the best-known and most versatile Indian art collectors, he yearned to share his vision with the public. By the mid-seventies, his collection had grown in stature and size quite considerably. He then started looking for an adequate space in South Mumbai for a museum of modern art. His search for space did not end till he passed away a decade ago, in 2001, at 86. During his lifetime, he loaned a part of his vast collection to the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). This move led the foundation for the setting up of the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery of Modern Art there.

However, not many laypeople and even art connoisseurs were aware of its existence. The late art collector had always had an earnest desire to share his collection with the people so that they could soak in its glory and richness. His dream now has been erafulfilled. A well-known cotton merchant in the 1960s in the city of Mumbai, Jehangir Nicholson is known to have moved around it quite a bit, architects in tow, looking for possible venues to fructify his concept of a public museum. He died in 2001, at the age of 86, and his earnest desire almost left unfulfilled. The curator of the collection, Zasha Colah, has ensured that a blueprint of his museum to house his collection of modern and contemporary art from India finally comes into reality. This is, for sure, the best outcome he could have expected for his extensive collection even during his lifetime.

For the humble fellow who spent major part of his life striving to construct a museum of his dream, this is a perfect homage. A gritty man, he had also requested the government of Maharashtra to give him some space in Mumbai for the proposed structure, but to no avail. In his will, the passionate collector had sought the liquidation of his entire assets for supporting a foundation, which would manage his collection. He had appointed his lawyer Kaiwan Kalyaniwalla and nephew Cyrus Guzder as trustees. With the CSMVS director Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s support, the two convinced the museum board for accommodating Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) collection at its historic structure. It’s a perfect partnership as a proud legacy finds an apt resting place while the museum can treat as an extension of its own ancient Indian art collection.

Jehangir Nicholson bought his first artwork in 1968, a year after he lost his beloved wife. He bought a Sharad Waykool painting, titled ‘A Scenery’, for Rs 600 from the Taj Art Gallery. After his life partner’s departure, he found succor and solace in his growing attachment with paintings filled a personal vacuum created after his wife’s death. This feeling was quite palpable in the way he chose to address his works, using terms of romanticized love, at times. The first canvas he acquired cost him Rs. 500. It was ‘A Scenery’ by Sharad Waykool, which he spotted at the Taj Art Gallery. He gradually began visiting the Chemould and Pundole art galleries on a more regular basis, and was introduced to young painter Laxman Shreshtha (just 24 year old then) by the founder of Pundole, Kali Pundole.

This was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. The painter introduced him to several other talented artists like Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, SH Raza etc. Also on his advice, the enthusiastic collector made umpteen studio visits and developed close bonds with prominent artists like Krishen Khanna. Jehangir Nicholson’s understanding of contemporary art was sharpened by his acute observation. His debates and conversations with art practitioners, gallery owners, scholars, critics and reviewers further enhanced his knowledge and grasping of art history as well as trends.

The keen collector travelled all across India to view and buy art cutting across different forms, themes and mediums. He progressively became more meticulous and methodological about his quest of collecting; getting more and more conscious of the fact that he was pursuing his dream of a museum. His collection gradually became archival in nature. His constant rearrangement of his treasured art collection pointed to an obsessive streak in him. All these traits are evident in the exhibition of his vast and rich artworks in Mumbai.

Rightfully, Jehangir Nicholson’s collection is considered among the richest and most diverse in its vastness of modern masterpieces that he bought from painters like Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Baiju Parthan, as well. A key indicator of its intrinsic value is reflected in two of Souza’s milestone works – ‘Mammon’ (1961) and ‘Death of the Pope’ (1962) – that belonged to him. He engaged actively and identified with his collection and loved discussing his coveted possessions in great detail and depth, facets that are inherent to a genuine and committed collector, who has left behind a rich legacy.