Artists At the gavel

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jan 1 2006, 10:27am hrs
Likes and dislikes in art are a very subjective matter. One may like an artist, another might abhor. So choosing artists from merely by ones inclination is not much use. But the market has an across-the-counter objectivity that can then be analysed to understand tastes. That is why I have chosen the Saffronart winter online auction of December 2005, which was a high watermark sale of Indian art, to give us a perception of what young artists we are likely to see in the forefront of the art world next year. I understand that these artists all have their support base; but a general analysis will throw up the real picture.

In the sale, two of Chittrovanu Mazumdars works (lots 146 and 147) sold at close to the Rs 37 lakh mark out of three works. Two of Subodh Guptas works sold between Rs 17 lakh and Rs 22 lakh (lots 169 and 170). Two of GR Irannas works sold above Rs 11 lakh. All three of Jagannath Pandas works sold above Rs 10 lakh (lot 191 at Rs 13.6 lakh, lot 192 at Rs 23.5 lakh and lot 193 at over Rs 18.5 lakh). Others in this bracket were: Shibu Natesan with a work at Rs 37.36 lakh, Nataraj Sharma and Atul Dodiya with one work each above Rs 27 lakh; Manish Pushkale sold a work at nearly Rs 17 lakh while Paresh Maity sold a work at Rs 12.5 lakh. This is a very creditable showing indeed.

What strikes one immediately is that the emerging young Indian artists here dont have to struggle as hard to survive as their predecessors had. Still, it took them a good twenty to thirty years to establish themselves in the market. Also age has little to do with the process. Nor is it the institutions they trained at that determine the bids they achieved.

In the top layer, Chittrovanu Mazumdar was born in 1956. Subodh Gupta was born in 1964, Jagannath Panda in 1970 and G R Iranna in 1971. Moreover, they trained at Kolkata, Patna, Bhubaneswar and Gulbarga, respectively. Similarly, Nataraj Sharma was born in 1958, Atul Dodiya in 1959, Paresh Maity in 1965, Shibu Nateshan in 1966 and Manish Pushtakale in 1973. Here too, their centres of training are equally varied as Vadodara, Mumbai, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram and Bhopal, respectively. This, if anything, should remind us that the Indian contemporary art has an extremely wide reach and it cannot be restricted either in terms of geography or institutes of art. So the phenomenon we are studying is not amenable to monopolies of art dealers or galleries. It is live, widespread and democratic. And that is the assurance that it will survive and collectors can cast their net wide with a good chance of success.

There is, however, a rider to this. All these artists share the powerful inheritance of the art of the national movement. None of these artists falls into the easy division of the abstract and figurative as in the West. The art of Chittrovanu Mazumdar boldly blends elements of pop art with abstract swathes of colour. G R Iranna seeks a balance between the human figure and areas of colour and texture reminiscent of abstract symbolism. Natraj Sharma finds a similar balance between images of human beings and their creations like machines, with compositional forms and colours to set a mood to them, while Manish Pushkale evokes musical rhythms visualised as sequences of tribal symbols. In all these we find little that is borrowed without being digested. And the profound influence on all of these is the contemporary Indian ambience of making sense of chaos even if it is by accepting it as the ultimate reality.

Scope for investment

In this they already have a path mapped out powerfully by artists inspired by our folk traditions, modernism, and the desire to create original art, like F N Souza, whose Lovers sold at Rs 6.5 crore, Crucifixion sold at Rs 2.7 crore and whose Landscape sold at over Rs 1 crore; M F Husain, whose painting, Lady sold at Rs 1.06 crore in the same sale, or S H Raza with two works selling at above Rs 1 crore, the highest being The Village at Rs 1.36 crore. Tyeb Mehta, who was the first artist to sell at well above Rs 1 crore, sold at nearly Rs 1.6 crore in the Saffronart auction. These prices assure one that the young artists whose prices we have been studying can increase at least ten times without any difficulty within this framework which has been evolved in our contemporary art over the last two decades and a half. However, the young artists we have focussed on have their own original approach to pre existing influences in our art, so there is every reason to expect them to develop along the path mapped out by the earlier generation with no difficulty whatever.

If in Mazumdar we have Kolkata Bazar and Bollywood imagery, Iranna reminds one of the powerful figurative art of the Jain Tirthankara images of Karnataka while Natraj Sharma presents consumer designs and industrial forms with a human content deep in our psyche. The art of Atul Dodiya, Manish Pushkale and Paresh Maity clearly draws on our folk and tribal imagery with a powerful narrative element characteristic of it, while the works of Subodh Gupta, Shibu Natesan and Jagannath Panda may well remind one of US photo-realism, but it is heavily loaded with Indian symbolism. One can hardly avoid noticing the aluminium utensils/cow/milk syndrome in Subodhs work, the peacock, chillies and the washing drying on the roof in Panda, or of Natesans wicker-shopping basket in a provincial urban folk style. Yes, our young artists are influenced by the powerful impact of visual imagery bombarding us through the mass media. But the best of them are not bowled over by it. They tailor make it in accordance with how it suits them and the needs of their expression.

Technical expertise

Needless to say this cannot be done without technical expertise. Each one of these artists shows consummate painterly skills. And it is these skills rather than the mere capacity to handle different mechanical instruments well or assemble found objects with a sense of what is striking that distinguishes our successful young artists from the majority of their generation in the West. Indeed it is the widespread capacity of our young artists all over the country to produce quality handiwork that is paying dividends as never before in the history of our contemporary art. And indeed, having drunk from the fountain of our age-old local skills welded together by a powerful all India contemporaneity that developed with out national movement and continued to develop under a secular state with socialist ideals highlighting our rural and urban working people, allows it to of take the myriad global influences in its stride without being bowled over by them and to compete successfully with the contemporary art of the world on an equal basis. The human face of Indias contemporary art and its very human method of production give it its global competitiveness.

Indeed, if our young artists were not sound in their moorings and were to drift with the fads and gimmicks of much of the art of the West today, they would lose their place in the global art scene and be reduced to producing fashionable baubles. The age and geographical range of the eight artists we have chosen at random from the most recent global sale assure us that there are many more equally deserving good artists from where they come from. Their art is skilled and rooted in the aesthetic traditions of our ancient culture, its independence and self-assurance and yet perceptive of the changes that are occurring in our environment all the time. So one would expect at least another nine to surface and succeed as these have this year, in the year to come and double the number of successes this year has achieved. Indian contemporary art appears well equipped and motivated to doing just that and it has plenty of room for manoeuvre.