Eric Block

Alka Bagri on the Bagri Foundation ahead of ‘Tantra’ at the British Museum

For the last thirty years, the Bagri Foundation has quietly supported projects that promote Asian culture in the UK. While some of its partnerships are high-profile — it is the lead donor of the British Museum’s blockbuster Tantra exhibition — it also supports a variety of smaller projects for the visual arts, literature, music, dance, performance and lectures, and is now expanding its activities into other territories.

To mark its birthday, Trustee Alka Bagri spoke to The London Magazine about the foundation’s origins, its guiding spirit and the future.

Can you tell a little about the foundation’s origins?

The foundation was started by my father-in-law, Lord Bagri. He was a very philanthropic man, and would offer assistance to anyone he felt deserved help. Education has always been the most important part of all the Foundation’s activities from the beginning. While most of the earlier funding was around primary education and scholarships, it has now expanded to include the Arts with an underlying emphasis on learning.

It remains a family foundation, with the third generation involved in its running. We all share a spirit of curiosity, and every member of the team is driven by a desire to learn. This feeds into our mission to help realise unique, unexpected ideas that weave traditional Asian culture with contemporary thinking.

What inspires you personally?

Art is an extremely empowering force. I have read books, seen films, and experienced myriad artforms that have had a profound effect on me. Art has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and helped me to see the world through fresh eyes. What is the norm? What are the standard rules that are around you? Suddenly, a scene in a film, or a sculpture or a painting can shatter that norm. Art that affects personal change and encourages learning is what inspires me.

My own background is in visual arts, so I can relate to every project that we do and I want to enjoy the work we support first and foremost. Through the Foundation, I am able to meet people whose ideas spark debate or engage with key issues that affect society. Therefore, we always think about how the projects that we fund will impact people, especially the way they think about the world. I believe art should put you in doubt and it should challenge the status quo.

We believe that art can change the world. Its subtle power, and often its importance, cannot be measured.

What sort of projects do you go for?

Initially, I started with projects that were close to me – the arts of South Asia. But over time, with greater exposure to contemporary art through a very able team at the Foundation, I now tend to choose projects which are not based on familiarity, but rather on interest and learning opportunity.

We have a very democratic and collaborative way in which we choose our projects.

Sometimes, I come up with ideas and at other times my colleagues suggest things. There is no hard and fast way around any of this. We have a very large remit and cover a significant geographical area, and that was really by choice. I never wanted to just do things around South Asia. I find everything is connected. One form of art leads into another, the boundaries are so porous. I don’t want to be limited by boundaries, by religion, by creed, by caste, by any of that.

What sort of artists and organisations do you work with?

Anybody and everybody who is doing something incredible with an unique approach to the world. We work with a lot of artists and organisations at various levels. We like to ensure that our support is given at a crucial time in someone’s career or to a project when it can really make a difference. When we initially look at proposals, it’s not necessarily always about who is going to see it or what the audience will be like; it starts with something that we like, that we believe in. And when you have conviction, of the artist, of their works, of their thoughts and ideas, the audience will follow.

How do you see your role?

We are facilitators. When we commit, we do so 100 per cent. We are here for one reason, to make things happen. It’s really as simple as that, to support the ambitions of all the wonderfully talented people we work with and to help bring their projects to life. This and a desire to share our enthusiasm for learning and our passions with others is what guides and motivates us.

Alka Bagri with Master calligrapher Koichi Honda during an Arabic calligraphy course at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, 2016

Does your involvement end when you agree to a proposal?

Not at all, we take an active role once we agree to support the project.  First, the proposal has to resonate with us, it has to have integrity. And then from the minute the idea actually comes to an artist and organisation, to its final fruition, we are there all the way, in the beginning, in the middle and at the end. We are a small but very hands on team, and we get involved at every stage with our partners.

Tell me a little about how that works.

We attend many different events, exhibitions, festivals, concerts and so on. Sometimes you just connect with something immediately. I’ll come back, or my colleagues will come back, saying, ‘We just saw this really wonderful performance or exhibition’, and perhaps we will then approach those people to see if there is a possibility to work together. We do not hesitate from going up to artists, if we really like their work, and say, ‘We love what you do, how can we help?’

Other times, projects come to us. We go through them independently and then we have a meeting. It’s with my team at the first level, and then we sift through what we like; then it goes to the other Trustees.  Then it’s a matter of discussion: how we will be able to manoeuvre through these projects, what the overall programme looks like, how can we help make it the best possible outcome. That’s how we do it.

For me particularly, it’s about the creative process.  Once we sign up to a project, I really like to spend time with the artist. As a team we go to their studios, we sit, we talk with them, we really like to understand how a small idea actually develops into a concrete form. And that is what I get the most excited about. I am really interested in technique, just to see how it all comes together.

It is a great privilege for me personally to participate in this process, bring ideas to fruition, and then to provide assistance that enables others to share this experience.

It’s really important that the boundaries between art and the audience and the whole artistic journey is completely blurred. To become part of somebody else’s journey is so enriching, it expands you. We have really been fortunate that all the people that we have worked with have included us in their journeys, and that’s been a very humbling experience.

How do you see the Foundation developing in the future?

The world is changing very fast, and we want to have a finger on the pulse while still embracing the importance of our past. Our endeavour is always to look ahead, to take from what is changing, and yet have our foundations very firmly in values that have been passed down to us. I always include my two daughters in all the projects we propose, as I want to see how the next generation is thinking, how they react and respond to the world. One day, when I retire, I would very much like both my daughters to take it forward, so it is key that the Foundation proceeds in a way that remains meaningful for future generations.

We also plan to expand the work more internationally, too. Bringing cultural partners together across continents and encouraging artistic dialogue beyond borders is important to a more open and understanding society. The more we embrace other cultures around the world, the better we understand ourselves. This remains at the centre of our mission to promote learning through art.


      Dr Alka Bagri is an Indian born Art Historian. She initially studied Art History of Asian civilisations and received her MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in Indian Art and Philosophy. She then progressed to a DPhil at Oxford in Indian Miniature Painting, a subject on which she has lectured for several years at SOAS.

Alka studied Islamic Geometry, Arabic Calligraphy and Sumi-e paintings at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts and travels to Japan regularly to study the art of Kinstsugi.  She has also been learning Arabic calligraphy for several years. Alka is a former Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

In recent years, Alka has dedicated her time to increasing the profile of the Bagri Foundation through spearheading partnerships with institutions such as the British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Science Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. She is passionate about oral cultures, world cinema and the performing arts and aims to make art meaningful to contemporary audiences. She is fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit.

Tantra: enlightenment to revolution opens 24 September 2020– 24 January 2021
The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, British Museum, London

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