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Celestial nymph from India charms New York art market

Raja Ravi Varma's paintings'Tillottama' and 'Damayanti' at Sotheby's and 'Radha in the Moonlight' at Pundole'sare garnering record-breaking bids at art auctions

Raja Ravi Varma. Photo: Alamy
Raja Ravi Varma. Photo: Alamy

New Delhi: A painting by Raja Ravi Varma, Untitled (Tillottama), fetched $795,000 (around Rs5 crore) in the Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art auction in New York on Monday. Sotheby’s Asia Week in New York this year features over 1,300 lots with a total estimate in excess of $50 million.

The winning bid, made by an anonymous private collector, exceeded the seller’s estimate of $400,000-600,000.

Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Tillottama’. Photo: Sotheby’s
Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Tillottama’. Photo: Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s sold Varma’s Untitled (Damayanti) for $1.2 million in March 2017. And in November 2016, auction house Pundole’s sold Radha in the Moonlight for Rs23 crore, the current standing record price for the artist.

What does this suggest? Anyone following the art market would notice the escalating prices for works by Ravi Varma. “Is Ravi Varma the hottest artist on the block… the one to go after?" someone asked me as the auction was winding down.

The three works by Varma mentioned above reference mythology, and belong to his most sought-after body of work. A commissioned portrait of a gentleman, for instance, wouldn’t command this level of interest.

Varma, the grandfather of modern Indian painting, was known for combining Indian themes with “academic realism", a style taught and perfected at the European academies of art.

While he was feted for his work, he was also ridiculed in some circles for imitating western techniques.

Within the mythological realm, Tillottama is an important subject—not the strongest but certainly very collectable, especially when the rarity of the artist’s works is considered. According to the Artery India artist databank, only 64 works by Varma have been auctioned over the past three decades compared with, say, 2,123 works by M.F. Husain.

“Varma’s portrait of Tillottama is only the fourth painting that I have had the privilege to handle for auction in my own career, and the excellent result achieved in (Monday’s) sale tells us that the market for (the) artist has no signs of slowing down," Yamini Mehta, international head of South Asian Art at Sotheby’s, said in an emailed response. “Raja Ravi Varma’s work rarely comes to the international market. We have been extremely fortunate to offer two headline works from the artist... which have exceeded our pre-sale expectations."

In this painting, an apsara, a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology, appears in a playful pose. According to mythology, she was fashioned out of the finest qualities of all matter by Vishwakarma on the request of Lord Brahma. She was created with the singular intent of causing a rivalry between two unbeatable demons. The divine beauty has been represented by the artist as the ultimate temptress—someone whose charms are impossible to ignore. Much like the three bidders who went to war on this work at Sotheby’s.

Since the meltdown in 2008, the pre-modern and modern sections of the art market haven’t merely stabilized but have surpassed the highs of 2007 which were established by largely vacuous acquisitions.

Of the 74 pre-modern artists tracked under the Artery India performance databank, new price records were set for 26 after January 2013, indicating growing interest within this section. According to predictive analysis, this development will further strengthen over the following 30 months, with a rise in valuation for 13 artists from the pre-modern section—oriented on the rarity of works and their cultural significance.

Arvind Vijaymohan is the CEO of Artery India, the world’s largest financial data centre focused on Indian art sales.

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