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Taking a Shaw bet

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

The highest-paid Indian artist isn’t yet a known name in the country of his birth, which is why collectors need to flex their wallets before he moves totally out of their realm.

Go on, try and name the Indian artist whose prices are the highest, well above even S H Raza’s. Natch. Ditto. Sorry. Wrong on both counts.

The 36-year-old who has scorched his place right to the top and has been ruling the marquee for the last few years is He is hardly known in the country of his birth, not just because he lives and works in London (plenty of other Indian artists live and work overseas too) but because he has never held a show in India.

Shaw is Kashmiri, and though he was born in Kolkata, he grew up in Srinagar surrounded by the antique carpets and exquisite jamawar shawls that his family did business in. There was nothing special about that, for thousands of young men and women are exposed to the fine knots, stitches and motifs of these crafts every year. Shaw, though, moved to London when he was 16 to work in the family’s carpet business before signing up at Central Martins College of Art and Design, from where he did both his Bachelor’s and Master’s, assimilating Western art and its experiences at the same time. The result is his emergence as an artist who deals in the realms of fantasy, the visual equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s magic realism, his influences derived from cultures that are Eastern rather than just Indian.

Critics have had a field day trying to define Shaw’s work, which consists of everything myth and fantasy is about, using industrial paints, glitter, semi-precious and precious gemstones, and executed in the tradition of miniature art that resembles the fine embroideries of his homeland and the wedding kimonos of Japan. Debauchery and decadence collide with hedonism in his work; devils and angels feast their senses on extraordinary, unbelievable worlds with their imaginary, make-believe beasts and vegetation; there is horror and beauty in equal measure. The startling aesthetics open up on closer examination to reveal horrifying violence and sexual bizarreness — gratification or sublimation, domination or submission, take your call. But don’t go looking for a commentary on the state of carnage in incredible Kashmir, for if there is a contemporary voice in his work at all, it is about the madness that afflicts mankind, the disease of consumption and profligacy and intemperance that we fail to see below the neon lights and indulgence of our lives.

The feathers and flowers, domes and pilasters, birds and animals all cloak a world where the jewelled surfaces part to reveal shocking sadism and aggression. Blood and entrails flow across the canvas, headless bodies swoon, and phalluses spring out unexpectedly with their promise of both brutality and pleasure, the line that separates them, like madness and genius, being fine indeed. Reptilian warriors, dancing skeletons, parasol-wielding monkeys…underwater worlds or terrestrial spaces, they’re all there on Shaw’s erotically charged canvases, a nodding tribute, as some have pointed out, to the 15th century visionary and painter

Perhaps because of the intense violence of his imagery concealed within the aesthetic camouflage of his art, the high estimates (Rs 15-18 lakh for a small 11.5 in x 16 in Untitled paper work pasted on cardboard), or that he is virtually unknown in India, his only outing (of one work) at a Saffronart auction in December 2009 has not been a success. For now, he has few collectors in India (Kiran Nadar purportedly paid a bomb for his 2008 work, Absence of God-VIII, currently on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida), but Shaw has been shown in some of the most prestigious galleries around the world after he was picked up by prominent art dealer Victoria Miro in London in 2004. He has since had exhibitions in Tate Britain and White Cube in London, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, establishing his identity not as a wannabe artist but on a par with the other India-born, London-based artist Anish Kapoor.

So far, works from his Victoria Miro-promoted show, Garden of Earthly Delights, have commanded the highest prices, one work from that series selling for as much as Rs 19 crore at a Sotheby’s auction in London in October 2007. Other (smaller) works from that same series have subsequently sold for Rs 1.27 crore (February 2008, Sotheby’s) and Rs 4 crore (Christie’s, February 2010), but gallery sales have been quoted at steeper values.

For now, no India shows are planned — the artist has been booked for the next few seasons — but it is time at least more Indian collectors stepped up their pace of acquisitions before he becomes truly global, and truly unaffordable.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.  

First Published: Wed, July 14 2010. 00:16 IST