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No surprises, really!

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

M F Husain

Who is likely to be the one living artist whose worth will continue to rise in 2010?

How do you go about choosing just one artist in 2009 who continued doing what an artist does best: painting with consistency, experimenting, picking up commissions of a certain scale, and commanding top-of-the-bracket prices in that genre? And who would most likely take this forward in 2010 as the face of Indian art and as, probably, its safest blue-chip investment?

Trends across 2009 were mostly erratic. Even top artists took a sabbatical, gallery movement before the India Art Summit was almost comatose, plummeting prices meant that most contemporary artists went out of circulation, and investor confidence in art was so low it impacted artists’ morale. It is indicative of contemporary art continuing to remain off-stage in 2010: these artists will show more than they sell, they will experiment more, and some like Jitish Kallat will have a huge impact as ambassadors as they present the intellectual face of Indian art internationally.

But no contemporary Indian artist can singly take on the onus of being the face of 2010 — they are showing less, prices still have to rise, and what many of us are getting to see at shows in India or abroad are old works. Others have still to achieve a record of consistency — something that had been ignored in the euphoria that was largely responsible for the crash in prices — and which is why the likes of Sunil Gawde or N S Harsha will have to wait for their spot in the sun.

Among the old guard, gallerists I spoke with put forward interesting suggestions ranging all the way from A Ramachandran to Krishen Khanna, whose works I admire but who have not had any path-breaking shows or created an especial stir to qualify for the role, to Satish Gujral, who it was pointed out has perhaps been India’s most consistent artist and one whose prices have not been impacted by the market. While that may be true, his largely “decorative” and tag as a “society” artist continue to trip him up. Another friend’s suggestion that Paresh Maity be considered for his ability to re-invent himself held some merit, but Maity too has to fight off the “romantic” tag and travel some more distance to move from “investment-worthy” to “collector-worthy”.

It was surprising that almost no one I spoke to took cognizance of S H Raza’s great influence on the market — there is a frenzy around collecting him, his prices have remained high, there is a buzz around him every time he returns to India (even if the reason is the artist being invited to inaugurate a show of fakes of his own works!), and at auctions or in galleries, he continues to sell well. But the artist is slowing down because of health-related issues, likely to shift to India, and may take some time settling down before he resumes painting again. That hardly qualifies him as the face of 2010, though his success through the year is at least assured.

But by a huge margin, and quite clearly the face of 2009 that will remain the face of 2010, is M F Husain. There was a brief time a few years ago when Husain’s genius was eclipsed, when younger artists were being feted, when some of his peers commanded higher returns at auctions, when he was even dismissed as being too gimmicky or too market-driven. All those nay-sayers can now eat crow. Not only does he make news all the time, and despite staying away from India because of threats to his life (largely exaggerated, I believe, but adding to his aura as an artist-in-exile), Husain continues to thrive.

Recent auctions have confirmed his price hierarchy among Indian artists (Tyeb Mehta, who died this year, has not been included in this survey of only living artists), and the scale of his commissions on the Arab civilisation will leave him richer by millions of dollars. Love him or not, you cannot ignore Husain, and if he remained in the news in 2009, he will continue to make headlines in 2010.

While many in this informal survey voted for Husain, Saffronart’s Dinesh Vazirani summed it up beautifully: “[Husain] has been working consistently throughout the year, mounting some very large exhibitions internationally. The beginning of the year saw his work in the Serpentine show, followed by a large commission from the Sheikha of Qatar. Even with no exhibitions in India, he is still present in the minds of the art world. He travels the world as an ambassador of Indian art bringing in new collectors at every stage. In spite of the slow year for Indian art, his prices in auctions have been good. He has taken his exile from India in the best possible spirit and continues to work with the same passion that he has had over the last 50 years.” Nothing more need be said.

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First Published: Wed, December 30 2009. 00:47 IST