A record-breaking tale on canvas

Sep 21, 2023 08:39 PM IST

Amrita Sher-Gil’s The Story Teller has become the most expensive Indian artwork to be auctioned. It tells more than the story of her Indo-European influences.

At an auction held by Saffronart on September 16, in New Delhi, Sikh-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s The Story Teller fetched a record 61.8 crore. This made history by being the most expensive Indian artwork to ever be auctioned. “The work broke multiple world records, making it the highest value work of Indian art sold at auction worldwide and creating a record for the highest value achieved for a work by the artist in auction globally,” states the press release issued by Saffronart following the auction.

Amrita Sher-Gil, The Story Teller, 1937 Oil on canvas, 23.25 x 29.25 in((Image courtesy of Saffronart)) PREMIUM
Amrita Sher-Gil, The Story Teller, 1937 Oil on canvas, 23.25 x 29.25 in((Image courtesy of Saffronart))

The record was previously held, for less than a month, by SH Raza’s Gestation being auctioned for the price of 51.75 crore (including commissions) by Pundole Art Gallery on August 31. It's been a significant couple of months for modern Indian art as records were also set for the works of S Nandagopal, Antonio Piedade da Cruz and KK Hebbar, at the Saffronart Evening Sale.

Sher-Gil’s works have been auctioned 84 times before, with the earliest recorded one in 1992, of Village Group by Sotheby’s. She has been classified as one of the nine National Art Treasures in the country and her work cannot be exported.

“Finally, a woman is at the top of the Indian art world. It also proves that there is a lot of strength in the Indian market, and people see value in it,” Dinesh Vazirani, CEO, Saffronart, told HT about the sale.

Further, noting her contribution to modern Indian art, Rajeev Lochan, former director of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), which houses a large collection of her work, says, “At her centenary celebrations in 2013 held during my tenure, as the then Head of the National Gallery of Modern art, Ministry of Culture, she was acknowledged and celebrated as an ' Iconic personality ' by the UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris for both, her creative genius and her enigmatic persona”.

The painting and its influences


The Story Teller, painted in 1937, is significant, as it is among the few works that the artist created outdoors (en plein air), and displays a confluence of European and Indian styles. “You can see the distinct Indian influence of Basohli miniatures (the Pahari school of miniature painting), and of Ajanta. The use of Indian yellows and reds is visible, too,” says independent writer and curator Girish Shahane, adding that the ‘rarity’ of such work in the artist’s oeuvre, is also a factor in the interest it generates at auctions.

The Story Teller was painted in October 1937 in Simla. Yashodhara Dalmia, art historian, and independent curator, in her book Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, says that the work, as part of her outdoor series, saw a shift in style from monumental works towards the miniature style of painting. It was the first time Sher-Gil painted animals that then became a part of her oeuvre. Her following work, Siesta also featured a rural scene with a group of women. Through published letters from the time, the book describes in detail, this period of turmoil where the artist remained disengaged from life and social activity but continued to paint.

The oil-on-canvas, which was first exhibited in Lahore in November 1937, features a group of women, and cows, indulging in a typical village scene. “Traditionally, artworks featured groups of men, with a woman in the background. Here, women occupy the main space, and there is a man visible in the background. This reversal is quite interesting to me,” says Shahane.

“With her academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Amrita managed to synthesize the Indian spirit along with a sound understanding and appreciation of Indian miniature painting. This amalgamation forms the core of her deeper search and understanding of the visual arts of our country, to formulate a new language of expression,” explains Lochan, adding that The Story Teller is one of the few paintings that is an ‘expression of her lived reality in India in form, colour, and context’.

Both auctions (of The Story Teller and Gestation), Shahane believes, establish firmly, the relevance of the Indian art market. “The broader the market, the better it is. But it would be great if this rally doesn’t end with 20 artists and goes on to include more, especially living ones,” he says.

The Story Teller, painted at a crucial juncture in Sher-Gil’s life, was a culmination of her artistic influences, both European and Indian, much like her lineage. It features a group of women, another recurring image from her work during the period. It has been described as one of her most honest and expressive compositions. Besides its important place in India’s modernist history and Sher-Gil's oeuvre, its intimate portrayal of village life through its women is both striking and powerful.

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