When art collectors Umesh and Sunanda Gaur host the Princeton Friends of Opera at their home on Sunday, June 3, from 5 to 8 p.m., they will be providing something more than the ordinary afternoon.
By arrangement, the Gaurs will open their home and art gallery devoted to Indian Art to groups of up to 75 — just as they are for the Friends of the Opera’s annual music and dining event designed to raise funds to support opera in Central New Jersey.
Umesh Gaur, in a chat at his home, says, “We used to live in North Brunswick and have been collecting for about 25 years. We soon had works under the bed, in the closets, and in the garage. The pieces Sunanda didn’t like went to my office. Works that my secretary got tired of went into storage at the office.”
“By 2007 it was obvious the collection was too big for the house, and we began to build a house that included a gallery big enough for the collection. In May, 2010, we moved. The house warming in the fall consisted of a show of Indian figurative art.”
The 3,500-square-foot gallery lies below the main floor of the Gaur home in Franklin Park. Black stairs and a black-and-white banister lead down from the main level. The gallery has an old-fashioned wooden floor. The walls of its four regions vary from black and white to a gentle rose color and a deeper shade of plum. The space includes a bar and a piano. In a year, the Gaurs typically schedule about 10 events.
Calling their collection “Bindu Modern Gallery,” they draw on Indian philosophy. The word “Bindu” literally means circle or dot in Hindi, they explain. The concept is important in Hindu philosophy, where the word encompasses the idea of eternity, or the endlessness of life. Sayed Raza’s 1998 painting “Bindu” hangs in the entrance hall of the Gaur home. It consists of a small central disk surrounded by concentric circles, which appear to extend beyond the frame of the painting.
Both Gaurs were born in India. Once, at the beginning of my visit, they briefly speak Hindi with each other.
In 1974 Umesh came to New York State to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). As a Rensselaer post-doctoral student, he specialized in polymers (large molecules composed of repeating chemical units). In 1980 he became RPI’s director of the thermodynamics of polymers (the role of heat on the properties of polymers). In 1993 Umesh left polymer science and created Gaur Asset Management (GAM), of which he is president. The firm is an investment consultancy for high net worth individuals, having a minimum of $1 million at their disposal.
Sunanda trained as a physician at King George Medical College in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the far north of India, near Nepal. She is now professor of pediatrics and infectious disease, a rare combination, at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJ). She also directs RWJ’s clinical research center and the center’s program. In addition, she directs the South Asian Total Health Initiative, which she founded in 2007 because of her interest in India.
In July, 1980, through friends and family who thought they would make a good pair, the two met in India. At the time Sunanda was doing a residency in pediatrics. They married within four weeks. Sunanda came to the United States in December, 1980.
The couple has two daughters. Sunanda supplies brief descriptions. Reva, the elder, works for Facebook in their news partnership, concerning herself with management and media. She is the mother of Archer, the Gaurs’ first grandchild, born in Brooklyn on May 3, two weeks before my visit.
Priya, the Gaurs’ younger daughter, is a healthcare consultant in Washington, D. C. Her focus is health care innovations, with a specialty in digital interfaces between patients and providers. “They have no names, these jobs,” says Sunanda.
Umesh’s art collection began before he had a family. “I started collecting art posters when I was a student,” he says. “Posters by Picasso or Modigliani. They sold in bookstores for $10. They were the kind of dorm decorations students collected.”
“Then I got interested in the art. I asked myself, ‘What does the real thing look like?’ I went to museums and tracked down the paintings. Gradually, I gravitated toward Indian art.”
Sunanda adds, “Neither of us is trained in art. We had no idea that modern art existed in India. We connected with the subject matter of the art. The first piece we bought was Maqbool Fida Husain’s ‘Mother Teresa.’’’ The piece hangs in their entrance hall. It is a provocative abstraction with three images of the Albanian-born saint who spent most of her life in India. Reading diagonally downward from left to right, the first image shows the saint holding a baby; in the second image, she holds a child; in the third she attends to a large, circular unidentified object.
The Gaur collection now consists of some 400 works of art—paintings in oils, watercolor, and acrylic media; drawings; prints; and photographs. Sunanda says, “We’re not traders — we keep adding to the collection.” The couple plans exhibits for the gallery in their home, selecting items from their collection and focusing on themes of their choice. The undisplayed items rest safely in professional storage space used by museums where humidity and temperature are controlled.
The ramifications of the current show are typical of the life history of a Gaur exhibit. The source of the current show is the Gaurs’ photography holdings. It closes on December 31 and is divided into four sections: photography as performance art; portraiture; travel and street photography; and social and political narrative. In 2015 it was on display at the Stephen D. Paine Gallery of Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. In 2017 the Gaurs made it available in their home. A published catalog, “Looking In/Looking Out,” details the exhibit.
The Gaurs have already planned the show that will follow in 2019. It is to be titled “Paper Trails: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings on Paper.”
Jeffrey Wechsler, now retired from Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Gallery in New Brunswick, has collaborated with the Gaurs for almost two decades and continues to work with them as a consultant. Sunanda heard about him informally: she got his name from a hospital volunteer who also volunteered at the Zimmerli. “Jeff was immediately enthusiastic,” she says. Umesh adds, “We did a lot of research together. We got to know collectors of modern and contemporary Indian art in the northeast United States, and started to work with museums.”
In 2002, with Wechsler involved, Rutgers’ Zimmerli museum mounted the first major exhibition of Indian contemporary art. The first publication, “India: Modern and Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections,” followed in the same year. The publication contains images of pictures whose originals are on the walls of the Gaur home today.
In 2007, following years of preparation, the Newark Museum mounted a major show of photography from the Gaur collection. The majority of the photographers worked in India.
Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, changed conditions in the art world reflected worldwide political and economic changes. By then India had become a global power and prices for Indian art had increased.
At that time the Gaurs shifted their emphasis. They began collecting paintings by members of indigenous Indian tribes in 2005. The artists involved had no formal training. As the second decade of the 21st century unfolded, Gaur tribal works were included in nine-museum three-year tours organized by International Arts and Artists, a Washington, D.C. entity.
Indian art has made its way into the mainstream of art collections. In 2003 Umesh was thrilled to be included in “Art and Antiques” magazine’s annual report of 100 top collectors. Three years later, in 2006, the magazine listed him again. In that short time span, the number of listed collectors of contemporary Indian art by the magazine had grown to a total of three.
Opera Meets Art, at the Franklin Park home and gallery of Umesh and Sunanda Gaur. Sunday, June 3, 5 to 8 p.m. The event includes food from a menu encompassing western and Indian food, wines from the Gaur wine cellar, opera arias, and music supervised by Sandra and Joseph Pucciatti of Boheme Opera Company, and a silent auction. $100; $135 nonmembers. For details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the gallery visit www.bindumodern.org