The Good Life

Bangla treasure

If you want to build a large collection fast, look to affordable Bangladeshi art before it becomes the next big thing

If at first it doesn’t make you wince, it would be laughable. Tayeba Begum Lipi is to Bangladesh what Bharti Kher with her bindis, or Subodh Gupta with his steel utensils, are to India — only, she uses safety razor blades to create works of art that dwell on issues of identity, gender and feminism. Those blades turn up in some quirky artworks, as an installation of bras, for instance, or in the form of a bed. As her razor-sharp work travels around the world, Lipi is on her way to becoming what Indian artists have been for a while — collectible.

Bangladeshi artists aren’t legion in India — yet. But as the country upped the ante with the first-ever Dhaka Art Summit, some of these neighbourhood artists are going to become more familiar names in the subcontinent. Shahabuddin Ahmed — Bangladesh’s most maverick artist, even though he’s Paris-based — is already a known name in, especially, Kolkata, where he visits regularly. His signature paintings of sinewed bodies are a bit familiar in India, though he’s a rage in his country of origin and there’s no denying his star status.

What's hot in Bangla art?

For a collector, the driving force is often the hope of striking a bargain. Bangladesh, in that respect, seems ripe for the picking. The currency alone helps — a rupee being almost 1.6 taka in value, Bangladeshi artists, languishing for a larger market, appear almost underpriced. The summit may have kindled hopes of a steep escalation in collectability, but for now prices are hardly on fire. For the price of an Indian artist, in rupees, a collector can acquire three, even four works by a Bangladeshi artist of equivalent seniority.

That’s because Bangladeshi artists are still rare on the auction block, and leaving aside very large works, it is possible to get the pick of the cherry at sub #10 lakh prices — a few Shahabuddin canvases, for instance, sold in India recently for around #5-6 lakh each; his peer and co-artist in Paris, Sakti Burman, would probably pack the punch for similar sized canvases at around #25-30 lakh each.

Nor is Shahabuddin the only star making waves (see: What’s hot in Bangladeshi art?). If anything, “Bangladeshi artists are getting a lot of international support for experimentation,” says Sushma Behl, who was one of the co-curators of Crossover, a coming together of artists from India and Bangladesh. “That’s because people all over the world are interested in Bangladesh.” For all that, picking winners isn’t easy. The Samdani Young Artists Award may help provide some direction but picking future stars is always tricky.

Indian collectors, therefore, might be more tempted to hedge their bets with the Bangladeshi masters. The biggie is Zainul Abedin, whose works are Bangladesh’s biggest treasure. Only problem is, like Jamini Roy in India, fakes of his work are in circulation. But works go abegging by other senior artists as well — whether prints, or drawings. The asking price by a gallery for small drawings by one such artist was a mere 20,000 taka. Allowing for some bargaining and the forex rate, and those works could have been mine at #10,000 each — a sweeter deal would be unimaginable in India. 