It is the start of Asia Week in New York, but if anyone is drawing the attention of the art fraternity, particularly from India, it is a 20-year-old with a mischievous glint in her eyes, her lips painted a coquettish red. A friend who made her acquaintance before I did had messaged an urgent appeal: "She is stunning, make sure she comes to India." It is a few days still before bids for Amrita Sher-Gil's Sotheby's cover lot come up for auction in the city, but the self-portrait has evinced wide interest, edging away from a fabulous abstract painting by V S Gaitonde as the star attraction.
By the most extraordinary of coincidences, Sher-Gil was born in 1913, the same year as M F Husain, and though she died in 1941, Husain lived on till 2011. Both embodied Indian modernism, but where Husain painted thousands of works - some estimates place these anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 paintings and drawings - Sher-Gil's known works are a mere 175, the bulk of them with the National Gallery of Modern Art. While Husain's works have remained popular and prolific in auctions of Indian modern art, Sher-Gil's are extremely rare, making any such outing extremely exciting.
Sher-Gil, a half-Hungarian, shifted from Budapest to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where she painted a fairly large number of self-portraits, of which the one under discussion was painted in 1933, shortly before her 20th birthday. During this period, Sher-Gil had been influenced by Paul Gauguin, as is evident in her works of the time. Academic studies of human anatomy formed the subject of some of these paintings, as did a few landscapes, but her self-portraits show her as self-aware of herself as both a person and an artist, and they reflect her radiance and beauty, something she never shied away from, enjoying the prominence that came with being a diva.
Besides her self-portraits, Sher-Gil also painted portraits in her India years, when she accepted commissions mostly from family or their close friends, even as she developed an alternate style of painting that she hoped would define Indian modernism. While her self-portraits tend to show her as vibrant and vivacious, the portraits are usually serious studies where the subjects are depicted in a poignant or solemn manner, almost as though posing for her was a burden.
Estimated at a value between $1.2 million and $1.8 million (Rs 7.4-11.1 crore), the self-portrait is clearly the piece-de-resistance of Sotheby's spring sale of Indian art in New York. For the moment, there is some speculation whether the winning bidder might be from India. While that may clearly be, it also has certain disadvantages - as a National Treasure, a category created by the Indian government to honour nine artists, her works cannot be taken out of the country. As long as the self-portrait stays overseas - and it has these many decades - it can be exhibited anywhere, but once it is brought into India, it can never leave its shores again. While some maintain that this is a reason why Sher-Gil's prices, though steep, have not realised a higher value, others are hoping the sale may set a new record for the artist when the auctioneer brings down the gavel on the winning bid.
That auctioneer is Priyanka Mathew, who is soon to move to Mumbai to head Sotheby's India operations. "Before I fell in love with Indian art," says Mathew, "I fell in love with Amrita [Sher-Gil] for the spirit she imbued in breaking boundaries for both in art and in living life." Now, will she break records too? We'll know on March 18.
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