Are We Looking At the Rise of Bengal
In any discussion on the market potential of the Bengal school of art, it is but natural that a comparison with the Progressive artists of Mumbai is called forth. What can never be denied is that, despite its inherent richness and the overall influence the Bengal school has had on Indian Art during the pre-Independence era, it was shunted, sidelined and mostly left to fend for itself after the rise of the Mumbai School.
However, one takes heart to find that now, after a prolonged lull, national as well as international interest for the Bengal school is resurfacing, with Delhi galleries and international auction houses turning their foci on the art of Jamini Roy, Hemen Majumdar, Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij to the more contemporary Jogen Chowdhury and Lalu Prasad Shaw.
But before we launch ourselves into a discussion of how the Bengali modern and contemporary art is resurfacing, let us first document what exactly led to the sidelining of the School since 1947.
The beginnings of the Bengal School can be traced to the arrival of European painters in the state in the late 18th century. Local artists couldn't remain unaffected by the techniques introduced by these painters, giving birth to an interesting fusion. However, within a century, the school started questioning western influences and aligned itself with national political activity in the subcontinent. Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) laid the foundation of this national school, triggering a modern Indian art idiom. It's a different story, though, that the Progressive Artists Group in Mumbai, featuring names like FN Souza, MF Husain and SH Raza, was to reject the ideals of this school as they took modern Indian art to the next level.
Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) has had an exhibition of 102 Bengal artists beginning with early works derived from traditional miniature painting in the 19th century to the latest well-known names such as Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Pyne with strong figurative works. This show The Art of Bengal was on at Kolkata's Harrington Street Centre from April 4-17. On the other hand, Ramkinkar Baij who died in 1980 was given a long overdue recognition with a splendid retrospective exhibition of over 350 works at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi (in March 31, followed by an exhibition of the works in Mumbai and Bangalore).
Kishore Singh, who headed Delhi Art Gallery's Bengal Art project, in a conversation with Archana Khare Ghose of The Times of India, analysed the overshadowing of the Bengal artists by the more buoyant Progressives. He said, “When Calcutta ceased to be the capital of India, everything, including art, experienced a loss of patronage. The centre of art shifted to Bombay which had big money, collectors and critics.”
Sonal Singh of Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art department, gave another aspect of the overshadowing in the same article. “As many Bengal artists are national treasures, their works are non-exportable and those sold internationally are from western collections of the '30s and '40s,” she said. Ghose then went on to write that “the market availability of high quality Bengal Art, therefore, has been rare. Kolkata's reluctance, apparent or otherwise, to take the lead in promoting the Bengal School is also an interesting part in the story. Even though the School's influence spread far beyond Bengal, it was, after all, born and nurtured in (Kolkata) itself. Art commentator Ina Puri says, “Though some initiatives have been taken in Kolkata, there is general sluggishness…”
The British journalist John Elliot, in his blog, Riding the Elephant wrote recently that , “The extrovert and widely travelled Progressives, who came together in the 1940s and 1950s, always had more visibility and international exposure than the more secluded Bengalis. “Ramkinkar and the others in West Bengal were not outgoing artists and he didn't bother with how he was looked at and appreciated,” says K.S. Radhakrishnan, a leading sculptor who was a student of Ramkinkar.”
Ghose gives another very valid reason quoting Sanjoy Mallick, associate professor in the department of art, Kala Bhavana, Viswa Bharati. Ghose quotes Mallick as saying, “Delhi and Mumbai are far more in tandem with global changes which reflects in the art they promote.”
However, the resurgence in interest in the art from Bengal was perhaps initiated two years back when in 2010, Sotheby's auctioned 12 Rabindranath Tagore artworks for a total of close to 1.6 million pounds (well, 1,599,000 pounds to be precise), well above their estimated presale value of 250,000 pounds and set the record for the highest price fetched by the small format pen-on-sand-paper works by any Indian artist. The sale raised eyebrows, and was talked about for quite a long time.
Buoyed by the success of this sale, Sotheby's planned a sale of Tagore's manuscript, that contained his doodles (themselves fine specimens of his kind of abstract art) in December last year. The move was moderately successful, with the notebook, adorned with numerous freehand doodles, estimated to fetch $150,000-250,000, finally selling for $170,500. Tagore had presented the notebook to a family friend and early patron in the mid-1930s, through whose family it had descended.
Sotheby's since then has taken an active interest in art from Bengal, and had followed up its Tagore sales with including a good number of Bengal artistsboth modern and contemporary in its auction of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art in March this year.
Boulin Artinfo reported on March 15, three days before the sale, that Vice President and Head of Sale at Sotheby's, Priyanka Mathew was bristling with enthusiasm. “We are looking at a really tightly curated sale,” she told ARTINFO over the phone from New York where the auction is set to take place on March 19. Expectedly, the catalogue features lots by the two most prolific of the Progressives, Husain and Souza, but the centerpiece, in Mathew's opinion is really the Raza on the cover of the catalogue, a splendid composition by the now 90-year-old artist called Village with Church, painted in 1958 and estimated between $1,500,000 to $2,500,000....
But though the Progressives are an integral part of Sotheby's Spring auction, Mathew is more excited about the strong selection showcasing modern and contemporary artists from Bengal. “This time around, we sourced a lot of work from Kolkata,” said Mathew. “We wanted to broaden the view of what people should be collecting. The idea is to offer people the option of collecting very reasonably priced and rare, really fantastic work that is not Progressives-centric.”
On sale were works by Bengal artists Hemendranath Mazumdar, Lalu Prasad Shaw, and J.P. Gangooly, as well as a rather unusual Bikash Bhattacharjee piece, and three untitled ink-on-paper works by Ramkinkar Baij done in 1956.
Mathew had an interesting perspective to the demand-supply matrix of the art from Bengal. She saw the inclusion (after a very long time and in terms of volume, perhaps for the first time in an international auction) as a great opportunity for new collectors, considering the huge price discrepancy between works by these artists and those by the Progressives. Boulin Artinfo quoted her as saying, “It's a new feature. I don't think any auction house has focused on providing a platform for art from Bengal in the way we have. We're taking some chances and risks with this section, but Bengal has a rich tradition of art making, a lot of artists have contributed to the cannon of modernism. This is a huge opportunity, because it's a section of the market that is so undervalued.”
The operative word here is 'undervalued'. Bengal art has emerged in the international market as an alternative to the extremely highly priced Progressives, whose works, despite the record sales earlier (Raza's Saurashtra still holds the record for the work by an Indian artist fetching the highest price in an international auction) are routinely failing to capture the imagination of buyers because of their relatively easy availability. So for an international auction house like Sotheby's, art from Bengal provides a double-edged advantage of being inexpensive as well as 'novel' in the sense of adding variety.
And true to its belief, the celebrated Rockefeller Raza failed to sale, while paintings by Jamini Roy sold above estimates, with one selling well above the higher estimate.
Some works of Raza and Souza that failed to sell grabbed headlines in Indian papers, but other than a passing mention, the Bengal fraternity's relative success at the auction went largely unreported. Out of Five works by Jamini Roy (estimate average 6, 000-12, 000 USD/ Max price fetched: 17,500 USD), Sailoz Mukherjee (estimate 6,000-8,000 USD/ Sold 7,500 USD), Hemen Majumdar (estimate 40,000-60,000 USD / Sold 62, 500 USD), Nikhil Biswas (estimate 5,000-7,000 USD/ Sold 6, 250 USD), Chintamoni Kar (estimate (10,000-15,000 USD/ Sold 12,500 USD) among others, only a few went unsold, among them Gopal Ghosh , Ganesh Haloi, Ramkinker Baij, Meera Mukherjee, Bikash Bhattacharya, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Jogen Chaudhury. In an extremely sluggish market, this result from an almost unknown community of artists from India's 'artistic backwater' is nothing short of impressive especially when pitted against the larger and the lot more well-known Razas and Souzas, some of whose works also went unsold. And experts think that if the same works from the Bengal artists were brought to an auction of this nature even a couple of years back, all the lots would not only have sold, but would have fetched much higher prices than they actually achieved in the March auction.
Actually, Sotheby's looked at an alternative too late in the day. However, times have always been testing for the Bengal artists, and they have, as far as the Sotheby's auction is concerned, shown their mettle against their stronger and richer counterparts.