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STERLING SUITE AT CHRISTIE'S

From Tyeb Mehta’s testing Diagonal to F N Souza's splendid contours – Christie’s September Sale presents an evocative array of Indian artwork reflecting profound social truths with a transcendental interpretation of reality.

Christie's New York announced its Asian Art Week. The South Asian Modern + Contemporary sale (September 12) will feature masterpieces by modern Indian painters, led by Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), Diagonal XV (estimate: $1,500,000-2,000,000) and Akbar Padamsee (B. 1928), Rooftops (estimate: $800,000-1,200,000), a monumental painting from the artist's gray period. Additional highlights include Manjit Bawa's Untitled (Acrobat) (estimate: $600,000 – 800,000) and Francis Newton Souza's seminal Family (estimate: $600,000 – 800,000), among other important paintings by the artist. The auction also includes important early works by Sayed Haider Raza, Vasudeo S Gaitonde and Maqbool Fida Husain along with an impressive collection of works in various mediums by Nasreen Mohamedi.

Tyeb Mehta's Diagonal

Nothing can match the power and dynamism of Tyeb Mehta's Diagonal XV. Cultural theorist and critic Ranjit Hoskote described Tyeb Mehta's tryst with the diagonal years ago. "The diagonal, the fierce weapon by which space could be reorganised and the self could stage its battle with itself was born almost fortuitously, out of painterly frustration. Having come to an impasse in his handling of the relationship between figure, field and colour, in 1969, Tyeb suddenly flung a black slash across one of his paintings: beginning as an improvisatory resolution to a periodically intractable problem, the diagonal became a device to activate the painting and, eventually, a symbol of scission, of that simultaneous separation and twinning by which the self recognises and comes to healing terms with its own contradictions."

Tyeb himself added to Hoskote's observations. "I was trying to work out a way to define space…to activate a canvas. If I divided it horizontally and vertically, I merely created a preponderance of smaller squares or rectangles. But if I cut the canvas with a diagonal, I immediately created a certain dislocation. I was able to distribute and divide a figure within the two created triangles and automatically disjoint and fragment it. Yet the diagonal maintained an almost centrifugal unity…in fact, became a pictorial element in itself."

Padamsee's Rooftops

Akbar Padamsee's Rooftops is the stuff of dreams. "It's far more exciting for me as a painter to work in grey or sepia. The brush can move freely from figure to ground, and this interaction offers me immense formal possibilities," said Padamsee.

Shamlal, the artist's first biographer, noted "In the case of an artist less sure of himself, such renunciation might have been fatal. With Padamsee, the renunciation becomes an act of self-discovery. By restricting himself to greys, like the Chinese masters who confine themselves to the various shades of black, he strikes the richest vein of poetry in his art. In the paintings of 1959 and 1960, there is a lyrical intensity which comes from a passionate love affair. The affair is between the artist and his art, naked and defenceless."

Raza's Landscapes

"No landscape painted by this young seer is an exact copy of the sights which unfold before the spectator. He transfigures everything he sees, and this process assumes, under his brush, a magic character. Villages are detached from their earthy support and seem to move in the cold light of a night fantasy. Houses shaken by earth tremors disintegrate and collapse. Churches glide down on beds of cloud. The vault of the sky has spectral lights of dawn or dusk," wrote the distinguished Waldemar George, in 1959.

For Sayed Haider Raza, the 1950s were a stirring period of achievement and experimentation. Raza's landscapes of the period evolve from a representational approach towards one focused on colours and their power to evoke emotional responses in the viewer. Le Lac and Paysage are two early works.

Paysage was painted in 1958, almost a decade after the artist's arrival in France, by which time Raza had gained critical recognition, including becoming the first foreign artist to be awarded the Prix de la Critique in 1956. Le Lac, painted in 1964, belongs to a key period in Raza's career, during which he began to experiment with a less structured pictorial space and explored the translucent play of colour in nature. In 1962, while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Raza was deeply impacted by the work of the Abstract Expressionists Sam Francis, Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. Le Lac becomes a resonant residue of that influence.

Souza's Family

Created in 1946, Souza's Family is a stunning splendour both in tonality and contours of the subject. The rustic image at once has Catholic symbolism in the rosary worn by the woman and the Madonna on the wall. Souza's friend and collector Ebrahim Alkazi's words describe Souza best.

"In the entire history of Indian art, he [Souza] is exceptional, in the sheer power and development of his work to a truly distinctive style, which sets it apart. In no period of Souza's work can you mistake it with anyone else's. What is this quality in him that sets him so uniquely apart and at the same time does not make him derivative? His work has incredible vitality and one has to search for its basis."

Manjit Bawa

Two spectacular works by Manjit Bawa exemplify the master of contours. In the catalogue for Manjit Bawa's 2000 solo exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York, the critic Ranjit Hoskote encapsulated the fantastic and ethereal energy that animates this seminal painting. "The mauve panther, the bull poised to charge, the circus artiste whirling a streamer as she balances on two spirited horses, the blue flautist – each form, animal and human, rejoices in its plasticity and libidinal energy, its gymnastic ability to defy the structures of the anatomist. The rounded contours of each toy-like figure speak of its prana, the life-breath that gives it a vital buoyancy, allowing it to occupy rather than be trapped in those flat, glowing, single-colour fields of red, yellow, green or blue that are Bawa's hallmark device." In this case, Bawa's Acrobat and his Krishna with the cow are both emblematic works that reflect his prowess as a master.

Bikash's Jhumki

Quite a few of Bhattacharjee's oil paintings from the 1980s and '90s are sensitively rendered portraits of unkempt child labourers from city slums. In the present painting titled Jhumki (earring), set against a background of ominous black, is a small unclothed beggar child wearing just a necklace and an armband. Her eyes have a haunting quality to them as they draw the viewer's gaze to her scarred but radiant face. Bhattacharjee held a strong belief in the potential for shadows to create drama in even seemingly mundane compositions. Here, the artist builds a narrative around the mood brought about by his shadows, relying on both his technical mastery and the natural allegorical tendencies of darkness. "I prefer to lay the dark colours first and then build up the lights and the highlights. This process has helped me to give dimension to my pictures to say what I want to and, also to give the canvas the texture and characters that I desire."

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