Queue up, left, if you believe you’re the next Husain; right, if you’re a born-again Souza clone; stay dead centre if you think you might have Raza’s genes… Artists, alas, fall prey, too often, to hype and the market, losing sight of the original intent, which is to create art that is unique, admirable, significant — perhaps even provocative — but also aesthetic (without being decorative, which, ironically, could prove their kiss of death).
There have been records — and markets —that existed long before F N Souza’s and S H Raza’s day at the turnstiles; collectors who were wooed then as gallerists might look for favours from Harsh Goenka or Kiran Nadar now; and artists who were headline names much before the Progressives began their reign of power with the auctioneer’s gavel of thorns. But in last decade’s media frenzy, only a handful of artists’ names emerged — blame it on Breaking News amnesia — so who’s to blame if no one any longer seems to know of M V Dhurandhar, or Prosanto Roy, or K C S Paniker? Was there a bari in Bengal without its Jamini Roy or, indeed, its Nandalal Bose; a home in the Bombay Presidency that did not aspire to its Baburao Sadwelkar or, for that matter, its S L (or G S) Haldankar?
Admittedly, names fade into the dust of history, but what of art’s longevity? Is India’s art heritage the privilege of merely the art scholar? And are we doing justice to our rising stars, the new stalwarts of the market, by comparing them — and then in purely monetary terms — to those few who have held the market captive in this new century? Will Subodh Gupta be the thinking man’s Husain? Bharti Kher this century’s art provocateur Amrita Sher-Gil?
Without debating the artistic merits of these or other artists, the issue that most urgently needs to be addressed is where to go looking for the next Akbar Padamsees and Jehangir Sabavalas. Padamsee and Sabavala too remained outside the charmed circle of the rise and rise of the Progressives, but their growing significance should point to a hierarchy that flows naturally — of artists whose importance rises from being the middle order, irrevocably trapped between the masters and the contemporary pin-ups, their worth well known, their names recognisable, but over whose art hang million dollar questions regarding their estimates.
These are artists who galvanised the decades from the seventies onwards, remaining, themselves, insufficiently acknowledged because they have taken the baton from one generation to pass on to the next. Guardians of a legacy through their careers, it is time to resurrect their legitimacy in the shrinking memory of a nation that has made the leap from Tyeb Mehta to Raqib Shaw without pausing for breath.
The next Husain, or Souza, or Raza, therefore — and however odious that comparison — sit today on the edge of history, and could consist of Sunil Das or Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Chowdhury or Jyoti Bhatt or the Ganeshs — Haloi and Pyne — V Viswanadhan in Paris or Ambadas who lived in Norway, perhaps Mumbai’s K K Hebbar or Chennai’s C Douglas, it might be Gulammohamad or Nilima Sheikh in Baroda, or, indeed, Delhi’s Arpita Singh. These artists with their proven track records, the Anjolie Ela Menons and Manu Parekhs, Bhupen Khakhar or Surendran Nair, and a score and more others, are the ones to watch as they claim their legitimate place on the ladder on which their names are etched. The Husains of the contemporary world will have to wait their turn before the crown is theirs to grab.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated