Many stories unfold in Arpita Singh’s vibrant painting Feminine Fables (1996). Hennaed hands populate the canvas, while three female figures take centre stage. A multi-limbed woman cradles a smaller female figure in her lap. Another one smiles while holding a set of blooms against her torso. The viewer can see the back of the third figure as she raises her hand towards the multi-limbed one.
Both the subject and the artistic gaze are feminine. Reflecting on the series of reverse paintings, the artist mentioned in a statement: “I seem to build up space with smaller forms and place them with some order. I think this is necessary to express my thoughts directly. The themes relate to the secret world of women with their rites and activities.”
The 1996 work is one of the 85 lots that will be auctioned by Christie’s in New York as part of Centering The Figure: South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art From The Collection Of Romi Lamba, later this month. The works chosen for this sale focus on narrative figuration and celebrate the practices of leading artists from the subcontinent, such as Singh, Manjit Bawa, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jogen Chowdhury, Anju and Atul Dodiya and Maqbool Fida Husain. Centering The Figure also features contemporary photography by Dayanita Singh, Pushpamala N. and Vivan Sundaram.
Tryst with south asian art
The auction will also showcase the four-decade-long trajectory of Romi Lamba and Sagiri Dayal’s collecting journey, which cuts across disciplines and forms—from antiques to ancient textiles and Asian contemporary paintings, photographs and sculptures.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Lamba had limited exposure to art. His keenness on work from India first took wing when he left the country at the age of 16 and moved to Philadelphia, US, for higher studies, he says on email. In the 1980s, Dayal and he wanted unique pieces of furniture and accessories for their rented apartment. The couple would visit antique shops and find Satsuma-style Japanese pottery from the 16th century, rare rugs and carpets from the East, and Kashmiri shawls. Soon, they were able to distinguish between fine and amateur workmanship.
He also started collecting textile art about the same time. But some of these shawls and fabrics were more than a century old and did not reflect the creativity of Indian artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “My passions have always been accompanied by an emphasis on research, and with Indian art there were new books, publications, galleries and the fresh presence of auction houses, both international and domestic. In some ways it was the perfect environment to grow and expand this specific passion,” he says.
Lamba’s engagement with modern and contemporary South Asian art, however, started only when the family moved to Hong Kong in 1994. “Romi describes the collection as having three distinct phases, beginning with prominent modernists when they first entered the field in the 1990s. Having already acquired the more established artists by the 2000s, around the time that the contemporary Indian art market was beginning to grow, they turned their attention to younger, upcoming artists,” notes the auction catalogue. In the late 2010s, he turned his attention to contemporary photography. His approach was rather unique—Lamba would choose from photographs mailed to him by galleries before the opening of a show and buy over the phone.
The Indian photography collection started with the acquisition of four works from Vivan Sundaram’s Re-take Of Amrita series, “which managed to bring together a pioneering Indian photographer (Umrao Singh Sher-Gil), Amrita’s paintings—both her Western portraits and Indian-themed works— and the digital wizardry to juxtapose the past and present,” says Lamba.
He then focused on photographers such as Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh and Ram Rahman. “A trophy in my small photography collection is a complete set of 24 prints from N. Pushpamala ’s Phantom Lady series. Then there is a large mixed-media work by Remen Chopra, which reflects her preoccupation with the female figure, the self and the past,” he adds.
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Home as an art gallery
A time came when the couple was no longer content with just being patrons of art. At the time, Hong Kong did not have a single gallery dedicated to Indian art. So, around 2000, Dayal co-founded Indian Contemporary to showcase works by Indian artists; this resulted in long-standing relationships with artists such as Singh, Bawa, Rekha Rodwittiya and Anjolie Ela Menon. In some cases, they were able to commission paintings from the artists for their collection.
“The selection of works featured in this sale were meant to be lived with, and they adorned every corner of his home, which he described as ‘a home masquerading as an art gallery’,” states the catalogue essay.
It’s interesting that the vast majority of works in the collection focus on the figure. Take, for instance, Manjit Bawa’s Narasimha, with its arresting image of half-lion and half-man against a red background. “Jogen Chowdury’s figurative works are naturalistic in their poses and expressions. And Sudhir Patwardhan’s Of Painting is an unusual expression of the figure, with the main male subject presenting his back to the viewer, and the multiple heads in the painting lined up as faces, seemingly in agony,” says Lamba. The key works, however, belong to Arpita Singh, with the collection representative of all the mediums she has worked with, including canvas, paper and acrylic.
For Lamba, her two most unique works are My Daughter, which mirrors her well-known painting My Mother. “This is a portrait of her daughter Anjum Singh, also an artist, who sadly passed away recently. This adds poignancy to what may be the only substantial portrait Arpita painted of Anjum. The second work, titled Words Can Fly, is a combined painting done jointly by Arpita and her husband Paramjit Singh,” says Lamba. “Here, a couple sit on a bench, apparently in sorrow, in the midst of a lush forest, almost foreshadowing future pain in their lives.”
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Deep engagement with artists
What appeals to him about Arpita Singh’s paintings is her use of colour, figures, recurring motifs (like planes, guns and flowers), letters and words to create a singular artistic vocabulary that speaks for women, and, sometimes, couples.
Lamba and Dayal also treasure works by Anju and Atul Dodiya. Especially striking is Anju’s Cocoon, from the self-portraiture genre. “The size of the painting and its medium (acrylic on canvas) magnify her usual watercolours on paper, and provide an introspective atmosphere that forces the viewer to keep staring at it,” says Lamba.
They also have a pair of canvases by Suhas Roy—a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in sombre black and white, and Radha, which the family had commissioned. One of Lamba’s personal favourites is a small work by Dayanita Singh, titled First Communion, Saligao, 2000. “This photograph fuses the themes that often attract me: the figure (the girl’s face remains unseen, creating a sense of mystery), the past and history reflected in Goan architecture, and an important moment in the subject’s life, all captured by a fleeting camera lens,” he says. “After I bought the work, Dayanita told me she had recently returned to that village and met that girl, now an adult. Our art collection has grown with us over 30 years and we are simultaneously proud to have built it and sad to let it go.”
The auction will be held at Christie’s Rockefeller Center in New York on 21 September.