Price of Precious: Understanding the value of art and objects in our lives with the Sarmaya Foundation
‘Price of Precious’ by Sarmaya Foundation, implemented by Flow India, was a first-of-it’s-kind engagement with material culture designed specifically for corporate audiences. With participants from the Indusind Bank, Mumbai, and Thomson Rueters, Bangalore, the sessions analyzed ways of defining what is valuable to us; allowing us to investigate the ‘precious’ in objects of the past; giving us tools to question how the value of ‘things’ is defined by private ownership to public perception to personal memories. The sessions were held in May-June 2016.
It was business as usual on a cloudy Friday afternoon at the sprawling facility of Thomson Reuters in Bengaluru. Except, that in a neat little conference room tucked away on the ground floor, there was a flurry of some unusual activity. 32 employees of Reuters had signed up for a workshop. Interest was high, suspense was higher. In the midst of all this, a group of people were unearthing large and tiny paintings, coins and artefacts, laying them on the white tables that crowded together at the back of the room.
What was it all about, one may ask. The Sarmaya Foundation, a single person’s passion for collecting art and antiquities, turned the whole idea of precious on its head. The big question of the day- What is the price of precious? What makes us value certain objects and memories over others? Why do we collect markers of memory? What bonds us to our past, present and future? These are not easy questions to answer.
We began the afternoon session with an interactive game that mimicked a looting scene. Every participant was asked to empty their pockets and hand over their objects. No, we were not really stealing their belongings, it was just a way to look at what we carry on our person and of these, what we value the most and least. Interestingly, participants mentioned wallets, ID cards, wedding rings as their most valuable possessions, although a few went beyond the materiality of these to talk about a chit of paper which has their kid’s first note or a family photo or a simple name card which talks of their identity. That brought us back to our question- why do we value what we do? Is it the inherent preciousness of its material, the price we paid for it, the memory it has associated with it, perhaps the rarity of the piece, the story and history behind it, or the fact that it speaks volume for who we are as people.
A short interactive presentation and a walkthrough introduced the participants to the collection. This was the first step to a blind bid, where the participants had to give a monetary value to the objects based on simply the basic information they read on labels. Questions started to pop up here and there, but this was strictly a blind bid, one where there is no revelation about the real nature and meaning of the object.
They wrote down their prices. Now came the startling bit- the reveal. Stories of 5 of the 8 objects put up for the bid were narrated. The select pieces were :
1) Town buildings and Cactus, a painting by FN Souza
2) Lion and Cub, a mithila folk painting by Satyanarayan Karn and Moti Karn
3) A silver Zodiac Coin (Taurus) issued by Emperor Jehangir
4) The Last effort and fall of Tipoo, an intricate engraving by H. Singleton, and
5) East Indies hand-drawn map of Deccan and Southern India, by cartographer Thomas Kitchin
One may wonder, what is so special in a story that can change the perception of value in someone’s mind? It was unbelievable truly; participants changed their values to a large degree especially for those they undervalued greatly on the blind bid. Does it matter to you if you know that is art piece was made by a tribal person, one who uses bamboo nibs and natural dyes on paper they douse with dung? How will you feel if you know that the artist whose work you just saw sold at 2 million pounds at a Christie’s auction? Will you crave a piece more if you find out that this is only surviving piece in the whole world?
Yes, there are many reasons why we change our perceptions to value and the most common ones are those of historicity, rarity, social issues which the object embodies, the material of the object, the people and the stories behind it, the provenance- meaning who owned the object in the course of its life and of course the cultural significance of the piece which makes it an invaluable treasure not only to personal but also in a public realm.
The culturally driven and deeply enthusiastic participants at Thomson Reuters were more than willing to answer these questions and arrive at their own conclusions which led us to finally understand the quote: “What is precious? not that which you see, which makes you feel good, which makes you feel rich and happy, but, which makes you believe, that being all of these would pale in front of the magnificence of what you hold dear to yourself.”
The Sarmaya Foundation is an endeavour to collect, showcase, and activate the power of markers of memories- paintings- folk & contemporary, photographs, coins, engravings, maps, and more- to connect India’s past, present, and future.