In 1947, in the turbulent aftermath of Partition, six young men in Bombay – Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, Sadanand Krishnaji Bakre, Hari Ambadas Gade, Maqbool Fida Husain, Francis Newton Souza and Sayed Haider Raza – united to form the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG). With leftist leanings and a desire to forge a new idiom freed from imperialist influences, they turned for inspiration to international modernism – above all, Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee – alongside South Asian high art and folk traditions. By the early 1950s they had been joined by Krishen Khanna, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde and Mohan Samant, while Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee also became closely affiliated with the group. Souza laid down their principles in a 1948 manifesto: ‘Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic…’
Almost as soon as the group had formed, however, producing exhibitions in 1949 and 1951, it began to fall apart, as the artists pursued their own trajectories. Souza and Bakre settled in London, while Raza went to Paris. Travelling to Europe and the United States, the artists absorbed influences as various as Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, minimalism and conceptual art; their work ranged from Ara’s focus on the female nude to Husain’s reinterpretations of Hindu mythology and Gaitonde’s meditative abstractions. Theirs was not the only grouping, but it is the figures associated with the PAG who now dominate the market in modern Indian art. As Damian Vesey, specialist head of sale at Christie’s in London, says, ‘Their works are the cornerstone of any major collection of Indian art.’
At first they were bought by their Indian peers, and then by European collectors; they were also supported by corporate patrons such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and by influential European artists, critics and collectors who settled in India, such as Walter Langhammer, Rudolf von Leyden and Emanuel Schlesinger. Increasing wealth at home and growing international interest have combined in recent years to push the market for modern Indian art to new heights; and where once it was only a few well-known names who could command top prices, now lesser known artists are beginning to be appreciated. The market took off in earnest with the introduction of major auction sales in the mid 1990s, reaching a peak in 2008. The contemporary Indian market has yet fully to recover after the global financial crisis, but prices for modern Indian art dipped only briefly.
In the last five years, the world-record price at auction for the category has been broken four times; it is held by S.H. Raza, whose richly coloured, abstracted landscape Tapovan (1972) achieved $4.5m last March in New York. Works from this group are becoming scarce, a factor behind the record price for Tyeb Mehta’s powerful Kali (1989) achieved in June 2018 by the Mumbai-based auction house Saffronart: INR26.4 crore (approx. £2.9m). Saffronart’s CEO and co-founder Dinesh Vazirani says, ‘Most of our record prices are achieved online’ – a sign of the extensive network of expatriate Indians in London, New York, Hong Kong and Dubai who compete with collectors in New Delhi and Mumbai. International interest from non-Indians has also grown, fed by Gaitonde’s solo show at the Guggenheim in 2014 and Souza’s inclusion in ‘All Too Human’ at Tate Britain in 2018, among other things. Another surge in prices seems likely after the major retrospective exhibition ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India’, which has just closed at the Asia Society Museum in New York.
Conversely, Rob Dean, formerly head of Sotheby’s Indian department, says that when he co-founded the auction house Pundole’s in Mumbai in 2011, ‘I could see that the biggest market for modern Indian art was likely to be in India.’ Last June they sold a nude from 1956 by Padamsee: estimated at INR4 crore–INR6 crore, it finally fetched INR10 crore (approximately £1.1m). Dean says that top-end works are becoming more and more difficult to source, so that collectors are prepared to fight over them. He currently has available a quirky, experimental work on paper by Souza from the 1940s. Meanwhile, Charles Moore, director of the Grosvenor Gallery in London, has just closed an exhibition of early work by Souza, with accompanying shows in Goa and New Delhi, and was taking a number of the artist’s works on paper to the India Art Fair (31 January–3 February). The gallery showed Souza back in the 1960s but since the early 2000s has begun to explore the field more broadly, seeing prices rise steeply for ‘big, rare pieces by the big ticket names’. For Moore, ‘India plays a much bigger part today. More of our clients are based there. The London market is quiet.’
Buying and selling within India have been key to building the market of earlier masters from the first phase of Indian modernism, such as the Nobel Prize-winning poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose – three of nine designated ‘navratnas’ or national treasures whose works, under a law passed in 1972, cannot be exported. All were leading figures in the Bengal school, which has seen a resurgence recently, driven by the arrival at auction of good material with impeccable provenance in India and New York. The Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil is especially sought after: she died young in 1941, and very few of her works remain in private hands. The Little Girl in Blue (1934) – only the seventh oil painting by the artist to be offered anywhere in the world – fetched a record price within India of INR18.7 crore/£2.1m (est. INR8.5 crore–INR12.5 crore/£933,000–£1.4m), in Sotheby’s inaugural sale in Mumbai on 29 November 2018.
Another notable price was the record INR1.8 crore/£200,000 (est. INR0.4 crore–INR0.6 crore/£44,000–£66,000) for an untitled 1950s bronze by Bakre. Ashish Anand, CEO of the Delhi Art Gallery, thinks this may encourage collectors to diversify. Just now, ‘Husain leads the pack, of course; but everyone I know wants to own at least one work by [pupil of Tagore] Jamini Roy.’ Anand also points to international interest in modernists from the generation after PAG: ‘Nasreen Mohamedi has become known following her debut at the Met Breuer. Bhupen Khakhar’s values have soared following his outing at Tate Modern.’ Khakhar’s great painting De-Luxe Tailors (1972), the last of his seminal Tradesmen series left in private hands, was the top lot in Sotheby’s October 2017 London sale of the personal collection of Howard Hodgkin (a close friend of Khakhar) fetching a record £1.1m (est. £250,000–£350,000). Recently, Anand has noted the client demographic changing, with millennials entering the market: ‘This augurs well for art and the industry.’
From the February 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.