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The 1950s and 1960s were a period of great ferment in art circles in Bombay, as it was then called. It was around this time that the Progressives, M F Husain, F N Souza, S H Raza, V S Gaitonde, and their associates such as Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee — now considered India’s most valuable artists — were at their most fecund, experimenting with styles that now distinguish their glittering careers. But for the artists, it was also a period of great hardship since few Indians then bought their works. Had it not been for a small band of discerning foreigners — tourists, domiciles, expat employees of multinationals, and so on — who bought their works, many, it would be fair to say, would have given up for want of patronage.
Of these Tom and Martha Keehn are, perhaps, the most important. An American, Keehn came to India in 1953, to work for a Rockefeller-aided organisation that was looking to develop the Indian handicrafts sector. Soon, the Keehns fell in with the artists and began acquiring artworks. The “Keehn family collection” is now legendary in the annals of modern Indian art. Several artworks from the collection have come up for sale in the past few years in auctions in New York and London, fetching huge premiums for their provenance, scale, quality and importance in the artists’ oeuvre.
One such is Husain’s Untitled (Keehn Family Portrait). A large canvas depicting seven members of the family in the artist’s trademark expressionist style, it was on offer at Christie’s sale of south Asian modern and contemporary art in March this year, where it went for $206,500 (around Rs 1.14 crore) far more than its price estimate of $100,000 - $150,000.
Untitled (Keehn Family Portrait) is now on show and for sale at “Manifestations VIII — 20th Century Indian Art”, which opened this week at Delhi Art Gallery’s 9,000-sqft space in Hauz Khas village. It’s price: Rs 3 crore.
Husain’s portrait of the Keehn family is, however, only one of the many exceptional works at DAG, which has emerged as the country’s premier gallery dealing in the “masters”. Unlike other galleries, DAG owns its entire collection, which now numbers around 30,000 works (National Gallery of Modern Art, in comparison, has around 17,000) and includes not just the established, hugely saleable Progressives, but also other artists who are equally distinctive, or pioneering, but have not got the recognition they deserve.
“Manifestations” is a bi-annual fixture on the DAG calendar, but, of late, the gallery has also stepped up its activities with large shows presenting some aspect, a genre or school of art, and retrospectives of individual artists. Each of these is almost museum-quality in its historical sweep and range. For instance, this year DAG mounted a retrospective of G R Santosh, the well-known exponent of tantric art, followed by a show on the Art of Bengal, then one on the landscape genre and lastly, on four centuries of print-making in India.
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Coming up this year-end, says Kishore Singh, who heads exhibitions and publications at DAG, is a show of Nemai Ghosh’s Ray stills and other cinematic photographs, followed next year by retrospectives of Avinash Chandra, the highly-regarded artist who settled in London in the 1950s and has not had a solo in India since, and Krishna Reddy, the pioneering print-maker. DAG, which has got an 8,500 sqft space in an old building in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda area, will open its branch in that city in April next year, and is also looking to expand its floor space in Delhi, says Singh.
“Manisfestations” remains, however, the mainstay of DAG’s exhibitory programme, its USP being rare works by little-known artists and iconic paintings and sculptures by well-known ones culled from its rich archive. The present edition features 75 artists and, says DAG Director Ashish Anand, is the “most ambitious” mounted so far. It is also, undoubtedly, one of the most valuable in monetary terms. Besides Husain’s portrait of the Keehn family, there’s a rare canvas by Tyeb Mehta (the most expensive at Rs 5 crore); a late figurative work by Ram Kumar; one of Krishen Khanna’s Last Supper canvases; an exquisitely dark portrait by Rabindranath Tagore; a Souza cityscape; a painting on the Partition by Satish Gujral; besides works by J Swaminathan, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Anjoli Ela Menon, Biren De, et al.
The pick of the show, however, is an extraordinary work by M V Dhurandhar, an early 20th century, Bombay-based painter who is known for his exquisitely realistic portraits and figure studies. Called My Wife In Art, it is a hand-painted, leather-bound folio that brings together 175 intimate sketches done over 40 years of his two wives, Bapubai who died after two years of marriage in 1898, and Gangubai, whom he married shortly after. The latter, given her longevity and their long and seemingly happy conjugal life, was evidently the artist’s favoured model, and something of a practice subject, whom he copiously sketched in pencil, ink and water-colour, sleeping, sitting, standing, from the side, the back, the folds of her sari, and those on her face brought on by age. It is an affectionate, though not always flattering rendition that is also a rare testimony of an artist at work, perfecting his tools of trade.
Art-lovers and collectors will also be glad to see two works by A A Raiba, a contemporary and companion of the Progressives, who somehow failed to rise to their heights, and now lives disregarded in Mumbai’s Nalasopara suburb.