Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lunch with BS: Neha Kirpal. The lucky outsider

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Feature in Business Standard, January 22, 2016

neha kirpal

One of the most influential people in Indian art, Neha Kirpal tells Sunil Sethi how she stumbled into that world and remains ‘one of the curious public’

Neha Kirpal is the woman of the moment, one of the most influential people in the Indian art world and, some would wager, anywhere. She is the managing director and founder of the eighth edition of the four-day India Art Fair (IAF) that opens in New Delhi on January 28. Spread over several pavilions, this year’s fair covers 20,000 square metres, with 85 exhibitors participating from around the world; each one pays Rs 22,000 a square metre for space though some, such as the Delhi Art Gallery, with customised 1,500 square metres, are designed to feel like mini-museums. With an expected footfall of 108,000 visitors at Rs 499 a full ticket, it is a busy, buzzing market and heady, happening, commercially successful, and logistically, not a small feat to create in a large, empty ground.
Over two weeks, German-designed, temperature-controlled, CCTV-monitored tents -with specialised flooring and lighting, elaborate parking, security and toilets – spring to life. There are pullulating bars, lively lounges, gourmet restaurants, rarefied discussions with artists, squadrons of trailing schoolchildren and corporate honchos shelling out top dollar to adorn their walls. This year, the IAF has appointed the super-cool Zain Masud, formerly of Art Dubai, as its international director. In the current issue of the fashion bible Vogue, she advises the smart set “how to spot the Souzas and Subodhs of the future – well, almost”.

The brains behind India’s biggest art hit, however, isn’t glamorous: no highfalutin talk, no Christian Louboutin heels mismatched with deliberate avant-garde chic of the type you spot in galleries of London, Paris or New York. Kirpal, art entrepreneur and exciting start-up story, is 35, and commutes between her unpretentious flat and functional office, often carting her three-year-old daughter along on the nanny’s day off. Her grandfather was a soldier, her father runs an organic farm, and her husband is an IT professional; she had the sort of middle-class upbringing – Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, followed by a marketing degree in London and a few years in Delhi’s PR firms – that did not mark her out as exceptional.

She was neither born rich nor had any claims to superior antecedents in art. Generations of well-mannered Defence Colony ingenues like her were steered by army families towards eligible young men for conventional matrimony. They weren’t groomed to run multi-crore businesses – not in the international art world, anyway – set up from scratch.

A charming text message – “Oops, which restaurant did you say?” – later, she’s at Ritu Dalmia’s first-floor Diva Cafe in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash, a mainstay of shoppers covered in Fabindia’s upholstery swatches, cotton napkins and accidental jars of pickle. She’s seated at a window table with a young assistant briskly taking notes, 10 minutes ahead of time.

The restaurant wears a Christmassy look and menu, and so does she: In cheerful red and white woolly jacket, she is clear-eyed, sparklingly funny and candid. The assistant evaporates as she helpfully explains, “When I worked with Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations as a dogsbody he would say, ‘Come ride with me’, meaning we can finish so much of the day’s agenda in traffic jams. I’ve never forgotten that!”

We decide to share a special of turkey roulade stuffed with chestnut and sage with pink peppercorns, cranberry sauce, creamy mash, wood-fired roasted vegetables and slices of honey mustard glazed ham. Out of politesse she orders a glass of mulled wine which, at the end of the meal I notice, she’s hardly sipped. The smooth, cheesy potatoes are so good the obliging waiter brings a second helping. He then literally over-eggs the pudding with a choice of complimentary desserts we never asked for. Santa’s gifts are late but lucky: Neha Kirpal and Ritu Dalmia are a double blessing on a bleary Delhi afternoon.

My guest starts with a confession: She was clueless about art. All her life she had walked through museums and art galleries in incomprehensible, unutterable wonder. Like the child with her nose pressed to display windows of tempting toy shops – mysterious but out of reach – “they represented a China Wall of wealth and privilege, not part of my world”.

“Museums were cold and intimidating, art galleries made me feel like an ignorant waif. After a while I began to think: Is something wrong with me – or with the art world? My family strived hard to give me a decent education: I was mad about Hindustani classical music; I was a state-level badminton player and also part of the under-19 national hockey team. Why did this world lock me out?”

Someone gave her a ticket to Frieze, the annual art fair in London. She came away dazzled but none the wiser. An abracadabra moment followed. On a domestic flight back from an assignment, she drew a marketing model for an art fair – “it was more diagram than plan” – on an air sickness bag and presented it to her boss at Hanmer MS&L. He believed in her and gave her a few lakh rupees to try her luck. So started the decorously-named India Art Summit (she was wary of calling it a fair) at Pragati Maidan in 2008, with 34 galleries, mostly local. Mumbai’s galleries cold-shouldered her. “They waited and watched but Delhi gave me the thumbs up.” When she buttonholed Shireen Gandhy – today one of her biggest supporters – of Mumbai’s hoary two-generation-old Chemould Gallery at Art Dubai, she was cut short in chilly tones with, “And who are you?”

In a few years she had given her employer such a healthy profit that she was able to buy him out. She and a couple of co-workers in a slummy office were maniacally managing phones and the media – plus licking invites -when, at Frieze 2010 in London, she ran into two Scotsmen, Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus, owners of 22 art fairs, the world over. They believed this convincing, plain-spoken charmer and injected 49 per cent funding into her business. They are silent partners; she owns the rest as sweat equity and controls the show.

Kirpal wears the title of IAF top boss lightly, with seven 30-something fleet-foots, who work round the year 24×7 (on improved premises, she adds), to produce an art event whose importance is matched by its burgeoning profile.

Like any savvy entrepreneur she is keen to stress the integrity of her business ethic over her rosy balance sheet: She has never transacted an art sale in her life, nor can any employee, for that would amount to conflict of interest or charges of insider-trading in a business riddled with stories of cartels, pelf and forgery. “Your associates have to trust you irreproachably.” IAF’s 14 partners this year include BMW, Pernod Ricard and JSW Steel.

We trickle down the stairs and Delhi’s odd-even car formula means I must forage for a cab. A BMW drives up (“I got a good deal on it,” she announces with childlike pleasure) and she offers me a ride home. On the way she says, “All I want to do is to make art publicly accessible, to make people’s life richer, creative and stimulating. I was a nobody and knew nobody in art. But I’m one of the curious public. I want to know about art – and I wear it like a badge of honour. You might say it’s a patriotic act.”

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