Interview: Guru Swarup Srivastava / by Tara Kaushal

July 2011: Controversy-ridden art-investor Guru Swarup Srivastava, the man behind the headline-grabbing 100-Husains-for-100-crores deal in 2004, says the investment came first, the appreciation for art, second. I interview him on the recent death of MF Husain.

Walking in to self-made industrialist Guru Swarup Srivastava's Andheri, Mumbai, home is an experience in itself. This stunning, art-filled home comes across as a shrine to his aesthetic sense—but wait, he says he doesn't have one! Here, over a chatty evening, he talks about art investment, dispels the myths surrounding India's biggest art deal and reminisces about Husain. And, in his castle, this businessman from Agra and IIT Delhi patiently awaits the credit due for his contribution to the Indian art world...

Tell me about your interest in art. How did it start?

I had some money to invest in 2004, and was looking for a high-investment-high-return product. I considered land—but at a maximum of a lakh a square foot, it didn't hold a candle to art, at 20 lakhs a square foot.

I decided to test the waters and I bought assorted artworks for 50 lakhs—including Husain and Nikhil Chaganlal. The exhibition of these works, in the corridors of Standard Chartered bank, was a commercial success, and I decided this was the way to go.

When I started, I had no interest in art in the creative sense. I even told Husain up front: "I understand the colour of money, not the colours of paints and canvases!" Of course, since my business interest in art developed, I have begun appreciating it, and the artworks I have at home are soothing and thought provoking. I realise this is an unusual order of doing things...

But why did you choose only Husain? Why not the others?

Around this time, CitiBank in Dubai bought a Husain for 1.5 crores. I thought: I have a hundred crores to invest, what if I can convince Husain to sell me works for a crore each? Also, when I bumped in to Husain at The Ashoka in Delhi, I asked him why he didn't show as much in India as he did abroad. He said, “India mein paisa nahi hai.” I feel strongly about Indian talent having to seek appreciation and money abroad, and this became something I had to prove.

So how did the deal go down with Husain?

When I met him at his beloved restaurant Gallops at the Mahalaxmi Race Course on the 31st of August 2004, Husain was doubtful whether the deal in crores would go through. “It's all talk in India,” he said. But three days later, I handed him a banker's cheque. Once his son Owais told him it was for a crore, not a lakh, he simply said, “Kya karna hai? We'll talk after some time.”

We signed the deal—one hundred six-feet-by-four-feet Husains, plus 11 complementary ones after the deal was done—for one hundred crores. It was breaking news the next day.

The Earth is beautiful, with mankind and art and culture, and I believe India is the centre of it all. We agreed that Our Planet Called Earth would be a nice theme and name for the series. Husain had 25 works ready on the subject, and I bought them right then.

Then things went wrong with India's biggest art deal.

Legally, yes. With Husain, no.

I am fighting a legal battle with the CBI and NAFED (National Agricultural Federation of India) in the Bombay High Court, and the paintings are part of what we're tussling over. Contrary to popular belief though, the works are not confiscated by NAFED—they are in a locker at the IndusInd Bank in Andheri, that both parties must operate jointly. The way I see it, the Rs 12,000 per month I pay as locker fee is a great way to ensure the works are safe!

There have been several advantages to the controversy surrounding this deal...


Well, for one, the works are safe. Plus, during the court proceedings, the 25 works have been authenticated by an independent panel of professors from the JJ College of Art, appointed by the NAFED, CBI and me. The authenticity of the works can never be questioned again.

However, I would say that the biggest gain is not a personal one. Art in India has dormant business potential. And since the 100-crore deal hit the headlines in 2004, there has been a sea-change in the way people look at art. Like Husain who never clarified rumours, I have often chosen to let controversy and adverse publicity simmer in the media—at an enormous personal cost—to retain attention on the investment potential of Indian art. Today, art is corporatised and is considered an asset on balance sheets. Thieves in Hindi movies steal paintings. Banks have started art funds, with people expecting returns from art. There are more job opportunities in the creative fields. Artists are getting recognition and money, and those who aren't yet, are hopeful still... I feel I have done my duty towards the art community and the country.

I am curious—how were things still okay with Husain once the deal stalled?

From day one, the association was meant to be an ongoing one. Husain would create more works in this series, and I would pay him as and when I picked them up.

I had planned to pay Husain for the rest of the paintings by selling the first 25. But legal complications meant that, when Husain called me in 2008 saying the paintings were ready in London and Paris, and to pick them up at the agreed price, my funds were not ready. He understood.

Husain and I both realised the magnitude of this undertaking from the start, and acknowledged that one of us may not be around to see it to conclusion. In a heart-to-heart we had in Dubai in 2005, he said, “Mere ko kuch ho jaye toh bacchon ka dhyan rakhana,” referring to his children, including his son Shamshad, already in his 70s! It is a promise I intend to keep, even though he's gone.

From a business point of view, has his death made a difference to your investment?

Husain was lucky to have his genius rewarded with glamour, glory and gold during his lifetime, and our record-breaking deal took both of us to dizzying heights. Like Picasso, his prolificness only maintained and accelerated the stature of and demand for his work.

In 2007, the 25 works I own were valued at 50 crores. Of course, there is frenzied interest in the master after his death, something that Husain himself anticipated. He even told me which of the paintings I own—one of the Sheikh of Dubai's father—would be particularly valuable upon his death! I do not want to be opportunistic and sell the paintings immediately, but yes, art has certainly proved to be a good investment.

So what do you intend to do with the paintings once the legal issue is resolved? There was talk of a museum?

Husain drew up the blueprint of what was to be called the Maqbool-Swarup Museum. While he was keen to have in near Kamla Nehru Park in Juhu, Mumbai, we didn't get the municipal corporation's approval. I was inclined to have it built in Agra, near the Taj. But the idea is on hold right now; I am not sure what I will do with the works.

This experience must have been trying. What have you learnt?

Patience. From Husain, I have learnt to handle the adverse publicity with grace—demarcating the right from the wrong, ignoring what's not relevant and accepting the rest.

But I am happy that there are people who experience and live the advantages of this change in attitude, this new focus on art and its investment value. A few years ago, a man came up and thanked me on a flight. An old painting in his collection, bought for a few thousands, was sold for 20 lakhs, enough to fund his son's education abroad. I savour that memory as testament to the change I helped bring about.        

Future plans?

I will continue to invest in art, looking for newer ways to keep it in public consciousness. On Husain's birth anniversary, the 17th of September, I intend to launch a TV show art auction, the first of its kind in the world. Longer-term, I am working on a software that will quantify the selection criteria of artists and their works, helping systematise investment in art.

Finally, what are your memories of MF Husain, the person?

Husain was a family man, who missed his country intensely when he was, sadly, exiled during the last few years of his life. I felt that his creativity energised him spiritually, like meditative exercises, giving him wisdom, spiritual strength and a long life.

One of the most glaring disconnects between the media's projection and the truth was on the subject of Husain's fascination for Madhuri Dixit. While realms of gossip filled the newspapers, Husain's own reason was touchingly child-like. Having lost his mother at an early age, he simply believed that the actress resembled his mother at a certain angle—her left-hand side, to be precise...  

An edited version of this interview appeared in Andpersand in July 2011.