I don't throw away anything," Neville Tuli confesses midway through this interview. It shows: there's stuff all over the two-storied house in Delhi's Vasant Kunj area where the founder of Osians auction house has recently moved in. There are paintings everywhere, each one of them distinctive.
Large sculptures line the short walkway and the strip of green outside (I can make out two pieces by contemporary artist Navjot Altaf, and a hemp work by Mrinalini Mukherjee, draped in plastic); the large entrance hall is divided into two by a late Qing dynasty automated Chinese toy; a very large tableaux in the bejewelled Tanjore style takes up one wall and further up, there are tall book cases filled with tomes on art, films and philosophy Tuli’s three main interests.
Filing cabinets of various dimensions, paintings, prints, and film posters on the wall; books on the floor, and objects d'art of all kinds are strewn on table tops it almost feels like a museum.
In a way it is. For this is Tuli's collection of arts and artifacts, antiques, books, and cinema memorabilia amassed over the past two decades of dealing in them.
All of it is now making its way into Theosianama.com, Tuli's latest online venture launched this Independence Day. Touted as "one of the world’s most comprehensive and integrated knowledge base on the Indian Arts, Books, Architecture, Culture and the worlds of Cinema", it is an ambitious project. But then, most of Tuli's past ventures have been so.
To recap there was Osians, which began its journey in 2000 as an auction house (the first desi one) of modern and contemporary art. In 2004, Tuli invested in Cinefan, a very popular and well-regarded festival of Asian and Arabic films. With the prices of Indian art on a bull run and much of the credit for it going to Osians, 2006 saw a burst of launches.
That year, Tuli signed a five-year title sponsorship deal for Durand Cup, India's oldest football tournament (he followed it up a year with buying the team New Delhi Heroes); he also bought Minerva, Mumbai's heritage theatre hall, intending to turn it into an arts and cinema destination; but the biggest launch of that year was Osians Art Fund, India's largest art fund which collected more than Rs100 crore from investors who were attracted by promises of 30% plus returns.
That was to be his nemesis. For, just two years later, and a year before the three-year close-ended Osians Art Fund was to mature and investors paid back, came the economic recession and prices of art tanked. The failure of the art fund is a well-known story and one that has been played out in the media.
The matter is now ith the Securities Appellate Tribunal after SEBI, the financial markets regulator, asked Osiand earlier this year to wind up the fund and pay back investors. So have the investors got back their money? "Oh yes, we have paid them much more than what was due," says Tuli.
Even Cinefan was jeopardised. It was not held in 2010 and 2011; it came back last year, but will not be held again this year. “We don’t have the resources or the mind space to curate the festival this year,” Tuli says, assuring in the same breath that it will “most likely” be back next year, with two instead of one, festivals one in January and another in August. “We also have a film club in the pipeline,” he promises.
In essence, Theosianama is an online version of what was to have come up at Minerva a resource centre and archive for the arts and cinema. Tuli, of course, rejects the suggestion of having scaled down his ambitions. “This is on a much larger scale. Also, Minerva was a small space. When you go online, the opportunities are exhaustive. The idea has been around since 1993, when right after I returned from the UK, I travelled through India,” he says.
It is these journeys, which took him to remote corners of the country in search of old monuments that were his initiation to the arts and India. He'd earlier been teaching at the London School of Economics, of which he is also an alumnus. The sad state of neglect and ruin in which he found these structures, which he copiously photographed, testified to the grand cultural and civilisational heritage that was now lost and needed to be regained.
His travels not just gave him a ground-level familiarity with India and added to his collection he bought three versions of a wooden replica made by craftsmen near a south Indian temple, and still has all of them but it also gave him his life’s idée fixe, that only a solid grounding in the arts could be the basis for India’s development.
And despite the “difficulty, failure, humiliation” of the last three years, Tuli does not seem to have given up on that belief or his ambitions. Theosianama, which he says is “the largest knowledge base ever shared anywhere in the world...on any subject”, is just one plank of his game plan for the next few years.
The site, which is still in its beta phase, will be complete late next year and linked to an arts’ education initiative called the Osians Learning Experience launched in 2009. The auction house too has been restructured and the first auction on rare cricket memorabilia is due on September 13.
Clearly, Tuli may be down but he’s not yet out.