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No more Husains

The economic consequences of the death of an artist

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Maqbool Fida Husain was, like many artists through history, born in relative poverty and died, like the few that have been fortunate, in absolute wealth. This newspaper's columnist and art critic has estimated that Mr Husain may have left behind over 20,000 works of art whose estimated value could add up to a handsome sum of '4,000 crore. When he passed away on Thursday, at the ripe old age of 96, Mr Husain interrupted the supply side of the equation. Henceforth, the value of a Husain will be determined by demand and fancy. There will be no more Husains, except the odd unearthed one that may surface here or there.

John Berger, writer, critic and historian of art, once famously remarked that “the spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.” But it is not just the love of oneself but one’s love for a possession that is an object of other’s envy that drives the price of art as much as its intrinsic worth.

Clearly, there are more envious people in the world today than there were last Wednesday, and every owner of a Husain knows that. The immediate impact of this new envy, says Mr Singh, will be to push up the price of a Husain by anywhere between 15 and 30 per cent. Consider some of the prices at which Husain’s works have sold in recent years: His Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharat 12 sold for '6.5 crore at Christie’s, New York, in 2008. An Untitled oil work of 1955 fetched '4.8 crore at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2010, and the controversial Sita-Hanuman found a buyer at '3.8 crore at Christie’s, New York, in 2008. With supply frozen, demand, envy and fancy will drive up the price. Controversy played a part in the past, but in the usual Indian way it began to taper off.

Could Mr Husain have died in peace in the land of his birth? Most likely, yes. If he did not return home in his dying years it was clearly due to a variety of reasons and not just the fear of harassment. One can easily wager that in the end Mr Husain has more admirers than critics. The attacks on Mr Husain for his nude rendering of Hindu goddesses were in part organised, but in large part the outcry of ordinary devotees who were often more scandalised and pained rather than angered by the idea. It must be remembered also that much of that outpouring came against the background of orthodox Muslim attacks against writers like Salman Rushdie. If a Rushdie cannot allow his artistic expression to offend a Muslim, how can a Husain be allowed to offend Hindus? It was more a simple-minded reaction that would have got dissipated if it had not been stoked by organised Hindu extremists, on the one hand, and a greedy TRP-hungry television media on the other.

Whatever the final verdict of art lovers, artists, art historians, art critics, political and community leaders and rabble-rousers, the bottomline is that the market chose to crown Mr Husain a winner. In death he will be a steal!

First Published: Sun, June 12 2011. 00:13 IST