For much of last year, I lived close to France-based artist Sakti Burman — not, alas, actually in Paris, where he has a studio, or in his 13th century priest’s cottage in Anthe which he describes as having the kind of landscape that Matisse painted, brimming with sunflowers reminiscent of a van Gogh canvas, but with pictures from his 50-year painting career that travelled everywhere with me on my laptop. Sakti da lives in New Delhi for the brief duration of the north Indian winter, and over the last one we had agreed to collaborate on a writing project for his ongoing retrospective (in New Delhi till February 22, to follow in Mumbai in March and Kolkata in April), but given a chain of circumstances, after a few calls between Paris and New Delhi, we lost touch.
What I did for most part of the year, then, was to power my laptop and wake up to his magical world in which no one is ugly, the world is beautiful and people are happy. “Now that,” as a busload of Western visitors I escorted to his exhibition in Delhi exclaimed, “we can live with.” Sakti da’s great triumph is not just that you exist easily with his art, but like a junkie you crave a fix of it every time you feel low. Like Marc Chagall, he has created an effervescent world in which gods and lovers co-exist, strangers he spotted at the airport appear beside friends, children and, increasingly, his grandchildren. Napoleon sports a conch shell from Bengal as his hat, and the bearded goat is — Sakti da himself.
Having adopted France as his home, it was Italy’s fresco tradition that would inspire his art, especially with his indigenous “marbling” technique in which he uses water on his meticulously applied oil paint to break into iridescent rainbows that make the paintings appear not so much timeless as beyond time. In that dreamy universe, a Krishna or a Durga can appear beside a nude and not appear incongruous, his Noah’s Ark with its lovers floats past someone walking beside a perambulator — an escapist world of fantasy created by one of India’s most successful artists whose works are bagged even before they can be exhibited.
Long before he became a favourite among Indian collectors, it was Europeans who were picking up his oils and watercolours, and Americans his lithographs. Because his paintings appeal at an aesthetic level, his work rather than his nationality defined his collectability, and the secondary market is now returning his work from especially the ’70s at strong price points. However, the auction houses where these paintings appear for sale are European (Artcurial, Millon & Associes, Fraysse), unfamiliar to most Indians who tend to patronise only Christie’s and Sotheby’s. It is from them that Sakti da has been buying back his own early work — famously, a painting he sold in the 1980s for Rs 10,000 but purchased back for Rs 40 lakh. “I am happy with those prices,” he smiles, “but they are rather expensive for me.”
Because so many of those early works were bought by Western collectors who are probably ignorant of their current value (average price at the retrospective: Rs 30-60 lakh), it is unlikely that many will find their way to the buzzing Indian collectorati, which means that even though Sakti da has been prolific, his prices will continue to harden. That you can so easily admire and co-exist with his art — not something you can claim about all collectible artists — at least takes the pinch out of that price.
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