Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who is India's Greatest Living Artist?

Business Standard (India)

22 April 2009

Kishore Singh

It isn’t just India’s politicians but its artists as well who refuse to let age come in the way of their constituency. At different points, different artists have been important not just from the point of view of art aesthetics, or value, but because of the pivotal role they have played in providing the stepping stones with which to monitor the key turns in Indian art. These must necessarily include Raja Ravi Varma less for his kitschy calendar pop-art and more for the fusion of Indian and European idioms that continues to dictate popular taste; the Tagore family for opening up the way art was viewed in India; Nandalal Bose, India’s first truly renaissance artist; and Amrita Sher-Gil for the passion she brought to the form in her very short life.

India's tryst with modern art traces its origins to roughly the turn of the last century up to India’s independence, and it is the “moderns” — as both the artists and their art is referred to — who define the popular perception of how we view art in this country. Among these, the most radical by far was F N Souza whose provocative drawings and paintings earned him a fair share of ire and more brickbats than bouquets, though it might be said in the same breath that his sensibility lent more towards European extremism than any obvious Indian sensibility.

Souza was a victim of his own excesses, but among those who once shared the platform with him are three painters who without doubt can be regarded as the greatest living artists of this country. Of them, S H Raza, has been referred to also as the greatest living artist of France, and while that might be arguable — his work is collected mostly by Indians — Raza, 87 years, has said that by the end of this year he would like to wind up his atelier in Paris and return to the country of his birth, to probably New Delhi, where he is in the process, with friend Ashok Vajpeyi, of searching for land to create an institution for the arts.

Raza’s record at a Saffronart auction is Rs 4.2 crore, which must seem formidable given that critics have savaged him for repeatedly painting variations of the Bindu and the Mandala, forms that set him apart from his peers, creating a visual language that is both abstract as well as rooted in the tradition of tantra. Raza’s prices have skittered and gained since 2000, and have consolidated after 2003, casting him as a blue-chip, even though critics — and collectors — say Raza’s paintings don’t compel you to want all of his important works since they seem to replicate each other.

India’s most maverick, most loved and equally hated artist is M F Husain, 94 years this August, who single-handedly broke the cordons of exclusivity and took his art mainstream to the masses. From travelling around the world in bare feet to creating a show of crumpled newspapers, he has mocked critics, courted moneyed buyers yet reached out to people, a bond he built as a hoarding artist painting posters for Bollywood marquees. Some of the most iconic images in Indian art have been created from his palette — Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, the Lady with the Lamp, vignettes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and of course, his horses. In recent times it seems to be trendy to dismiss Husain’s prodigious talent, but make no mistake: Husain is India’s tour de force of art. Currently at home in Dubai, where he is creating a series on the Arabic civilisation, and in London, where he has a home, Husain has shied away from returning to India fearing for his life from Hindu fundamentalists who have objected to some of his paintings. His prices, always the bellwether index of the art world, have fallen recently, though he has struck the biggest deals for the largest sums of money that any Indian artist has commanded: a gimmicky Rs 100 crore for one such series in India, and an undisclosed sum for his work on the Arab civilisation, making him without a doubt India’s richest living artist.

One reason for the fall in Husain’s price is his proclivity to paint too much, too fast, the exact opposite of Mumbai-based Tyeb Mehta, 84 years, who refuses to let his debilitating health keep him from his canvas. If it appears that Mehta has painted very little, it is because of his tendency to ruthlessly destroy those works that don’t measure up to his critical gaze. In many ways, Mehta could be called minimalist: Since the seventies, his subjects have been mythological. He seems to enjoy scale, but what is most compelling is the energy on his canvases that is at once awesome and fearful. His price point has held steady for many years now, and even though Souza exceeded his auction high of Rs 8.2 crore in a surprise upset last year, there can be no doubt that Tyeb Mehta is not only India’s greatest living artist, his works are most likely to continue to escalate in value over the years.

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