Changing hands

On November 15, Sotheby’s will hold its second auction in Mumbai, India. This is following the launch of sales in India last year. The second ‘Boundless: India’ auction will see over 60 lots, which will include paintings, drawings, sculptures and design offered in a sale at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Colaba, that will celebrate the rich aesthetic of India and beyond. Boundless is a sale category at Sotheby’s where there is an element of various collecting categories. The idea of Boundless here was to tell the India story because it goes beyond art, to architecture, and design too. “Last year’s inaugural sale was a landmark moment for Sotheby’s in India, and in light of the reception we received, it was a natural decision for us to return with this second auction,” says Yamini Mehta, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s India.

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“This sale tells the story of 60 years of art in India, from the onset of Independence to the best of contemporary art being created today,” says Yamini Mehta.

‘Boundless: India’ is led by a never-before-seen work by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde from the collection of actor and television star, Sabira Merchant. The sale also features important works from the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar, as well as paintings by renowned artists like Jehangir Sabavala, Francis Newton Souza, Amrita Sher-Gil, Sayed Haider Raza, and Maqbool Fida Husain, amongst others.

The Gaitonde masterwork which had been hanging in Merchant’s home for over 40 years, is the most valuable of all the works offered at the sale. The ‘Untitled (1974)’ (estimate upon request) work comes to sale for the first time since Merchant acquired the painting in 1975, just a year after its creation.

Merchant became a household name in 1972 when she launched India’s first English language television programme, ‘What’s the good word?’ the prime time show that ran for 15 years on the state-run television channel, DoorDarshan. She also went on to set up Mumbai’s first nightclub, the legendary Studio 29 on Marine Drive. It was at this time that she first began to collect art seriously. She acquired this painting from Kali Pundole, one of the most well-known Indian gallerists, in 1975, the year after it was painted.

Historically, this was the time when India was on the brink of entering the space and atomic age, a period of innovation, technology, experimentation. In fact, science was to have a profound impact on contemporary artists, architects and designers. “I was drawn to this painting because I loved the composition, I loved the colouring. The whole thing gave me a very deep sense of peace. I thought to myself, ‘how wonderful it would be to share my life with that kind of art’, says Merchant. “So, the painting has been hanging in pride of place in my living room for all these years; I hope the new owner enjoys living alongside this work as much as I have,” she adds. As Shivajirao Gaekwar, deputy director, specialist, says,” I haven’t seen anything that has come up for sale which is so symmetric; its perfection from every angle.”

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The Gaitonde masterwork which had been hanging in Sabira Merchant’s home for over 40 years, is the most valuable of all the works offered at the sale.

Gaitonde’s `Untitled (1974)’ can be read within the context of this space age: five orbs are suspended in space like planets. The large vertical canvas is broadly divided into horizontal swathes of gold and bronze, in strips of colour suggestive of the horizon. Of course, Gaitonde himself caught the attention of leading scientists of the era, namely Homi Bhabha, who was an early collector and patron of the artist’s works.

Also offered for sale for the very first time are nine works from the estate of the late Bhupen Khakhar. These are the artworks he chose to keep with him throughout his life. Ranging from watercolour to oil, collage to ceramic, the selection showcases the full diversity of Khakhar’s artistic practice. “The property from the Estate of Bhupen Khakhar is probably one of rarest bodies of work there is which has come on sale for the first time, and many of them have never been seen in public before,” says Gaekwar.

Khakhar is among very few Indian artists who have been recognised and celebrated both within the country, and internationally, as a major contributor towards 20th century contemporary art practices. “His art reflected his personality which was unapologetic, blatantly honest and bold in its content and execution. His works exist as a commentary on the functioning of human relationships with each other and with society. Khakhar’s interest in the underdog, his affinity towards the weaker and the broken, his nature of embracing those on the fringes, extended and contributed to his artistic language. Depicting the life around him, with an emphasis on the classes, Khakhar’s art is unpretentious and bold,” reads the Sotheby’s catalogue.

The Khakhar collection is led by ‘Tiger and Stag’, (estimate: Rs3,00,00,000 – 5,00,00,000) last seen in Khakhar’s retrospectives at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and Tate Modern in London. These rare and early landscapes reflect Khakhar’s bent towards foliage, lush imagery and flat picture planes of Indian miniature painting, in particular that of the Kangra and Kota schools. In line with the miniature tradition, Khakhar uses multiple perspectives at once in `Tiger and Stag’, depicting scenes and happenings that occur beyond a single vantage point. The predator and prey are similar to the hunting scenes popular in Indian miniatures.

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‘Interior of a Muslim House No.1’is one of Khakhar’s earliest works.

Offered alongside will be one of the Khakhar’s earliest works, a collage on canvas, ‘Interior of a Muslim House No.1’ (Rs15,00,000 – 20,00,000) and his study for a lost masterpiece, ‘The Celebration of Guru Jayanti’ (Rs20,00,000 – 30,00,000). When Khakhar moved to Baroda in the early 1960s, he shared a flat for a short while with fellow student named Jim Donovan. Donovan was instrumental in introducing Khakhar to Britain’s pop art movement, and it was this encounter that formed the central core of Khakhar’s philosophy. An early proponent of the ‘pop’ era in India, Khakhar’s work `Interior of a Muslim House No.1’, was painted just three years after he began his artistic journey. `Interior of a Muslim House No.1’ was one of Khakhar’s last collages. After this he transitioned into paintings where his work `Dharamshala’ was one of his first known paintings, where he arrives as a painter.

According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, an interesting anecdote behind the `The Celebration of Guru Jayanti’ goes back to 1979, during Khakhar’s days in England when Howard Hodgkin and Khakhar challenged one another to create an eight-footer. In Khakhar’s case, the result would be `The Celebration of Guru Jayanti’, his largest and possibly his finest picture so far. “This famous and vast oil on canvas, which took almost eight months to complete, has tragically been lost. The current lot, an exquisite brush and ink study of the finished piece, is therefore of immense consequence to Khakhar’s surviving body of work,” reads the catalogue. Khakhar’s works are coming to auction following the record-breaking sale of ‘Two Men in Benares’ (1982) at Sotheby’s in London in June 2019, which set a new benchmark for the artist at $3.2 million.

Though Khakhar wasn’t a potter, he had painted many ceramics. What nobody knew was that Khakhar actually painted two chairs, which are works of art and are the most unique of his works. According to Gaekwar, the pair of chairs is the only known example of the chairs Khakhar has painted.

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“All the architectural drawings on sale have been done by hand, so it is a work of art by itself,” says Shivajirao Gaekwar.

Another highlight of the sale are architectural drawings from one of Mumbai’s then most influential architectural firms, Dichburn, Mistri and Bhedwar. Some of the iconic buildings that the firm designed include the Metro theatre and the HSBC Bank building. The drawings have come from the promoter family of the now defunct firm. “Architecture is important because that’s what lends a city its character,” says Gaekwar. “All the architectural drawings on sale have been done by hand, so it is a work of art by itself, which is why it is so interesting, and so important, he adds.

So are architectural drawings collectables? According to Gaekwar, yes. “Why it is a collectible is that most of the great firms from back in the day don’t have their archives anymore,” he says. Architects like Claude Blankley, who built the Bombay Central Station, the Breach Candy Hospital, and the Standard Chartered Bank building, have had their archives destroyed. Or even Gajanand Mhatre, whose firm built so many art deco buildings, have had their archives destroyed. Besides, “after seeing the good response the auction house received at last year’s inaugural Boundless: India auction for the works of BV Doshi and Louis Kahn’s `Untitled (two drawings of the buildings of the IIM, Ahmedabad), Sotheby’s expects the category to do well.

The current sale will also see the return of numerous works to India from collections across the world. This includes Francis Newton Souza’s reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s late 15th-century mural, ‘The Last Supper’ (estimate: Rs3,50,00,000 – 5,00,00,000). This late masterpiece comes to sale from Japan, where it was in the collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum near Osaka for two decades. According to Gaikwar, Souza’s `The Last Supper’ is one the finest late period Souza’s to come to market. “He has done many last suppers, but this one, for a late period Souza, it is actually stunning. He has replaced traditional figures with figures of men he has painted over time, all wearing ties. It is very contemporary,” he says.

While sculptures are usually overlooked, the last ‘Boundless: India’ sale in 2018 saw the auction record broken for a 20th-century Indian sculpture when Sadanand Bakre’s ‘Untitled’ work from the 1950s sold for Rs18,750,000. Having tasted this success, this year’s sale offers nine sculptures, led by Prodosh Das Gupta’s ‘Remorse of an Egg’ (estimate: Rs15,00,000 – 25,00,000) and Sandanand Bakre’s bronze ‘Red Shoe’ (estimate: Rs10,00,000 – 15,00,000). “This sale tells the story of 60 years of art in India, from the onset of Independence and the boundary-breaking artists who emerged after the Raj, through to the best of contemporary art being created today. Artworks by India’s most celebrated artists sit side-by-side with those who are yet to become household names but have long deserved to have their moment in the spotlight,” says Mehta.

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