Sotheby is an artwork exhibition including Tyeb Mehta and Amrita Shergill’s works. Gaurav Bhatia, who is the managing director Sotheby, talks to Saimi Sattar about the gallery’s architecture.
The translucent paper still covers the huge 149.5 x 105 cm piece which rests against the wall as it is yet to be hung up. People hover around as “the pièce de résistance” as Gaurav Bhatia, managing director, India, Sotheby’s describes Tyeb Mehta’s Durga Mahisasura Mardini (1993), is to be unveiled. He emphasises, “You are officially the first Indian journalist to see this,”
He then embarks on the story behind the painting. “A Muslim, the cosmopolitan ethos of Bombay (now Mumbai), where he settled down, really appealed to the artist who was born in Kapadwanj, a small town in Gujarat. But his faith was rudely shaken when during the 1992-93 post Babri Masjid demolition riots, he received threats on account of his religion. He left for Santiniketan to escape this madness. In the heat of the moment, when all this political upheaval was happening, he was asked to make a painting and he created a strong political statement with this,” says Gaurav gesturing towards the painting. It reveals a blue backdrop and there are just three more colours — saffron, white and green — and when the idea hits you in all its force, it makes for a goosebumps moment. “It is interesting to note that Tyeb, a Muslim, painted a Hindu Goddess for the first time and that too in colours of the Indian flag to reiterate what the country was about,” emphasises Gaurav. The work is painted with an economy of lines and is deeply symbolic as Goddess Durga represents enlightenment and hope over darkness and ignorance.
“It is a positive painting where a large part is painted blue like the Ashoka chakra but the colour also stands for hope and renewal. It is definitely more relevant today,” says Gaurav, who has his roots in Lucknow and takes pride in the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb with its intermingling of cultures, religion, food and language.
He goes on to recount how he chanced upon this piece that has not been displayed by any gallery in India till date. “I had gone to my father’s friend’s place for a drink along with my wife in December 2016. He has an impressive art collection, most of which is displayed on the ground floor of his house. As we took the stairs for the first floor, I saw this painting on a wall. When I was leaving, he told me that if I ever wanted anything, all I had to do was ask. My prompt reply was, ‘The Tyeb Mehta’. It’s another story that my wife chided me later for saying so. But within two days he called up and agreed to sell it. It was timely as we had just started putting Boundless:India, Sotheby’s inaugural auction in the country,” he says. The painting is a part of the display at the Bikaner House and will feature in the auction which will take place at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai on November 29. He says, “The artworks are a visual commentary on South Asia that narrate the story of the richness and sophistication of art and design from the Indian Subcontinent. The 50 artworks including paintings, sculpture, photography and design are made in and inspired by the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, except for two, none of the works have ever been displayed to the public.”
Gaurav says that there is a reason Sotheby, a brand which was established in 1742, decided to set up office in India two years back. “We have the first records in 1930s of an Indian transacting with Sotheby’s when the Maharaja of Darbangha bought Marie Antoinette’s jewels in London. So Indians have been doing business with Sotheby’s for almost a hundred years. What further prompted the move was in the last five years we recorded that South Asians, which is largely Indians, had done transactions worth over $250 million across all categories including Impressionist art, Western art, jewellery watches and cars with us,” he says.
He also points out that while the artworks that Indians gravitated towards were mostly from the home country a few clients have even started buying Monets and Picassos. “Maybe not in terms of volume but in value, these are big. The numbers picking these works are small due to a mix of prohibitive pricing as well as taste,” he adds.
But coming back to the auction, he says, “The ethos of the sale is India’s boundless treasures. We curated this over two years so we literally had the cream of the crop. We selected 50 works which are super clean and each piece represents a visual vocabulary as well as the sophistication and elegance of India.” So, there are works by artist based in the country and even those outside it. He flips through the catalogue and points to an image Blue City, Jodhpur by Steve McCurry which was clicked in 2010. The intensity of the colour reminds one of his other iconic work Afghan Girl which featured Sharbat Gula. The other one called Taj Mahal and Train, Agra, 1983 too is up at the auction. The list of famous international artists don’t end there. There is also Henri Cartier Bresson’s stunning black and white image, Srinagar, Kashmir 1948. But perhaps it is the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado’s Churchgate Station, Western Railroad Line, Bombay, India 1955 which best showcases an outsider’s view of India with its crowd, din and flurry of movement.
Gaurav recounts interesting tales behind some of the art. An early work of Amrita Shergill Girl in Blue where she painted her cousin Babeet Kaur in 1934 is mounted on one wall. “Amrita’s mother said it wasn’t good. Babeet’s mother too didn’t like it as she thought her daughter had been painted a bit too dark. Amrita kept it away and displayed the painting at her first show at Falleti’s Hotel in Lahore. It was bought by Charles Fabri, a historian with whom Shergill is rumored to have had an affair and was in his family for the last 80 years. This work is important because just after this she painted her very famous, Three Girls. Stylistically the movement and fluidity in both the works is same,” he says.
But interestingly, the story does not end there. When Sotheby’s acquired the painting six months ago, it was published in an English newspaper. What happened after that is what history is made of. “Sotheby’s got a call from a lady saying that the girl in the painting was her mother-in-law who was 94 years old and lived in Delhi,” says Gaurav. Needless to say Babeet Kaur attended the preview at Bikaner House yesterday.
There is also Francis Newton Souza’s Untitled (St Paul’s Cathedral) 1961, a piece in blue, white and black that makes use of his slashing technique to perfection. “When you look at the painting, it is beautiful but a closer look reveals a lot of violence. The artist grew up in Goa with strict Catholic parents and he almost started rebelling against the church as they put too much emphasis on religion,” explains Gaurav.
Moving from the master, in the contemporary oeuvre, Gaurav gestures at a work by Arpita Singh who is considered one of the most important female artists of India. “This extraordinary work, Men Sitting, Men Standing is a political statement on the political chair revolving only among them,” he says.
One cannot miss out on another contemporary artist Bharti Kher and Priti Paul’s Belladonna, an installation which features a dressing table with lipsticks, shoes and a sari — all made in steel. “This too is a political statement about women’s perception of themselves in the society. Is it just make up, hair, shoes and sari or her outward appearance that make for a woman’s identity or is there more to her?” explains Gaurav.
The exhibition also has a lot of sculptures as this was an important art form even before the written word existed in India. “A terracotta head done by G Ravinder Reddy is important because he usually makes these in metallic gold. It is the first time that he worked in this medium.”
Another striking sculpture is Prodosh Das Gupta’s Egg Bird (1975). “It’s sophisticated and refined where the bird is protecting her egg and nurturing it like a mother,” says Gaurav who earlier worked with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
But what really caught the attention was an interesting series of 20 photographs by Nandini Valli Muthiah which show Vishnu on earth for a day. So he can be seen riding a Cadillac to a wedding, visiting a house where he is treated as a god, going to a bar and finally reaching his hotel room where he can be seen disillusioned with what is going on on earth.
There are works by other artists like Bhupen Kakkar’s watercolors, Gulam Rasool Santosh’s take on tantra, Krishna Reddy’s print called Whirlpool, the Aligarh artist Zareena Hashmi’s works which question the idea of home and displacement, A Bala’s glamorous thumb print as well as a series of photographs by Madan Mahatta. The immersive walk certainly encompasses what can be called some of the best representation of art that looks at India.
The show is on till 1 pm on November 17.
Writer: Saimi Sattar
Courtesy: The pioneer