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Passage to India

By: Sallie Brady

Photo courtesy Robert Palomba S.H.Raza, Five Elements, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

A long lunch is ending on a short autumn day, as late sun streaks the dining room of London’s Chelsea Arts Club, where two monuments of Indian art are catching up on a decade spent apart. Syed Haider Raza, 88, and Maqbool Fida Husain, 94, go back 60 years to 1940s Bombay, where they pioneered modern painting in India. Their most recent works are hanging together again, first at a preview at Art London and then at a major exhibition in December, and the occasion is worthy of a reunion. The conversation inevitably travels back to their salad days—who is dead and who is still alive, who is working and who isn’t and who are the young artists they are watching. Today the works of Raza and Husain routinely hammer six-digit sums and hang in collections around the world. Traditionally, it’s been the Indian diaspora who has collected Indian modernists, but increasingly their works are being snapped up by Western, Japanese and Middle Eastern collectors.

Modern painting took hold in India in the 1940s, a decade that saw dramatic changes on the national front when British colonial rule ended and the country was partitioned violently into India and Pakistan. Starting at the turn of the 20th century nontraditional painting styles in India had begun to drift from those taught by the Royal Academy-like art institutes—such as the Sir J. J. School of Art—that the British established in the 1850s. While admiring of traditional Indian miniatures, murals and decoration, the British considered them craft, not art. The ethereal paintings of the Bengal School and its leading artist, Abanindranath Tagore, represented one of the first breaks from British tradition.  By the time that the war years rolled around, Indian artists, particularly in major cities such as Calcutta and Bombay, had been exposed to international modernists and were playing with the colors of Kandinsky and the Cubist forms of Braque and Picasso.

It was fitting then, that almost simultaneously with Indian independence in 1947, a rebellious young art student, Francis Newton Souza, recruited fellow artists Raza, Husain, Sadanandji K. Bakre, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Hari Ambadas Gade to form the Progressive Artists Group, which would boldly move Indian art in a new direction, reacting against what Souza called the “pretty-pretty paintings,” and  “awful crap,” that he saw coming out of the art schools. The founders were joined a few years later by other artists who are now synonymous with the movement, among them Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar.

Exhibited in Bombay for the first time in 1949, the group’s work was panned. The critics called it not just derivative but downright imitative of European painters—an objection that still crops up today. Collectors of Indian modernists, such as Rajiv Chaudhri, an investor and partner in the Green Machine Fund, who has loaned a portion of his New York collection to one of the nation’s rare exhibitions devoted to modernists, Bharat Ratna: Jewels of Modern India, on view through mid-August at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, repeatedly makes the point that growing up in a multicultural country with 26 languages, the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist faiths and multiple castes, it’s as natural as breathing for Indians to absorb other cultures and make them their own. Some of the Progressives would spend much of their lives assimilating other cultures, after they emigrated from India to live in France, Britain and New York.

Chaudhri says there are multiple reasons why Indian modernists have been underexposed and misunderstood. “The problem is that modern India has not taken art seriously. You don’t see any money coming from the state, there are few museums and there hasn’t been any great scholarship on the period.” Yamini Mehta, Christie’s head of Indian modern and contemporary art, agrees. “There wasn’t a way to study this area; there were no courses. The auction houses have been doing original research for many of these works, creating documentation and building archives.” Many Indian modernists did not keep records of their work, and most paintings are not dated. Auction catalogue entries typically list only the painter’s birth and death dates. “It’s largely been up to private collectors,” says Chaudhri, “to share modern Indian art with the world.”

Many Indian collectors who do so have also had the experience of personally knowing the artists who they collect. Indeed, the longevity and colorful lives of some of these painters only add to their allure. Today Raza and Husain are survivors who have outlived the moniker “contemporary,” and are now masters.

S.H. Raza (Indian artists are frequently referred to by their first initials rather than their full names), who has lived in France for the past 50 years, returning to India for winters, is regal and perpetually well-coiffed, sartorial perfection in an Yves Saint Laurent suit. As an art student in Bombay before joining the Progressives, Raza continuously studied Indian spirituality and Sanskrit texts, despite living abroad with his French wife, who died recently. His early work frequently depicted fractured abstract landscapes of the subcontinent in rich Indian jewel tones. One of them, La Terre, set an artist and a category record for Indian art in 2008 when it sold for $2.5 million at Christie’s London. “I love India and I love painting European landscapes,” says Raza, “but I needed 30 years to master the art of painting before I came to a personal style, which includes Indian concepts and iconography.”

His latest two-year body of work—which he says is his last—went on view in London in December, when Tanya Baxter Contemporary and Kings Road Galleries mountedThe Five Rays of Raza, a series of color-blocked geometric paintings that laser into a central bindu. The dealers and the artist hope that the collection stays together and eventually ends up in a museum in India.

M.F. Husain is still the outsized character who spent part of his life in the Indian film industry painting everything from massive outdoor advertising boards and sets to making Through the Eyes of the Painter (1967), which won the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear award. A true showman, he leaves lunch in a trilby topping his snowy mane and flowing beard, with a paintbrush-cum-walking stick in hand, and his signature bare feet (he claims that abjuring shoes is the secret to his eternal youth). His two-door Rolls Royce coupe and driver are waiting. Husain loves cars, but doesn’t drive. Jetting from Dubai, where he is working on a commission to create glass horses for the Qatari royal family’s Modern Arab Art Museum, set to open in 2011, to Mumbai, to London, where he shared the December exhibition with Raza, to New York, he still possesses the energy that fills his cinematic canvases. In New York, he says, he was just finishing several paintings, and took over a friend’s apartment to do so. Ever the gypsy, Husain can’t be bothered to keep studios—he finds them as he goes along. “Each day unfolds for me like a magic box,” he says. “It’s this awe and amazement that keeps me going. Even at this age. And I am able to draw inspiration from everything under the sun, no matter how small.”

With a flair for the dramatic the artist timed his appearance at Sotheby’s South Asian modern and contemporary art sale in September (which just happened to be on his birthday), to the appearance of lot 12, one of his works, on the block. The auctioneer suspended bidding, and the salesroom broke into a chorus of Happy Birthday. The Untitled painting (est. $8,000–12,000) made $250,000. In 2006 the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which has modern works in its extensive India collection, mounted Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain. This month Christie’s is selling one of the artist’s coveted 1970s Horse paintings (est. $280,000–350,000). The horse is an autobiographical, masculine image that repeats through Husain’s work.

Despite his showmanship, collectors are quick to note Husain’s keen intellect. Yogesh Mehta, a London collector who is close friends with the artist and owns dozens of his works, says, “His knowledge of Hindu and Western religions is phenomenal.” The Muslim painter, whose controversial depiction of nude Hindu goddesses has spawned protests, also paints Christian icons. His most recent works, on view with Raza’s exhibition, are serigraphs of Mother Teresa. The Catholic missionary is not a new subject for the painter. Chaudhri recalls that when he purchased Untitled Mother Teresa, a dramatic 1970s abstract triptych that spans the entrance of his Central Park West penthouse, he commented to Husain how much it felt like Michelangelo’s Pietà. “Husain started smiling and said, ‘My mother died when I was four. I was brought up by a foster mother, and that is what Mother Teresa is to so many.’”

Souza, the Progressives’ founder, was raised Catholic in the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Expelled by the Jesuits for drawing what they considered pornography, the artist was a hell-raiser for most of his career, challenging authority and working out his frustrations with Catholicism in female nudes that were shockingly raw for the times. After two of his canvases were removed from a Bombay exhibition for obscenity in 1949, he left India for London, where he fell in with the art crowd, showing with Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. His marriage to a 17-year-old in 1967 didn’t win him any fans, however, and hounded by the tabloids, he left London for New York. There he dissolved into drink, spending much of his time in bars on the Lower East Side. Souza returned to India before dying in 2002.

Pointing to Standing Nude in his living room, a massive vertical canvas of a fiery woman, Chaudhri says, “Souza was madly in love with every woman he met, and of course, they would scorn him. He painted this for himself, and although critics say that by 1962 he was too drunk to have drawn a straight line, you can see this was painted in a frenzy and it’s dated ’62.” Souza’s Birth set a record for the artist and tied Raza’s record for the category in the same 2008 sale at Christie’s London, selling for $2.5 million.

Mehta, who joined the Progressives in 1949 after working in Bollywood as a film editor and studying at a British art school, has proven to be one of the most blue-chip of modern masters. In 1959 he moved to London and then to New York. A 1965 visit to the frontlines of India’s war with Pakistan would change him forever. Thereafter, the precise painter, who was a Shiite Muslim, began producing his now-iconic split, fallen figures of humans, birds, bulls and Hindu deities.

Less prolific than his peers, with a total of about 500 works—he destroyed many that he deemed of poor quality—the humble artist who lived a modest life in Mumbai made front-page news throughout the country when a Japanese collector paid $317,000 for Celebration, a triptych, at Christie’s New York in 2002 (est. $100,000–150,000). It was the first time that a contemporary Indian work had crossed the $100,000 mark. In 2005, when Mahishasura sold at Christie’s New York for $1.6 million (est. $600,000–800,000), it would again be Mehta leading the record books with the highest price ever paid for a living Indian artist, crossing the $1 million threshold for the first time. Now his paintings routinely top that, including anotherMahishasura that sold at Christie’s New York in September for $1.2 million (est. $600,000–800,000); and Falling Figure With Bird, bought by Chaudhri for $1.2 million (est. $800,000–1 million), at Sotheby’s in 2006. That painting is now showing at the MFA Boston.

This month Sotheby’s is selling an early Untitled Mehta oil from 1959 (est. $100,000–120,000) that comes from the Emanuel Schlesinger collection. Schlesinger was an Austrian emigre who became a patron of the Bombay art community when he fled Nazi-controlled Europe. He lived there until his death in 1968. The auction house is selling 12 pieces from the collection.

Mehta died in Mumbai in July 2009. “The last time Tyeb Mehta was in New York with this wife he went off to MoMA,” says Anu Ghosh-Mazumdar, Sotheby’s worldwide director for Indian art. “That was always his favorite day in New York—a day at MoMA.”

Gaitonde is another artist who has crossed the $1 million mark. One of his dreamy abstract landscapes, Untitled, sold at Christie’s New York for $1.5 million in 2006. Influenced by Kandinsky, Miro and Klee, his distinctive watery paintings have a quiet beauty that differs greatly from the works of his colleagues. As one collector says, “Gaitonde paints the vision one sees through half-closed eyes of meditation.”

Original Progressive S.K. Bakre is still alive and working in India, as are Padamsee, Kumar and Khanna. Their works and those of their deceased colleagues continue to be strong at auction and will likely increase in value. At times it’s hard to remember that the Indian market is still, in some ways, in its infancy. It wasn’t until 2004, when India’s more liberal economic policies began to open up the country to international investment, that the auction houses moved in. The first important sale was Sotheby’s New York dispersal of the first portion of the Chester and Davida Herwitz collection in 1995, which totaled $1.2 million. (The Herwitzes were Americans who frequented India and built up a collection of local artists’ works.) Christie’s held their first contemporary Indian sale in London in 1995.

In 2000 Saffronart, the global online modern and contemporary Indian art auction house, went live with its first sale. “We sold $126,000 in art and we thought that was amazing,” says Minal Vazirani, Saffronart’s founder and president. “The Indian art market would then grow 75 times from 2000 to 2006—that year we peaked, selling $17 million in one auction.” Saffronart’s bidders span the globe from Mumbai to Dubai to London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. The auction house also has Indian jewelry sales and galleries that mount exhibitions in Mumbai, London and New York. Their first $1 million painting—Souza’s Lovers—was sold online in December 2005, and a Gupta sculpture sold for $1.8 million in 2008.

The profile of the Indian art collector is also changing: Charles Saatchi, François Pinault, Bernard Arnault and Steve Cohen are among those who have been adding Indian pieces to their collections. “Bob Geldof was here this morning,” says Tanya Baxter from her gallery in London. “He was pricing Husain’s Mother Teresa series.”

Increased exposure to Indian artists is also likely to pique buyers’ interest. Walk through the lobby of New York’s freshly renovated Pierre, which is now owned by India-based Taj Hotels, and you’ll see works by the great modernists hanging throughout the lobby: Raza, Husain, Souza, Gaitonde, all pieces from the extensive collection of the Tata family, who own Taj. Next year an exhibition of Indian contemporary art will be held at Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Susan Bean, curator of South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum, is working on a major Progressives show that will tour the United States in the near future, and New Jersey-based private collector Umesh Gaur is doing the same. Anyone who is Art Basel-bound in June will be able to shop at five Indian galleries that are showing there this year. And with Husain turning 95 this fall, Mehta would like to mount a celebratory birthday exhibition. “The problem with Husain,” he says, “is finding the time.”

Young India
It’s very likely that the names of some contemporary Indian artists are more recognizable than those of India’s modern masters. Some have burst onto the scene with such force that, love them or hate them, you will not forget them. Anish Kapoor’s fall 2009 show at London’s Royal Academy broke records for attendance, and on the final Friday, when the viewing was extended to midnight, the snaking line in the bone-chilling cold was hours long. In New York Anish Kapoor: Memory was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum and continues to be on view until March 28.

Suboph Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Natasha Kumar and Rashid Rana (who was born in Pakistan) are among other names you’ll see performing well in contemporary auctions and on view in upcoming exhibitions. “There’s a whole generation of artists who were born after 1958 who can still be undervalued,” says Yamini Mehta, Christie’s head of modern and contemporary Indian art. The shakeout of speculators in the overall contemporary market also hit Indian art, with prices realized now returning to reality.

Where Three Dreams Cross: A contemporary Indian photography exhibition
Whitechapel Gallery, London
Through April 11

The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today
Saatchi Gallery, London
Through May 7

Blowhorn: Signs and Life in India,
A solo exhibition by Natasha Kumar
Asia House, London, March 4–17

RL Fine Arts, New York

Saffronart, New York and London
212.627.5006; 44.20.7409.7974

Sundaram Tagore, New York

Tanya Baxter Contemporary
and Kings Road Galleries, London

Author: admin | Publish Date: March 2010

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