In the downstairs section Umesh and Sunanda Gaur’s home, an impressive and eclectic collection of contemporary Indian photographs is meticulously hung on the walls of their private art gallery, Bindu Modern. For more than three months, students in Professor Deborah Hutton’s Photography in India art history seminar researched the photographic artwork featured in the Gaurs’ extensive art collection, which the Gaurs have been building for four decades. The collection is a journey that the couple fell into when Umesh Gaur bought a poster of an artwork to hang in his dorm room as a college student. Since then, the collection has grown to one of the most impressive private Indian painting and photography collections in the region.
When the Gaurs learned Hutton – currently the only Art History professor teaching in New Jersey who specializes in Indian art – would be teaching a class on the history of Indian photography, they quickly invited her class to visit a new photography exhibition they were getting ready to open in their home gallery.
“Seeing art in person is always great,” said Hutton. “Meeting collectors and seeing what draws them to art is even better.”
Hutton first brought her students to visit the Gaurs’ collection towards the beginning of the spring 2016 semester. During that visit, the Gaurs shared with the students their knowledge of the various photographs in the collection, and each of the students picked a piece to study independently over the course of the semester.
“It was the first time I’d gone to an actual art gallery,” said Pratik Pathak ‘18, a biology major. “It’s a completely different experience seeing the actual picture printed out versus seeing it in a catalog.”
Some photographs in the exhibit are visceral and inspiring, captivating viewers with stunning aesthetics. Others are overtly political, challenging norms and expectations while engaging the viewer in a conversation where questions outnumber answers.
“I’ve never researched art before, so it was really interesting to see why [the artist] made the decisions he made and printed the photo the way he did, the size, etc.” Pathak said.
After hours spent researching each of their photos, the students returned to the Gaurs’ in May to present their findings on the history and meaning of the photographs. In turn, the Gaurs shared their knowledge of Indian photography, sprinkling in stories from the artists in the collection with whom they have built lasting relationships.
“It’s been really insightful,” said Madeline Walsh, ‘17, an art history major who plans to go to graduate school to study the repatriation of art. “They know the artist I selected personally, so that’s a connection I wouldn’t have been able to make anywhere else.”
It’s rare for students at this stage in their education to work so closely with art collectors, especially with the amount of access the students have been given to both the collection and the Gaurs themselves.
“To both think about why the Gaurs are interested in the work and to have all the historical context, it’s really interesting and leads to a much richer understanding of the collection as a whole,” said Rob Handerhan ‘16, a history major.
Hutton says she hopes this experience will leave her students with a broader and deeper view of the art world.
“For students to see people who have careers [outside the art industry] but art is still a really important part of their life is a good experience to show the role that art can play,” said Hutton.