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SOTHEBY'S SUITE OF SOUVENIRS

Art is a reflection of emotion, experience and endearance. Sotheby’s March exhibit displaying souvenirs from South Asia brings forth creations that are a perfect blend of the past carefully woven with phenomenons that continue to rule the present, writes Uma Nair.

Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art Sale preview at The Oberoi on February 22, 2018 threw up a host of delightful works that came as a souvenir of the Bengal School's modern masters among many others in the Indian firmament.
A testament to the enduring legacy of some of the foremost pioneers and mentors of Indian Modern Art, Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art Sale in New York on March 19 has enough and more to savour. International Director, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, had a few things to say about widening the collector base to include many more names on the art graph.
In her role, Mehta expanded and oversaw the international sales of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in New York, London, Hong Kong and Dubai. Mehta provides trusted advice and serves in a client and business development capacity with Sotheby's highest echelon of collectors.
Bikash's Rooftops
"Also featured in the sale are four important Bikash Bhattacharjee works from the collection of one of his earliest patrons, Helen and Herb Gordon, the American Consul General to Calcutta in the late 1960s," notes Mehta. "We came upon these works when we were evaluating their collection. Clearly, Helen Gordon had an eye for art and she liked the vitality of these masters."
Critic Manasij Majumder states: "The views of the city teeming with houses and dwellings standing cheek by jowl, forming confused blocks of structures of uneven size and elevation, of dull surfaces with diverse tones and bristly texture evoke a synecdochic suggestion of dense human presence. Moreover, Bikash must have been primarily fascinated by a city-sight cluttered by a cluster of heterogeneous structural shapes and forms. He had certainly thought of the immense potential of its lending itself ideally to a vigorous formalist treatment on canvas as is evident in the companion abstract pieces of his cityscapes."
Lots 4 and 8 are amongst the strongest and most powerful works that Bhattacharjee has ever made. The complete lack of any signs of life imparts a mystical otherworldly feeling. The viewer is transported into Bhattacharjee's very own post-apocalyptic world that only exists in his mind and through his paintings. There is beauty amongst the seeming disorder and haphazard placement of the houses and the roofs and his choice of colours—more aqua, green and yellow for lot 8 and ochre, white and gray for lot 4 also give each work their very own mood and personality.
'Bikash's stylistic stand is poised somewhere between realism and the outer limits of surrealism. […] No doubt an artist is free to use the surrealist tropes to facilitate his meaning and message to get across. But what counts most in Bikash's paintings is what carries them beyond their moralizing message content. His works have a stunning range of rich and complex imagery in which appear unforgettable faces and figures, which no photography can ever match. They engage the viewer in an inexhaustible aesthetic tension simulated by the intriguing forms inalienable from their intellectual and emotional content.' (M. Majumder, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 2004, unpaginated)
Surreal Sultan Ali
This work is a fine example of the attention to detail and quality of line that the artist is best known for. Within a confined space, J. Sultan Ali creates a mass of detail which, as in the case of this work, often takes the viewer some time to decipher. His influences are evident in this Untitled work – from nature and the spiritual world to simpler leafy motifs common in Indian folk art. From the band of stylised calligraphy running across the work and the immense pen detailing in the background, one can see that Sultan Ali was also influenced by Persian and Mughal manuscripts. The beauty of this work lies in the multiple narratives that Ali was able to weave into his pen and ink masterpieces that extolled the virtues of the plurality of religions in India.
Baij Watercolours
Another delight are the two watercolours by Ram Kinkar Baij. The present work on paper depicts an avenue of trees dappled with sunlight. The unusual attribution of sky blue and sunset yellow and amber to the trees, rather than to the sky, gives the impression of a landscape set alight by the glow of dusk. Baij adeptly creates a sense of depth and perspective with washes of darker colours, inviting the viewer to contemplate the last fleeting moment. What ensues is the truth that Baij had a deep understanding of abstraction which he translated onto his watercolours which stand apart as a testimony to his greatness as a pioneer of modernism.
Two sculptures
Somnath Hore's Baul with Iktara and Untitled are two iconic sculptures. Somnath Hore joined the Communist Party during the 1940s, having witnessed the brutality of war during the Japanese bombing of Chittagong. Hore was assigned to produce drawings and posters for the Party, depicting the atrocities of the Bengal famine and the Tebhaga struggle of North Bengal. As a Communist, human suffering was 'not an existential predicament into which we are all born, but something always socially engendered'. Although Hore was to leave the Party in 1956, it left a lasting impression on his art. In the artist's own words 'All the wounds and wounded I have seen are engraved on my consciousness.'
Somnath Hore's Baul with Iktara is a humanist rendering, distinguished by its visceral, almost haunting presentation of human fragility. "Hore's figures are neither sentimental nor shocking, just [the] anatomy of the suffering body realised in its intimate sensuality… Like a majority of his figurative prints they were fundamentally iconic… they came charged with the poignancy of a Madonna or a Pieta." (R. S. Kumar, 'SomnathHore: A Reclusive Socialist and a Modernist', Bengal Art: New Perspectives, Pratikshan, Kolkata, 2010, p. 79)
Hore's bronzes speak to human vulnerability. If present at all, their facial expressions are made universal and anonymous by their mask-like minimalism, while the patina is left deliberately imperfect. Having witnessed the bombing of Chittagong in 1942, the artist saw firsthand the brutal violence of war, and man's complete helplessness in the face of it. Hore's works reduce human figures to their essential physical features, and in doing so, they approach 'the bristly starkness of the drawing and the skeletal economy of the etching'.
Prodosh – Sculptures
Teacher, curator and Director NGMA, Prodosh Dasgupta's Cradle and Refugee Couple are a statement in the melding of the Western grammar and Indian tradition. It is quite clear from his work that he tried to integrate Indian and Western traditions of the sculpture but the Indianness seems to be overshadowed by the towering genius of Rodin and Brancusi, Henry Moore, as well, which formed the core of his art.
Which is why Dasgupta's art is important – it is a comment on the mother and child phenomenon – a universal signature of love and connectivity and compassion even as it becomes a metaphor for expressiveness and enduring love. The form and the smooth contours, the understanding of melding mass and mood is what makes this work an endearing symbol. Dasgupta's Refugee Couple too is a sensitive testimony to the migration and trauma faced during the West Bengal Partition.
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