Auction preview exhibitions are often those exceptional occasions when one gets to see rare works of masters up close. Most of them hail from private collections, which one would not have access to otherwise. The exhibition organised by auction house Saffronart, as part of its Spring live auction sale, is one such event. Featuring 55 important works by modern masters, the auction will be held at its Mumbai gallery on 6 April. Meanwhile, the works are currently on display at Saffronart’s space in Delhi at The Oberoi. The highlights include a terracotta pot painted by Jamini Roy and a 1996-oil on canvas by Arpita Singh, titled Twenty-seven Ducks of Memory. There are also interesting works by Pilloo Pochkanawala, MV Dhurandhar, and Hemendranath Mazumdar. However, there are certain works that stand out as they mark significant moments in the artists’ practices.
Raja Ravi Varma’s Draupadi Vastraharan, 1888-1890
The artist was known for his academic realism. “This ‘new way of painting’, where the principles of perspective, foreshortening, and highlighting were applied in order to create works that evoked the visual reality of life... changed the course of painting in India,” writes Rupika Chawla in a book titled Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, a Mapin publication. The medium of oil colour on painting itself was new but become a preferred medium for the sheer possibilities to create volume that the prevalent watercolour or tempera did not lend themselves to. There is a clear demarcation between the various categories of paintings created by Varma; broadly, puranic, depicting a moment from epic texts, religious, providing images of gods and goddesses, and scenes from Hindu classical dramas like the cover lot at the upcoming auction.
“Draupadi Vastraharan depicts a critical point in the story of the Mahabharata. While much has already transpired between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, it is this moment that serves to heighten the drama further,” says Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and co-founder of Saffronart. It was an important work created for Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. Varma captures the moment of the disrobing effectively with the details portrayed depicting his prowess in representing mythological characters in a manner that conveys emotion.
Ram Kumar’s Untitled, 1971
This work grabs attention for the very unusual choice of colours. Ram Kumar’s abstracted landscapes have mostly been in natural shades like brown, blue and green with large portions in whites and greys. But this work features purple and black. Kumar initially expressed himself through a figurative idiom and then a largely architectonic one. Vazirani elaborates, “…he only turned to complete abstraction in the late 1960s. And over the next five decades, these abstract works came to represent the artist's journey towards what he termed 'the language of painting.” Although devoid of human or architectural forms, this work is firmly rooted in Kumar's experiences and depiction of nature.
Rameshwar Broota’s Thus came the Weekend, 1960
At first glance, one would never have guessed this work to be a Broota painting. It belongs to a period before the artist moved away from the thick impasto portraits to a more condensed narration. “His tall canvases filled with larger-than-life figures of labour, minutely capturing the last surviving shreds of life existing in their weathered bodies and tense muscles. In their pictorial treatment, he thinned down the oil paint and its consistency to get a water colour like effect, creating a transparency that made the painted bodies of the deprived lose their weight and fleshiness. The paled skin tones came to represent the anaemic condition of his protagonists,” writes Roobina Karode in Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body, published by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
The present lot is an early work, portraying a female figure in deep contemplation. “This oil on canvas reinforces what Broota’s art ultimately relies on—stark simplicity, brevity of statement, and impeccable grasp of detail; and it is these elements, rather than any overarching ideology or aesthetic doctrine, that makes it as powerful as it is,” says Amrita Jhaveri about the work that was gifted to the father of its current owner.
Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled, 1999
“It is coming all the way from New York, just in time for the preview today,” said Vazirani on the day of the preview. He was waiting at the lobby to greet the work. Referred to as the Bull on Rickshaw, this work represents Mehta’s classic style using planes of colour dissected by the subtle diagonals. Depicting the rickshaw handles, the diagonal lines together with the abstract use of flattened forms, segregate expanses of colour. The six decades of Mehta’s artistic career can be traced through the presence of an evolving central figure that is often distorted, caught in free fall, a flurry of body parts without a clear shape.
“In Tyeb’s paintings, the figure is the bearer of all drama, momentum and crisis, a detonation against the ground it occupies and commands; by contrast, the field appears, at first sight, to be all flattened colour, a series of bland, featureless planes that impede the manifestation of the figure, or even fragment the figure into intriguing shards. Only gradually does the eye, unpuzzling the painting, recognise that Tyeb treats figure and field as interlocked and not separate entities,” writes Ranjit Hoskote in Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, published by Vadehra Art Gallery. His figures, whether human, animal, or bird, convey a sense of disquieting torment and trauma. They appear to be silent victims and merciless aggressors all at once.
Somnath Hore, Wounds, 1977
It is refreshing to encounter Somnath Hore’s work from his coveted Wounds series. The 1977-work on paper depicts the physicality and psychology of the idea of wound in the most minimal way. The metaphor itself reflects impermanence in how Hore presents his work. A deep personal response to adversities like the Japan bombing of his homeland, Chittagong in 1942 followed by the devastating Bengal famine, this work has a quiet and yet a commanding presence.
Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based culture writer