‘Husain was the walking, talking billboard for Indian art,’ says Arun Vadehra, whose Delhi gallery has been associated woth the artist since the early 1990s. As much as for his art itself, this was also true for the barefoot artist being market-savvy.
After abject poverty in the early 1940s following his father’s death, he had to drop out of a hard-won place in art college and take to billboard painting to keep the family fire burning.
Later, when he came into his own as an artist, he took to the role of a ‘market leader’ seriously. Several artists and gallerists tell tales of his ‘heartburn’ on hearing of a higher price for another artist’s works.
“His keen sense of competition with his peers was undeniable,” says art writer Kishore Singh. When he heard a Tyeb Mehta sold for a record sum, Husain declared he was selling 100 paintings to a private collector for Rs 1 crore each.
“It was later discovered that the buyer, Guru Swarup Srivastava, had no real connection with art, and that just a few of them ever got painted. I’d say it was a calculated marketing move,” adds Singh.
Prices were always on his mind. His friend, artist Ram Kumar, remembers: “He always used to joke to buyers, ‘Add another zero on the cheque’.”
While the zeros at home didn’t add up to all that much till the 1990s, Husain’s great leap was in selling to western buyers out of India. Virendra Kumar of Kumar Gallery, who had a monthly contract worth Rs 1,800 with Husain in the 1960s against which he got a few paintings, says, “I introduced him to New York-based publisher Harry Abrams in 1965. He published a monograph and, in return, took some of his paintings. Davida Herwitz, who worked for Abrams, liked the works. And her husband, leather exporter Chester, started buying a number of Husains.”
Husain introduced the Herwitzes to other artists, while maintaining his own price superiority. The Herwitzes came to own more than 3,000 works — one of the largest collections of Indian modern art in the world.
Will the artist, who crafted an unmistakable visual language of his own, stand the test of time?
A senior official of an international auction house says, “After the emotional reaction of the next few weeks, it will all be down to each work. His top works will always get top billing.”
To be sure, the zeros will keep adding.