By Madhusree Chatterjee
In 1766, when James Christie, the founder of the British auction house Christie’s, held his first-ever auction of international art on a chilly December evening, four Indian paintings featured in the first official lots on sale. It took the auction nearly 246 years to make landfall on Indian shores with its first ever India-specific auction on Indian soil after centuries of having treated the country as a distant observer — while putting its art treasures under the hammer.
“The moment is right now – India’s moment in the world. Connoisseur understanding has evolved quickly about India art in the last five decades. People know what stands out. We are happy that it is India’s moment in the world,” Hugo Weihe, the international department head of Indian and Southeastern Asian and Modern Contemporary Indian Art, told this writer at a preview of the Christie’s Dec 19 auction at Mumbai.
The auction to be held at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai will offer 83 lots on sale – of which works by six Indian artists are “national treasures” which cannot be sold outside the country. The artists are Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher-Gil. The national art treasures will feature in addition to the “personal collection of Indian contemporary art from the estate of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, one of the earliest promoters of Indian contemporary art in Mumbai. The Gandhy collection – spanning nearly five decades — will form the core of the collectibles at the auction.
“Indian art, Indian cultures and Indian curations are in demand abroad. We have been watching more and more museums around the world build Indian contemporary collections and hosting retrospective exhibitions of Indian contemporary masters. The Guggenheim Museum in New York will unveil a solo exposition of Indian contemporary pioneer V.S. Gaitonde in 2014,” Weihe said.
The exhibition, “V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life (In the fall of winter 2014-2015) will put together 30 major paintings and 10 paper works drawn from public and private collections across India, Europe and US to present the evolution of the artist as a water colourist inspired by Paul Klee to an oil-painter with a profound worldview inspired by Oriental mysticism.
“We are really looking to opening people’s eyes with the auction. You have the Tagores (Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore), the greatest of all the renaissance men in the country. Their works are still so affordable to collectors — still their significance has not been overstated. Let us wake up and embrace it,” Weihe said, explaining the greater objective of the sale beyond “immediate” business.
Weihe describes Tagore as the “auteur” that Asia was looking to — as the connecting thread to the continent’s artistic and literary sensitivities. “Rabindranath Tagore travelled all over the world opening a two-way street. He reached out to the world and brought the world to India,” Weihe said. The auction was an attempt to rediscover the sub-continent’s “own heritage and also to find a new heritage at the same time with focus on countries like China and Japan— and how it was linked to countries like Pakistan”. “We are trying to go beyond the boundaries of south Asia to present a greater and inclusive picture of India to Asia and world – to forge two-way linkages,” Weihe said.
The lots reflect the historical approach and pan-Indian of the journey of contemporary Indian art – and its global influences. An untitled canvas of “absurd birds” in ink and poster colour by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore from his “animal” series is an insight into the beginning of abstract expressionism in Indian modern art pre-Independence that virtually began at Jorasanko – the ancestral home of Tagore in Kolkata —and later travelled to Shantiniketan to be honed by generations of students at Kala Bhavan (the art school at Visva Bharati) and artists who worked there.
Art for Tagore was a spillover of his literature that began to acquire a life of own on the doodles on the pages of his written words — where he substituted scratching and overwriting with ink stained drawings so that the mutilations resembled abstract forms. The poet continued to doodle for nearly two decades before ne picked up the brush to paint at the age of 64 to coincide with his “Purabi” series of poetry. It was the icon’s last lap of creative expression that earned his fame as a modern master posthumously. He was known for his bleak expressionist landscapes and “ovoid feminine figures” dominated by heads inspired by his mother and sister in-law Kadambari Devi, both of whom died during his formative years.
The birds together with “untitled” painting of a Oriental style ornamental bird by Abanindranath Tagore and “shadowy water portrait of a women on the stairs – combining aspects of European impressionism and expressionist elements” in black and ochre — bring to light how then contemporary European art helped the Bengal masters script a new artistic idiom.
Two other important works at the auction includes an oil painting of an untitled “Hungarian Church” by one of the early women contemporary master Amrita Sher-Gil, who combined European expressionism of the early 20th century with traditional Indian practices and iconography later. The artist, who died young, painted the Church – with a red gabled tiled roof —was painted in 1932 when the artist was training with Lucien Simon at the Ecole Nationale Des Beau Arts in Paris.
But it is around the Kakoo and Khorshed Gandhy’s collection (the former founder owner of the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai) that the auction house has built its “sale awareness” and outlook to contemporary Indian art. The Gandhy couple beginning late 1940s had supported almost “all the pillars of the Mumbai Progressive artists” who were trying break out of the European confines to embrace Indian artistic language in a new way — for a more contemporary global look. The brood comprised heavyweights like V.S. Gaitonde, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain, Ram Kumar, F.N. Souza and Akbar Padamse.
The auction house has a long association with the Gandhy family since it opened its Mumbai office in 1994. But Weihe’s personal friendship with the Gandhy clan of Mumbai dates back to the “days when he worked at the Reitberg Museum in Switzerland where he met Kekoo Gandhy’s psychologist daughter Rashna, who was married to a Swiss painter”.
“Rashna told me if I ever went to India to acquire or research Indian art, I should meet her father. The friendship blossomed over the years till Kekoo Gandhy’s death last year when the family to let the collection on sale,” Weihe said. It was the perfect starting point for the Christie’s auction.
The auction house has larger map after Dec 19 auction. “It will be an annual event but we are looking at smaller sales. The immediate on the list is a sale of antiquities. We are considering it. We sell Indian, Nepalese, Himalayan art and antiquities abroad. But we have never sold them on the Indian soil. Buddhism binds antiquities in Himalayan and south Asian region — we want to draw buyers from southeastern Asia and China,” Weihe said.
Other collectibles that the auction house pins its “business hopes” in India include wine, jewellery, watches and old books. “We have been seeing a growing number of Indian buyers at wine and watch in Asia. The new segment of buyers here are keen to acquire luxury collectibles and lifestyle-related antiquities,” a top Christie’s official said.
In the last decade, the auction market in India has witnessed a phenomenal growth “with record buys” of art works even in the domestic circuits and as well in the international market. Rising relative disposable incomes despite the economic slowdown, price corrections and hand-holding exercised to walk new buyers through the “steps to build new collections” have lent new life to buying art as collectible and “as investment”. An analysis of the Indian auction market says the first-time buyers in the age group of 35 to 50 have logged a steady rise.