The auction of Indian art and historical objects in the West invariably unleashes a torrent of nationalist sentiment from Indians both in India and here in Britain.
The fiercest passions tend to flare around heritage objects associated with Tipu Sultan, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.
That these men are also the three most recognisable symbols of India’s freedom perhaps says something about the emotional legacy of the struggle to achieve it.
In the past, such objects have been returned to India after being purchased by either wealthy philanthropic NRIs or the Indian government or a combination of the two.
So when Sotheby’s this week announced its upcoming sale of 12 rare paintings by Tagore, NRIs contacted the Indian High Commission in London, seeking New Delhi’s intervention.
They want the paintings — priced rather cheaply at £250,000 for the lot of them — to be purchased by the Indian government, taken back and displayed to the public.
There is a precedent. In 1991, New Delhi successfully bid for a bunch of original Tagore manuscripts — 58 signed poems, songs and prose compositions, a play and 115 autographed letters — at a Christie’s auction.
The move was initiated by the then High Commissioner to Britain LM Singhvi, who corralled New Delhi and a private tea company into a successful bidding team.
Whether there can be a repeat of that initiative this time around remains to be seen — but given the exponential growth of wealth in India since 1991, the estimate set by Sotheby’s makes the paintings immensely affordable.
The paintings were gifted by Tagore to his friend and associate Leonard Elmhirst in the 1930s. An agricultural scientist by training, Elmhirst was attracted by Tagore’s modernizing mission and helped set up a rural development centre in Santiniketan.
Elmhirst became its first director, and the ties between the two men deepened, straddling art, culture, science and farming.
When Elmhirst returned to England with his wealthy American wife Dorothy, they founded the Dartington Hall Trust after the fashion of Santiniketan in a beautiful part of Devon in 1925. It remains today a unique educational and arts institution linking India and Britain.
The trouble is that maintaining 1,200 acres of land and grand listed buildings is expensive to do — and the Trust, along with many large estates in Britain, is having to cut corners. The paintings were never part of its core Tagore collection and the proceeds from the auction would come in handy.
“I think the Elmhirsts would have said ‘yes’ to the auction — they would understand,” says Rita Cummings of the Dartington Hall Trust. She is emphatic too that the sale is not an attempt to erase out Tagore’s presence from Dartington Hall.
Thankfully, a stone tablet at the building’s entrance announces the Tagore link with one of his poems: "For here rolls the sea/ And even here lies the other shore/ Waiting to be reached/ Yes here/ Is the everlasting present/ Not distant/ Not anywhere else."