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The Ara conundrum

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

His fellow artists hold all the records for modern art, but languishes in the shadows. Here’s why

Six decades after the Progressive Artists’ Group was formed, then dissolved, one can’t help wondering what its originator, F N Souza, would have thought of its success today. Was it prescient of him to have initiated the group, including in it those artists who had something radical to contribute? Created in 1947, with shows held in 1948 and 1949, it lost its rudder when Souza, then and S Bakre, left for parts foreign. Yet, its “members” continue to lead the market in value today.

broke his own 2008 record for when his fetched Rs 16.4 crore at the Christie’s auction last week, marking the highest price for a work of Indian art, a score previously held by Souza for Birth (Rs 10.5 crore). If consistent performer M F Husain, another of the Progressives, is well acknowledged as a market leader, it is perhaps time now for to be given his due in the same space.

A driver’s son who ran away from home at an early age when his father remarried, Ara might have remained a car cleaner if his doodling had not caught the attention of first Rudy von Leyden, then Walter Langhammer, who were responsible for fashioning the scene for modern art in, particularly, Bombay in the forties and fifties. Their handholding helped. In 1942, Ara’s debut solo show organised by gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy was a sellout (Ara made Rs 2,000 from it), and in 1944, the same year that he won the Governor’s Medal for one of his works, he repeated his success, no doubt catching the attention of fellow artists Souza and Husain, and when the Progressive Artists’ Group was formed, he was inducted into it by them.

Though he started off doing landscapes and at least a few socio-historical paintings, Ara is best known for his still lifes and, later, his nudes. A bachelor and, according to his adopted daughter Ruxana Pathan, “asexual” as a person, critics said his nudes were poorly painted and clearly not referenced from life. Pathan, speaking to this columnist, shared details of Ara’s adventures with Raza and Souza in Bombay’s infamous red light district where, she said, “while they’d go in, he’d sit outside”. A queer facet in some of his nudes is wrongly depicted genitalia because Souza and Raza had “convinced him that Chinese women had horizontal vaginas, not vertical ones”, which is how he painted them till von Leyden told him “that it was not true”. When viewers claimed that his paintings of groups of vases depicted more voluptuousness than his nude forms, they were not entirely wrong.

Over time Ara exhibited less, preferring to spend his time at the Artists’ Centre, where he used up his personal funds to help struggling artists, as a result of which he was near penury in the last decades of his life — not too different from his early years, but poles apart from the success he had enjoyed in the fifties and sixties. Having dropped out of the public eye, he failed to emulate the renown, or prices, of Souza, Raza and Husain (languishing, therefore, on the same plane as the remaining Progressives, Bakre and H A Gade, though he was more visible than them). But the recent rise and rise in the fortunes of the Progressives — and the artists who became linked with it (Tyeb Mehta, V S Gaitonde, Mohan Samant, Jehangir Sabavala, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, all blue chips today) — has meant a renewed interest in Ara as an artist, and though he is standing up to that scrutiny, his prices have nowhere matched up.

For instance, the only work by Ara that is up for auction at Saffronart (today and tomorrow), titled The Day After, is estimated to be Rs 18-22 lakh, but in the past his still lifes and nudes have sold for less — Rs 5-6 lakh on an average at Saffronart, commanding Rs 9 lakh for his Zinnias at Christie’s, being estimated at between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3.5 lakh at Sotheby’s, and rarely seeing the kind of frenzied bidding that marks his peers.

In part, this might be because of Ara’s unfortunate habit of giving away works generously, which did little for his prices in his lifetime. Nor were those works imbued with any significance beyond their obvious aesthetics, and as a prolific painter he sometimes painted for days in a frenzy. “He worked very quickly and with grace,” admits Pathan, “sometimes he completed three paintings a day”. How they impacted his quality is open to debate, but this much is certain: Ara is currently undervalued, and though he might not ever come close to Souza-Raza-Husain’s works, his contribution, and value, could improve immensely over what it has remained so far.

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

First Published: Wed, June 16 2010. 00:36 IST