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Art at the dawn of the space age

  • Auctions and exhibitions are revisiting works from the 1970s that reflect on India’s advances in science
  • This intersection between science and art can be seen in an untitled work by V.S. Gaitonde, which is being auctioned by Sotheby’s in Mumbai next week

V.S. Gaitonde’s ‘Untitled’, a previously unseen work from 1974, is being auctioned by Sotheby’s next week.
V.S. Gaitonde’s ‘Untitled’, a previously unseen work from 1974, is being auctioned by Sotheby’s next week. (Photo Courtesy: Sotheby’s)

It was 1974 and India was on the verge of entering the space age. Preparations were underway at the Indian Space Research Organisation to launch the first satellite, Aryabhatta, early the following year. It was around this time that Vasudeo S. Gaitonde—hailed as one of the most significant modern abstract painters today—created an untitled work to reflect on the country’s tryst with scientific innovation. It featured five orbs, suspended in space like planets. “The painting is divided into horizontal swathes of black, brown and yellow, reminiscent of the colours of Jupiter, which Nasa’s Pioneer 11 was exploring at the time," the Sotheby’s catalogue says about this work.

This painting, which has never been seen before, is one of the highlights of Sotheby’s Boundless: India auction, set to take place in Mumbai on 15 November. It comes from the collection of actor and TV personality Sabira Merchant, who bought the painting from gallerist Kali Pundole in 1975. “When I met Kali, he called this painting the ‘Rising Suns’. And if you look at it, you get a sense of being uplifted," says Merchant on the phone. She bought the work for the feeling of serenity it evoked.

At first, it was set against a wood panel, with the browns in the painting merging with the panelling behind. “The work had a second viewing when I put it against a white wall in the living room. It stood out like a jewel," says Merchant.

The 1970s marked a period of innovation and experimentation—the White Revolution, led by Verghese Kurien, making India self-dependent in milk production, had taken off, and the Pokhran nuclear test had been conducted. This led to an interesting intersection of art and science, with artists reflecting on these developments in their work. For instance, M.F. Husain’s Lightning panels were created in response to the Pokhran nuclear test. “A. Ramachandran’s Nuclear Ragini series imagined the blinding light of an atomic bomb blast," says Jagdip Jagpal, director, India Art Fair.

Around this time, leading scientists also ended up becoming avid collectors of art. In fact, Homi Bhabha, referred to as the father of India’s nuclear programme, was an early collector and patron of Gaitonde’s work. “Contemporary Indian history is replete with such examples, with physicists and institution builders such as Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai having an intense involvement in the modern art movement in India," says Jagpal.

Today, one can see galleries and auction houses revisiting the art of the 1970s, with special focus on this intersection. At DAG’s new space at The Claridges, Delhi, the next show is all set to focus on the art created during this period. “The 1960s were a sombre time. But the 1970s presented an image of India on the rise, with the country winning the 1971 war, the government seeming in control of the economy, and breakthroughs taking place in space missions," says Kishore Singh, head (exhibitions and publications), DAG. The artists began tying in these developments with ancient Indian philosophy on the universe and the cosmos. “The whole idea of the Tantra and the mandala got reinvigorated. So, you have very strong material coming in from Devyani Krishna. Satish Gujral began to use found material in works with very strong Tantric sensibility," adds Singh. Elements of nuclear fission and atomic markers became symbols in his mixed-media works.

“Significant art such as this will always survive the test of time," says Singh.

The Boundless: India auction will take place in Mumbai on 15 November.

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