Homi Bhabha, whose bungalow Meherangir sold for nearly Rs325 crore, was not merely the father of India's nuclear science programme — he also had a keen eye for art and in the 1950s and 1960s, put together an extremely significant collection of modern Indian art.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of immense experimentation in Indian art when artists, especially the now famous Progressive Artists Group, were trying out various styles and ideas, and Mumbai, or Bombay as it was known then, was at the centre of this new modernist wave.
Bhabha, as founder director of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), was in the right place, at the right time, and with the help of a few early critics and writers like Karl Khandalawala and Rudi von Leyden to advise him, put together a small, "museum quality" collection of 250-300 works, says Mortimer Chatterjee, co-writer of the book, 'The TIFR Art Collection (2010)'.
The collection, which is housed in the Colaba campus of TIFR, has significant works by VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, SH Raza — all artists who have gone on to become important figures in the history of Indian art. "The collection," says Chatterjee, "provides an overview of the avant garde in Mumbai." There is also a significant mural by Husain in 1962, done after he won a competition that Bhabha instituted.
The money for buying artworks, says Chatterjee, came from 1% of the funds allocated by the government for the construction of the TIFR building. That might seem like an insignificant sum today, given that works by these artists sell for millions of dollars in auctions. "But the art scene in India was very different then, with no galleries, few spaces to exhibit and very few buyers," says Chatterjee. "In that regard, Bhabha and the TIFR provided a very critical patronage to the artists many of whom would have turned to other things had it not been for them."
Bhabha's brother, Jamshed, was an important collector as well — but his interests ranged beyond art to everything from furniture to ceramics to rugs and silverware. After his death in 2007, these artefacts were bequeathed to the National Centre for Performing Arts, which he founded, and auctioned off in 2011-2012 by Pundole's auction house.
Unlike other Parsi families, who were among early collectors of art in Mumbai, the Bhabha brothers were first-generation collectors. "They had become interested in the arts when they were studying abroad," says Oindrilla Raychaudhuri, archivist at TIFR, "when they would visit museums and galleries."