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Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art

Sotheby's New York

10 AM, March 25, 2011, 10 am

Sale No: 8728

Reclining nude by Akbar Padamsee

Sotheby's Specialist Anuradha Ghosh Mazumdar with Lot 218, "Untitled (Reclining Nude," by Akbar Padamsee, 1960, oil on canvas, 36 by 127 3/4 inches

Copyright Michele Leight

By Michele Leight

Among the treasures of Asia Week in New York is an iconic painting by Akbar Padamsee, "Untitled (Reclining Nude)," that will be offered in Sotheby's New York sale of Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art on March 25, 2011, and is described by the artist as one of his "greatest paintings." Lot 218 "Untitled (Reclining Nude)" has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, and was painted in 1960.

"Untitled (Reclining Nude)" by Akbar Padamsee is considered one of the most important paintings by a modern Indian painter ever to have appeared on the market, and was acquired from the artist over 50 years ago. It has never before appeared at auction. Sotheby's presented the painting to collectors at the recent Indian Art Summit in New Delhi - the first time it had been returned to India since 1960.

Some paintings have great stories attached to them, and this is such a painting. When Padamsee returned to Bombay after an eight year stay in Paris "he was invited by the artist and filmmaker Bal Chabda to have a solo exhibition at the newly minted Gallery 59, Bombay's first commercial gallery that had become a hotbed for artistic experimentation across disciplines...Akbar accepted the invitation and began to look for a place where he could live and work. He found a cottage in Juhu with an adjoining open space that had once been a court equipped with bright lights. There, spreading huge canvases on the floor of the lighted court, working at night, he created a series of paintings in a unique gray palette that he had formulated, containing a spectrum of tones ranging from whitish to bluish, greenish and black-grays," (Sotheby's catalogue for this sale).

Sotheby's catalogue for this sale notes that Akbar Padamsee's exhibition at Gallery 59 opened to high acclaim. A leading art critic at The Times of India wrote: 'There are but 12 oils on view, but so overpowering is their size - ranging from canvases 10 by 3 feet to one enormous composition about 17 by 6 feet - and so outstanding is their quality, that even the normally reticent observer will be deeply moved.' Two of the large canvases went into the collections of artists - M.F.Husain and Krishen Khanna. The third is the present work and it is described by Padamsee as one of his 'greatest paintings'" (Correspondence with Akbar Padamsee, January 2011, Sotheby's catalog for this sale)

Lot 218, "Untitled (Reclining Nude)" by Akbar Padamsee sold for $1,426,500 million including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.

Other masters of modern Indian painting whose work will be offered for sale include M.F.Husain, S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and Jagdish Swaminathan, among others, and Rabindranath Tagore's unique "Death Scene" is another highlight of this sale. Ravinder Reddy, T.V. Santosh, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Khar and Reena Kallat are among the leading contemporary artists represented. 

"Untitled" by Reena Saini Kallat

Lot 275, "Untitled," by Reena Saini Kallat, (b. 1973), 2008, mixed media, 72 by 48 inches

Reena Saini Kallat's enigmatic mixed media work, Lot 275, "Untitled," is illustrated below. It has an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000. It sold for $27,500.

Lot 219, "Untitled," by Maqbool Fida Husain, 1956, Oil on canvas, 38 by 99 1/2 inches

The superb painting by M.F. Husain illustrated above, Lot 219, "Untitled," is like a storyboard for a film. Husain was a filmmaker - and this painting was created during a period in his life when he traveled "across the Indian sub-continent from the mountains of the Himalayas to the jungles of Kerala. He was attracted to the varying landscapes of India, the different people he encountered, and the stories and artistic traditions that they had inherited. Yashodara Dalmis explains: '[Husain] drew from the classical, the miniature and folk, and attempted to meld it into a language which formulated the present. It allowed him to express a perceived reality which, while being seamless, mythical and vast, was at the same time hurtling towards modernization." (Y.Dalmia, M.F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s-70s, Asia House, London, 2006, Sotheby's catalog for this sale).  The lot has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.  It sold for $602,500.

Lot 205, "Death Scene," by Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941), Gouache and colored inks on paper, 10 by 14 inches, The Archer Tagore

At the centre of a group of Bengal School paintings by Rabindranath, Abanindranath, Gaganendranath Tagore and Jamini Roy is "Death Scene" that was once in the collection of Mildred and William Archer. Lot 205, "Death Scene," illustrated above, was painted by one of India's most famous sons: writer, artist, poet, founder of the art school Santiniketan in Bengal, and Nobel Prize Winner (for his poem "Gitanjali"), Rabindranath Tagore. This seminal work was purchased by William and Mildred Archer directly from the artist at Santineketan, the famous art school Tagore founded in rural Bengal, in October 1932. Rich with Indian art history, Sotheby's catalogue for this sale notes that this painting has been exhibited at the Government School of Art, Kolkata (20-29 February 1932), the Victoria and Albert Museum (1954-6), ""Poets Pictures: The Drawings of Rabindranath Tagore," (Calcutta, May 1961), at the Commonwealth Institute, London SW7, the Tagore Centenary Exhibition at India House (November, 1961), and "The Arts of Bengal" at The Whitechapel Art Gallery (1980).

Like William Blake, who was also a visionary and a poet, "Death Scene" bears the hallmark of a unique artist who really cannot be conveniently slotted into a particular style or movement. Sotheby's catalogue for this sale includes insights by William Archer:

"...It was this freedom from previous styles, both naturally Indian and non-Indian, this bold originality, this willingness to create forms in ways which were naturally Indian yet robustly modern which made him the first modern Indian artist; and looking back over the last fifty years, I cannot think of any other Indian artist whose influence has been so profound." (WG Archer, India Served and Observed, London, 1994, Part 11. p. 31." 

Lot 205, "Death Scene" has an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $338,500.

Lot 207, "The Death of Rabindranath Tagore," is a beautiful rendition of him lying in state by Abanindranath Tagore, (1867-1938), with an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $37,500. Lot 204, "Gandhi," is a rare portrait by Jamini Roy of Mahatma Gandhi painted in gouache on card in his early, Impressionist style brushwork. Lot 204 has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $43,750.

Lot 224, "Lily By My Window," by Jagdish Swaminathan, late 1960s to early 1970s, Oil on canvas, 42 by 48 inches

The sublime painting illustrated above by Jagdish Swaminathan, Lot 224, "Lily By My Window," is one of the treasures of the Asian art sales this week. Sotheby's catalog for this sale includes the following quote by the artist: "Given the life of the canvas and the colors, a painting is immutable, fixed and eternal. It does not know growth or decay. Yet it has a life of its own, inasmuch as it is never the same to any two persons in space or even the same person in time." (Jagdish Swaminathan, The Traditional Numen and Contemporary Art," in Lalit Kala Contemporary, April 29, 1980, pp.5-10). Lot 224 has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $314,500.

"Prakriti" by Raza

Lot 227, "Prakriti," by Sayed Haider Raza, 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 58 1/2 by 58 1/2 inches

Every sale has at least one painting that passes that makes absolutely no sense at all, and the gorgeous Raza illustrated above is a case in point. Like life, potential buyers can be unpredictable, it is not a reflection of the artwork. Perhaps its estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 was intimidating, so "Prakriti" passed at $380,000.

"Untitled (Minotaur)" by Husain

Left: Lot 220, "Untitled (Minotaur)," by Maqbool Fida Husain, 1968, oil on Canvas 60 1/4 by 50 inches; Right:

A sumptuous painting by MF Husain suffered the same fate, but passed at much nearer its low estimate, which is bewildering: Lot 220, "Untitled (Minotaur)," had an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 and passed at $280,000.

Lot 254, "Tree," by Sayed Haider Raza, 2001, Acrylic on canvas, 39 by 31 3/4 inches

Lot 254, "Tree," the beautiful Raza, illustrated above, has an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000 and is so luminous it seems as if it is painted in watercolor. However the medium is acrylic. It sold for $86,500.  Sotheby's catalogue for this sale includes a moving description by the artist of how he creates a painting: "Every morning my entry into the studio is like a prayer. I put my working space in order, I forget my outside thoughts and preoccupations. I wash my brushes, put fresh water in my pots and touch my canvases, until I am completely emptied of the world surrounding me and can focus my attention on the central image...Ideas come to you from the moment you wake up in the morning, then images appear and disappear. I just sit and wait. -SH Raza (SH Raza in conversation with Michel Imperb, "Raza: An Introduction to his Painting," Delhi, 2003, p. 62, Sotheby's catalog for this sale)

Lot 221, "The End," by Krishen Khanna, 1970, Oil on canvas, 63 by 38 inches

From Krishen Khanna's "Dead and Dying Series," Lot 221, "The End," is as macabre as it looks - depicting a tortured and bound man brutalized by life. This tormented figure symbolizes some of the more violent events of the 1960s that impacted on the artist: : "[By the early 1970s] Krishen's preoccupation with gentle, lyrical subjects changed dramatically to issues of social injustice and oppression, something approaching an obsession with brutality in public life." (Gayatri Sinha, Krishen Khanna: A Critical Biography, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 110-112, Sotheby's catalogue for this sale). Lot 221 has an estimate of $200,000 to $250,000. It sold for $218,500.

Two unusual works of art are not illustrated. Lot 261, "Corners (Edition 2 of 3)," (1980) is by Zarina Hashmi (b. 1937), made of cast paper - ingenius - has an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $12,500. Lot 272, "Untitled," by Bharti Kher (b. 1969), looks like jeweled raindrops, but is actually hundreds of bindis on paper. Lot 272 measures 22 3/4 by 23 inches and has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It sold for $31,250.

Lot 267, "Untitled (Head)," by Ravinder Reddy, 2007, Painted polyester resin and fiberglass, 80 by 56 by 75 inches

One of my favorites artworks of Asia Week is Lot 267, "Untitled (Head)," by Ravinder Reddy, strategically placed in Sotheby's entrance lobby so that no one could miss its wonderful presence. Instead of the customary gold that most often coats Reddy's earthbound goddesses, the eerie shade of blue that covered her visage and neck only made her more fun to look at on a chilly spring morning.  It has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.  It sold for $170,500.

Across the lobby, keeping her company, was a terrifyingly rudimentary contraption that turned out to be "The Vostok 3KA-2 Spaceship," which, according to the helpful information surrounding it (and subsequently on Sotheby's web site) was flown with the cosmonaut-mannequin Ivan Ivanovich, on 25 March 1961, as the final fail-safe and test mission prior to Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight just eighteen days later. Sotheby' website expands further:

"Vostok 3KA-2 is not a prototype but an exact twin of Gagarin's Vostok 3KA-3 capsule, which was later designated Vostok 1.Vostok 3KA-2 was a critical linchpin of the world's first manned space program, not only providing the "green light" for the first manned space flight, but afterwards serving for training at the Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, and later providing the design model for Zenit and other spy satellites manufactured at the Central Specialized Design Bureau in Kuybyshev. This is the only Vostok spaceship outside of Russia and the only one in private hands; all other surviving Vostok capsules are in permanent Russian museum collections."

What courage and achievement it represents! The diameter of capsule is 7.26 feet (2.3 meters), and the interior volume is 1.6 cubic meters. Among other prestigious venues, it has been exhibited at The International Space Symposium, Washington, D.C., (November 2000), The National Space Symposium, Colorado Springs, (April 2001), The World Space Expo, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, November (2007–July 2008) and The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, August 2008–August 2009

Lot 1, the "VOSTOK 3KA-2 SPACESHIP" has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $10,000,000 USD and will be offered for sale on Tuesday 12 April at 2 PM. For more information visit

Before leaving Sotheby's galleries, I just had to take one more look at Ravinder Reddy's blue goddess, "Untitled (Head)". A Sotheby's staffer saw me return and said he too liked the sculpture, and that children were drawn to her like magnets:

"I've been sitting here thinking about how I would decorate around her. I think I'd have a video showing all the children coming up to her. They say things like "why do her eyes bulge out like that?"


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