Bringing Indian art into the mainstream

How one auctioneer wants to make India’s art market more inclusive with a focus on valuable and rare art without a huge price tag

'Untitled (Set of 10 photographs of various artists)', Jyoti Bhatt, large format square negative portraits (1994) 
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His canvas is red, the bright throbbing colour of blood or rage, against which the face appears almost misplaced. The weight of life seems to reflect on the face, a burden he is not willing to bear any longer and the eyes are red gashes. Shock and pain explodes in this 1990 painting, Cry, by Manu Parekh, inspired by the Bhagalpur blindings – a series of incidents that occurred in the Indian state of Bihar in 1979 and 1980, when police blinded individuals on trial by pouring acid into their eyes.

'Cry', by Manu Parekh

To understand the depth, expanse and sensibility behind modern Indian art is a gargantuan task that is being undertaken by a group of entrepreneurs whose passion for the country's art and heritage is palpable. Indrajit Chatterjee of Prinseps, India's first real-time auction platform and art research-focused company, is one of them. Cry by Parekh will go under the hammer over two days of virtual bidding, open to collectors globally, during Prinseps's seventh auction tomorrow and Thursday.

Making art affordable 

Money is not at the centre of Prinseps's auctions, and the seemingly lower starting prices should not be taken as a sign of an artwork's diminished importance. In a world where buying art is still considered elitist and international auctions have drawn attention with paintings sold for millions, Chatterjee is committed to providing investment-grade serious art for collectors – novices and experts alike. He believes the work Prinseps has and will continue to put up will attract genuine collectors without exorbitant price tags because it is focused on the art form. "We have auctioned incredibly rare works, but the idea is to service the collector," says Chatterjee.

For instance, in the coming auction, expect several etchings on handmade paper, including the lesser-known man with crown viscosity etching from the 1970s by Somnath Hore. He is one of India's great contemporary sculptors and printmakers, whose work was devoted to the tragedy of the human condition and the plight of his people over the few decades after Indian independence. Hore's works are a true connoisseur's delight.

Artists' prints will also be available to bid on, including those by the legendary F N Souza and M F Husain. This will be the first prints auction in India, Chatterjee says, which is different to auctions of sketches (artists tended to, and continue to, make prints of their works before lending them to canvases).

 'Untitled (Horses)', M F Husain.

With a background in finance, research and trading, Chatterjee had a clear aim while setting up Prinseps – there would be no cutting corners when it came to choosing artworks, running the business or spending time on researching authenticity and provenance. "I've always applied the same rigour to any decision I've made," he says. It helps that he devours books and is also an ardent philatelist with a collection of rare stamps from unknown princely kingdoms of India, from where, for example, only 2,000 letters were posted.

Extensive research focused on confirming the style of the artist, provenance and technical details go into constituting lots for auctions, which is why they are small in size. "Because we're a completely public, transparent platform, and our reputation is at stake, we cannot afford to shortchange this process. This is why our primary source preferences are collectors who bought the work directly from the artist, or galleries that represented the artist," says Chatterjee.

'Art in India is not inclusive'

Apart from mainstreaming photographs as well as colonial-era furniture at the next auction, Chatterjee is working on a collection of speeches handwritten by Nobel Prize laureate and prolific artist Rabindranath Tagore (who died in 1941), which have his doodles on them. In fact, Prinseps's first auction was a collection of artworks by Rathindranath Tagore, Rabindranath's son, which had not been seen before. "It was a pleasure to highlight something new," says Chatterjee. Prinseps has also auctioned antiquarian books in the past.

Considering the condition of museums, art education and mass interest in India, the entrepreneur believes private oversight is crucial to ringing in change. "All of this is our culture, yet art in India is not inclusive," Chatterjee says.

The disappointment in his voice is clear, although he avoids sweeping critiques. "If private participants passionate about art are on boards of government institutions and museums, as opposed to just bureaucrats who've landed jobs they don't particularly care for, there will be a big difference."

Chatterjee has also been publicising lost works in the hope of finding them. Two such cases are that of a portrait of Debendranath Tagore, founder of the Brahmo Samaj religious movement, by painter Jamini Roy and a pastel portrait of a young Rabindranath by his nephew Abanindranath Tagore.

Over the years, Prinseps wants to appeal to consumers who buy other aspirational products such as gold. “This is at the core of the company,” says Chatterjee, “How do we introduce more people in India to art?”

Works to look out for

1.The highlight of the auction is a rare double-sided Ram Kumar work, Mazes of the Mind / Family from the ’60s, which is abstract on the front and figurative at the back. It hails from the early years of the Progressive Arts Group movement, which heralded Modernism in India

'Mazes of the Mind / Family', Ram Kumar (double sided)

2. There will be two photographs by Raghu Rai, the father of Modern Indian photography, acquired directly from him, on sale. Both are black-and-whites. There’s also a photomontage of HungarianIndian painter Amrita Sher-Gil by Vivan Sundaram and a set of 10 artist portraits by Jyoti Bhatt, including pictures of Himmat Shah and a young M F Husain (pictured top left).

'Untitled (Set of 10 photographs of various artists)', Jyoti Bhatt

3. Zainul Abedin’s oil on canvas from 1943 depicting the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 is a rare acquisition. Abedin became famous for his Famine Series, and with the formation of Bangladesh, went on to be hailed as the founding father of Bangladeshi Modern art.

4.An untitled Husain christened Horses (pictured far left) from the 1990s, a his 1944 print of the Taj Mahal.

5. Three Jamini Roy artworks from the 1930s-1940s will go under the hammer. The Roy works are the only items that cannot be exported due to their National Art Treasure status – only buyers from India can bid on them.

To find out more, visit Bidding commences at 10am (IST) on April 24.