The Indian art world whipped itself into a lather in the early 1990s. The reason for the hullabaloo was an unknown Japanese collector who was buying up contemporary art in numbers. And in those dry years before global auctioneers had warmed up to contemporary Indian art, none could ignore Masanori Fukuoka.
Though he started buying art in 1991, it wasn't Masanori's first trip to India. Sitting in Delhi amid some drawings by Ved Nayar from his collection, Masanori says, "I first came in the mid-70s as a student of Buddhism." He started buying "first as souvenirs" and clashed with his father on the costs, which were funded by a fish processing business back home.
Back then Masanori found the Indian prices "unfairly low" compared to those in America and Europe. So he didn't haggle and made an effort to befriend some artists intimately. Ram Kumar remembers him coming into his house in Nizamuddin on some mornings and demanding, "Now give me breakfast."
Dadiba Pundole of Mumbai's Pundole Gallery, another early friend, says, "At first he didn't want advice and bought indiscriminately. It was great fun for some dealers and artists, but I didn't like it." Art writer Kishore Singh says, "The fact that he bought not only the well established artists gave the others a great boost and dignity." Pundole says Masanori learnt quickly from his mistakes.
Arun Vadehra of Delhi's Vadehra Art, through whom Masanori bought a few Tyeb Mehtas a decade ago at then-unheard-of prices, says, "He was, in fact, paying lower because he was buying in bulk." Nonetheless, Masanori's efforts buoyed the prices for artists such as Sakti Burman, Jogen Chowdhury and Akbar Padamsee.
In 1993, Masanori set up the Glenbarra museum in Himeji in southern Japan, mostly with works by 20-odd Indian artists. Then came a phase when he thought there was a "responsibility" to showcase more Indian art - so he bought "works I didn't like, too". Now he says he's again buying for himself. But, ironically enough, he finds the prices too high.
But the pleasure of it still lights up his shy face. "Even living in a garden you may not know what flowers are there… Then suddenly you discover something." That's the moment Masanori lives for.
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