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The Impressionables

Indian art is selling big these days. But does it have a vision of its own? writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2006 01:03 IST

Last week saw Indian modern and contemporary art fetching very fetching figures in two auctions in New York. On Thursday, the Christie’s auction gathered a whopping $ 15.6 million. Topping the 200 lots was the late V.S. Gaitonde’s 1975 untitled work, which went under the hammer for $ 1.47 million. A 1962 F.N. Souza untitled nude went for $ 800,000, followed in the monetary pecking order by S.H. Raza’s Tarangh (1975) that went for $ 744,000, Tyeb Mehta’s 1973 Blue Torso ($ 632,000) and M.F. Husain’s 1979 Sita Hanuman ($ 576,000).

Just a day earlier, the Sotheby’s auction raked in $ 13.6 million — well above the expected $ 10.7 million. The top lot was Raza’s 1972 Tapovan, which went for $ 1.47 million, followed by Mehta’s 1988 Falling Figure With Bird ($ 1.248 million), a work which is hugely inspired by Pablo Picasso’s famous Guernica.

While we’re all unreservedly delighted that Indian art and artists have been selling so well since the last few years, we also need to keep a reality check going. Our painters are undoubtedly skilled folk. But mostly — with honourable exceptions — they’re also the world’s biggest copycats. Especially the senior gang of painters that called themselves ‘Progressive Artists’ back in Bombay in the early Fifties. They were most embarrassingly (for us) ‘inspired’ by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and by art movements that were already old in Europe when they decided to be ‘progressive’.

If they’re selling well today, it’s because Pablo and Henri are long dead and no European artist would dare be as blatantly derivative as ours are. Besides, there has been no great idea in world art since Pop Art and Andy Warhol in the Sixties. Nothing that has changed ways of seeing, except for digital art — and let’s forget Damien Hirst for a moment, shall we?

Why shouldn’t our painters sell well? As far as ‘international’ buyers go, better a good imitation than a bad original. And how perfectly delicious to display a painter from ‘home’ if you’re Sir Ghulam Noon or Swraj Paul or a well-to-do doctor/lawyer of Indian origin who has spectacularly upgraded the South Asian identity abroad — from that of scrubbing bathrooms at Heathrow to one of sons in Eton, strawberries at Ascot and a house in Chelsea or Grosvenor Square.

The canny British (read Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and sundry galleries in central and south London) are not a nation of shopkeepers for nothing. They have a centuries-old knack of milking sentiment for money. With rich Indians pleased to decorate their homes with Indian canvases, it’s a short step between supply and demand and a giant leap for newspaper headlines. It’s a win-win for everybody because Indian art is now considered ‘good investment’. It should indeed remain so, as long as Indians continue to do well.

But Raza, worshipped as a god in India, is reportedly not part of any major collection in France, where he is domiciled for 30 years now. In all this time, he has apparently had just one show at the must-be-there Centre Pompidou in Paris, curated by his French neighbour, a lady who worked at the Pomp. Vishwanadhan, the other Indian painter long settled in France, is said to have made some good videos that were acquired by the Pompidou. But no canvases, which is what he’s written up for when he comes home.

Who bought Indian art cheap before it zoomed? For one, Eegje Schoo, who runs Schoo’s Gallery in Amsterdam and was Holland’s ambassador to India in the early Nineties. She’s said to be doing booming business, with affluent NRIs in Europe.

Meanwhile, gallery owners in Brussels, Paris and London say they’re shocked at Christie’s prices because Indian painters remain virtually unknown beyond the NRI circuit in the great art capitals of the West.

Take heart, then, from a drop in the ocean, from Fukuoka Masanori, a Japanese collector whose favourite Indian painter is Tyeb Mehta. And Jogen Chowdhury (distorted figures, naturally, additionally textured by the chik-chak of his ‘crosshatch’ technique). He is said to have stockpiled their work in his Glenderra Museum at Himegi in Japan.

And pay heed when ace collector Nitin Bhayana snaps that he wishes Indian journos would stop asking him about art prices and actually begin asking about art. Because, it’s easiest to fool the public when you’re writing about the visual arts. Half your spiel comes from the brochure and the rest from the artist/gallery owner. And the hype mounts.

Shall we just use our own eyes, instead?