Murakami in the house

A brunch at Antilla, a quick introduction to dandiya and conversations on art and turtles


There are homes, mansions and palaces, and then there’s Antilla, the soaring family home of Mukesh and Nita Ambani. Sweeping in scale, the 27-storey, 4,00,000 sq ft building may not be the city’s tallest, but it is certainly the most iconic. Last Sunday, I pulled into its plush driveway. At the entrance stood the iconic bright red Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture, one of the most recognised pop art images of the 20th century. How fabulous.

I was feeling art withdrawal pangs — I had major FOMO, missing the Samdani Art Foundation’s Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, wonderfully curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt — when an invite came from none other than Isha Ambani Piramal. It was for a brunch in honour of renowned artist Takashi Murakami, considered the face of Japanese contemporary art. It was his first trip to India.

As I walked into one of Antilla’s plush living rooms, with its huge double height windows, the first person I encountered was Murakami himself. “Hi, Takashi,” he said, disarmingly. Dressed in a camouflage green jacket, blue sweater, and army fatigue cargo pants, the 58-year-old sported a ponytail and a shaggy beard. He seemed delighted to be here. For Murakami’s benefit, the afternoon began with a dandiya performance. He clearly enjoyed the spectacle, whipping out his phone to take videos of the dance troupe and even sportingly hitting some sticks.

For those who can’t remember, Murakami became a global name in 2002 when designer Marc Jacobs, then helming Louis Vuitton, invited him to put his art on the house’s signature monogrammed handbags. It was a spectacular success and just the kind of pick-me-up the depressed economic climate of the new century needed after the catastrophe of 9/11. I lived in New York back then and remember the huge craze and waiting lists for those bags. And to think that buzz was before the advent of social media. The founder of ‘superflat’, a post Second World War Japanese art movement that draws inspiration from anime and manga, Murakami’s quirky, whimsical designs for Louis Vuitton were the kind of intervention that makes the collision of fashion and art so exciting. And he was Asian!

Now, 18 years later, here I was, telling him about our local art scene with its many positives (great art, growing interest, healthier market) but plenty of drawbacks (contemporary art viewed as elitist, not enough patronage, not enough institutional support). He listened attentively and didn’t speak much. His own company, Kaikai Kiki, nurtures and incubates emerging Japanese artists.

Murakami’s more recent collaborations — with Kanye West, Pharell Williams and Virgil Abloh — have bestowed upon him a rock star status. He’s one of a handful of artists with worldwide name recognition. His pieces fetch a lot of money at auctions (Sotheby’s sold his artwork My Lonesome Cowboy for $13.5 million in 2008) and he continues to push the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

Later, after a sumptuous lunch of South Indian, Gujarati and continental food, we had a Q&A with Murakami, culminating in a hilarious rapid-fire round conducted by Isha. Amongst other things, she asked him what he did for fun — he was flummoxed by the question — and about his pets (turtles and a fish who recognises him). As for India, he seemed seduced. “Artists are super geeks, all the time in the studio, but sometimes come out to the real environment, like now. I am getting a lot of information on this town,” Murakami said. “Many countries forget about history, they just transform to what is contemporary, like in fashion and culture, but here there is a very deep combination. It is fantastic.” Indeed it is.

This fortnightly column tracks the indulgent pursuits of the one-percenters.