Looking beyond modern masters 
Every time an auction of Indian art comes around the corner, a lot is discussed about the modern masters, as invariably, it’s their works that get the top billing. It’s their works that set the records and heat up the market for future records. In fact, the Indian art market is almost synonymous with the handful few modern masters that we all know so well about – which is why one cannot ignore them at all, and cannot even get bored of them either.

The auctions, however, have more to offer than modern masters even though they represent, on an average, about 80-85 per cent of lots in any given auction of Indian art. So is the case with the upcoming sale by Sotheby’s, titled Modern & Contemporary South Asian Auction, to be held in London on 25 October. Even though most of the works on offer at this auction too belong to modern masters, there is some representation for contemporary artists as well, however slight it may be.
In the last edition of the column, we discussed the top lots at this very auction, which, by its nature, restricted it to a discussion on modern masters. Today, I would like to bring focus on contemporaries who find representation at this auction, which, to a certain extent is also symptomatic of the state of the market for contemporaries. (For the uninitiated, modern masters in Indian context refers to artists born before Independence but whose early careers coincided with the birth of a new nation, whereas contemporaries are artists born much later, in independent India, whose careers are currently at their peak)
The Contemporaries

Out of a total of 83 lots on offer, less than a dozen are by contemporary artists of South Asia – four from India, three from Pakistan and one from Sri Lanka.
In terms of the estimate, leading the contemporary table is a powerful nude, ‘Untitled’, by young Pakistani-born American artist Salman Toor, estimated at £60,000 – £80,000 (Rs 55.8 lakh – Rs 74.4 lakh). Toor’s presence in this auction, however, is a little surprising considering he is now an American national even though he was born and raised in Pakistan. The 39-year-old New York-based artist is known for the portrayal of the imagined lives of South Asian men in the Big Apple, but his current nationality does not qualify him or his work, as South Asian. It would be interesting to know the artist’s take on how would he identify his work – South Asian or American?
Perhaps, it’s a discrepancy for which no one really has an answer, considering that a majority of South Asian artists – chiefly Indians – who lived and worked abroad for decades never gave up their nationalities. This included the likes of SH Raza (1922-2016), who lived in France for 60 years, or Ambadas Khobragade (1922-2012) who settled in Norway, or Sohan Qadri (1932-2011), who was a yogi/ poet/ artist based in Copenhagen, or several others of their generation. There were exceptions too, but both the lists are too long to recount here.
What makes a work American or South Asian would be a debate worth having in an age when national boundaries are blurring for artists in the global village that the world has become.
Coming back to the contemporaries at Sotheby’s, the next works on offer in terms of estimated value are Indian artist G Ravinder Reddy’s gold-painted fiberglass sculpture, ‘Woman’, and Pakistani artist Ali Kazim’s painting, titled ‘Sleep III’. Each of these works is estimated at £10,000 – £15,000 (approx. Rs 9.3 lakh – Rs 13.9 lakh). ‘Krishna Swallowing Forest Fire’, a mixed media work by Atul Dodiya, one of India’s best known contemporary artists, is estimated at £7,000 – £9,000 (approx. Rs 6.5 lakh – Rs 8.3 lakh). Another Pakistani artist, Hamra Abbas’ installation, ‘Despair’, is estimated at £5,000 – £7,000 (approx. Rs 4.6 lakh – Rs 6.5 lakh).
Another well-known contemporary Indian artist, Jagannath Panda, too is represented with a seminal work, titled ‘God and Goat’, estimated at £3,000 – £5,000 (Rs 2.7 lakh – Rs 4.6 lakh). It’s a striking installation made of fiberglass, fabric, glue, tin box and enamel paint. It’s also refreshing to see Pooja Iranna’s work on offer. ‘The Core,’ her work in thermacol, papier-mâché and acrylic on canvas, is estimated at £800 – £1,200 (approx. Rs 74,000 – Rs 1.1 lakh).
New names from Surya Collection and Madhubani gems
The upcoming auction is special for a reason that is not clichéd. It has brought forth names that are hardly heard in the popular art circles – Sunita Shreshtha, Prafulla Mohanti, Rekha Rao, DLN Reddy, Mahinder Singh, Inderjeet Sahdev and Mumtaz JA Khan. These are the artists who have largely stayed away from high octane world of auctions and it is a delight to see superlative works by some new names. Incidentally, works by all these hail from the Surya Collection of the Indian at patron Ute Rettberg. Readers would remember that a part of this collection had first come up for sale earlier this year in May, at a Sotheby’s auction in London. Except for Mahinder Singh and Inderjeet Sahdev, all these artists are around, mostly in their 70s, yet there is hardly any news of them in public domain, which is why it’s highly refreshing to see some totally new works at a premium auction such as this one.
The presence of Madhubani works of art by three very well-known practitioners of this popular folk art style of India is also a welcome addition to the fare on offer at the auction. An ‘Untitled’ work each by Sita Devi (1914-2005), one of the early pioneers of Madhubani art in modern times, and Mahasundari Devi (1922-2013), artist/ activist, is estimated at £1200 – £1800 (approx. Rs 1.1 lakh – Rs 1.6 lakh), while ‘Surya Bhagwan’ by Baua Devi (b. 1940) is estimated at £600 – £800 (approx. Rs 55,000 – Rs 74,000).
The more we see of Indian folk art alongside the so-called ‘mainstream’ modern and contemporary art, the better it will be for the commercial prospects of the country’s rich, age-old traditions. There is no reason why India’s folk and tribal arts cannot reach the heights attained by Raza-Husain-Souza. The late Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam showed the way with his record breaking show at auctions, the most recent being the price of $25,148 (nearly Rs 20 lakh) achieved for his work ‘Ghui Jhaad Par Van Manus’ at a Pundole’s auction in Mumbai last month.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant. She blogs at

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