Santa’s kitty was somewhat sparse for Indian artists who, in 2011, found no new records to gloat over. While that was good news for collectors at least on the surface, prices held up well for, especially, senior artists, while predictably hardening following the deaths of four of the country's prominent artists.
News came in at the start of the year of the passing away of the reclusive Biren De and the ailing Sohan Qadri. De started out as a portraitist and evolved to figurative works in the fashion of the fifties and sixties that outlined frieze-like figures in moments of heightened drama. Looking for something more rooted to sink his teeth into, De found himself drawn towards adivasis on one hand and sadhus on the other. This led to evangelical paintings in the neo-tantra tradition that are potent with energy. These are De’s more acclaimed works, though collectors still look to his nascent decades to uncover the spirit and excitement of early modernism in the country.
De’s prices, somewhat irregular in the past, have since steadied to a range of Rs 25-50 lakh, but Sohan Qadri’s market has seen a spurt following his death in Toronto. Interest in Qadri's market built up only in the last few years as he became better known in India: having travelled around the world, he had settled and had a considerable following in Copenhagen as a yoga practitioner. His paper works used inks and an involved process of constant wetting that allowed him to texture the paper with a blade or a knife, creating fields of colour and form that many find conducive to meditation.
Qadri’s prices — perhaps because he was starting from a lower base than the others — were escalating under normal course, but heightened interest following an exhibition soon after his death pushed them up quicker, and the trend is likely to see him cross the Rs 10 lakh threshold. Prices for Jehangir Sabavala too, widely regarded as a gentleman first and a painter next, had also been rising steadily in his last years. His peak price in 2010 (Rs 1.7 crore) for a painting that consists of a landscape of sharply angled flats and plains was typical of Sabavala’s inclination towards surrealism. His price continues to remain buoyant though punters are holding out for works of a higher quality than those that have entered the market following his death.
That quality defines prices is best seen in M F Husain whose passing away saw mourning on an almost epic scale. The prodigious artist who died in London would have been delighted to see so many of his works flood the market, especially following their drought since his self-imposed exile from India in 2006. Prices on average escalated immediately by 10-20 per cent, but a sharper increase is anticipated as demand for his work remains strong — beaten only by his contemporary and the only surviving member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, S H Raza. Because of the publicity and, sometimes, controversies, that Husain courted, his different series are well known, whether an ode to women — his favourite actresses included — or Mother Teresa, the epics as well as history which he celebrated as well as mocked. As a result of that familiarity, even works not commended by critics sustain a strong market, while his best might gain him the spot that eluded him in his lifetime — that of the highest price in an auction, ahead of his peers F N Souza, Tyeb Mehta and S H Raza. When will we see a painting by Husain fetch Rs 20 crore in an auction? Perhaps 2012 will tell.
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