The Good Life

Hidden Figures

Art connoisseurs discover timeless works by FN Souza, MF Husain, Ram Kumar and more ahead of Sotheby's' London auction

The golden glimmer of the ballroom at the Taj Mahal Palace welcomed the art-loving elites and socialites of Mumbai. This was going to be their only chance to admire some of the celebrated art of Indian legends, which had been adorning the walls of western royalties since they were painted. Dressed in black, the crowd gathered in circles while they regarded the 10 special paintings from a lot of Sotheby’s' upcoming London auction to be held on October 23.

The artists in question are the pioneers of modern art in post-colonial India. FN Souza, MF Husain, SH Raza and Ram Kumar were the attractions of the fine evening. It was overwhelming to see the thoughts of these progressives captured into timeless pieces on the canvas. They defied the traditional styles and rulebooks of their art schools to give a new identity to Indian art. These ideas were now hanging on a wall, restricted to a room, and gazed at by a flock of men and women who had gathered for a formal evening.

Souza’s untitled (Liturgical objects) from 1960 and Husain’s Fertility from circa late 1960s were the most expensive paintings on display. Liturgical objects is estimated to be between £250,000-350,000 while Fertility is estimated to fetch £200,000-300,000. On the face of it, Souza’s painting might appear to be just a group of religious vessels kept on an altar table in a church, drawn with strong geometrical shapes and bold usage of paints leaving little space for an art enthusiast to decipher what’s with the shape and the bright reds.

Ishrat Kanga, head of Sotheby’s London sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art explains how Souza’s strong desire to break free from his orthodox Catholic upbringing to live his life in his way influenced this style of painting where his angst comes out. “Although he has painted religious elements, he has completely removed the background of the church. He has given a modern cubist touch to these objects leaving little space for perspective. The same way how religion was thrown at him, he is trying to confront viewers with these objects,” Kanga adds. This painting was procured from a collector from Scotland and this is the first time it is going to be available to the public.

Husain’s Fertility, obtained from a Prussian collector, too, reflected his traumatic childhood following his recurrent themes of motherhood and lamps. Losing his mother at an early age, he was raised by his grandfather, a lamp maker, for the first six years of his life. ‘Master of oil-painting,’ like Kanga calls him, is justified through this piece of art. The perfect and quick strokes of paints, usage of symbolism and a bigger brush to paint the background (something representing his experience of painting Bollywood billboards) make for a holistic Husain experience. “These paintings are Souza and Husain in their highest forms at the peak of their careers,” says Kanga, justifying the price points of the pieces.

Yet another highlight of the exhibition was an untitled (Benaras Ghat) painting by Ram Kumar estimated to cost £60,000-80,000. Kumar’s paintings are currently in huge demand following his demise earlier this year. Sadly, people are looking at them as a great investment opportunity rather than a gem worth collecting.

Prices of paintings have risen dramatically over the past few decades, making South Asian collectors more focused on finding a good investment deal instead of a perfect piece of art, according to Kanga. Sotheby’s India’s MD, Gaurav Bhatia, however, is optimistic about the domestic art market. “With a stronger base and focus on cultural value, rather than purely fiscal, Indian art is seeing a sustainable resurgence. New exciting public and private initiatives are serving as building blocks for the Indian contemporary art scene. With private wealth continually increasing, newer collectors are coming into the market,” he says. Meanwhile, the Biennales, art fairs and private museums are adding a wonderful flavour, shaping the collector’s mind and giving them incredible exposure. Indian artists are being recognised internationally and institutionally.

Sotheby’s is all set to inaugurate its first annual auction Boundless in India on November 29 after setting its office here in 2016. It had previously conducted one in Delhi way back in 1992. Interestingly, this comes at a time when its rival auction house Christie’s called of its annual India auction two years back, just after conducting it for four years. Excited about his venture, Bhatia reveals, “In the past five years, the number of Indians across all Sotheby’s global sales have almost doubled. Indian clients have bought over $250 million of art over this period.  We have an increasingly growing base of collectors; in our most recent sales of Asian art in New York in March, 40% of buyers were new to Sotheby’s.”

Despite this rosy outlook, one cannot afford to miss the hiccups occurring in scaling up this market. Bhatia adds, "Not just Indian but the entire South Asian art is still young and needs nurturing. We need more public and private initiatives supporting arts, museums, reduction of GST to encourage art patronage and an ease on imports to bring back a lot of our treasures from the international markets.”

For the upcoming auction in India, art-lovers will be treated to some rare works by artists such as Tyeb Mehta, Arpita Singh, BV Doshi and sculptures by Prodosh Dasgupta. To curate these exhibitions and auctions, Sotheby’s not only sources the best works from the private collection of numerous collectors across the world but also extensively researches about the background of the artists and the stories behind individual paintings, which take around a year.

But who would readily want to part away with these rare gems gathered over decades? Kanga answers, “Often art collectors, over the years, observe a pattern in their collection. Sometimes, certain paintings don’t fit their collection anymore or they simply lose interest in them. That’s when they approach us.” The paintings at the Mumbai exhibition were in pristine condition, unassuming of the years they have been around, long after the death of its creators, thanks to the climatic conditions of the western countries, which apparently increases the shelf life. And now, they will be off to a new home.