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Art In The Time Of Few Takers
Paresh Maity & Milburn Cherian are the ignition required to re-energise and rejuvenate Indian art
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The Market for contemporary art in India has been rather stagnant over the past few years. Having peaked in 2006-08, art prices nose-dived; and have remained in doldrums for a decade now. Despite artists like Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Nalini Malani and Mithu Sen exhibiting all across the globe, the market for art itself in India has shown little or no signs of revival. Prices, some say, are currently at 2002 levels. Unfortunately, global monitors like Artprice and Artnet provide very scanty information on Indian art. The global benchmark, Market Confidence Indicator, also largely covers works only of Indian Masters long deceased, and traded at auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips and Bonhams.
One could track auction prices of Saffronart, AstaGuru, Pundole’s and DAG for a better understanding of price trends for contemporary Indian art, but there is an inherent issue with doing that. Most of the art sold in these auctions are secondary sales — art belonging to a collector, now being offered on re-sale. And most of these, at least the significant ones are again the works of old Masters. Newer works do feature on auction catalogues but the overall repertoire of featured artists is limited.
Which is why we have long depended on a simpler methodology for tracking art prices (market researchers call it ‘observation research’), which is to personally visit the Mecca of Indian Art: Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai to check the prices of artists and their works on offer. It sounds simplistic, but we would like to assure you that it is the best (and most accurate) way of getting first-hand information.
This February, therefore, was a kind of epoch-making month for Indian art. Displaying almost sequentially at Jehangir were two artists, absolute contrasts, but with one very important thing in common: both had works on display priced at Rs 1 crore plus. And the works sold, breaking an important glass ceiling of over ten years.
The first of the two artists was none other than the ‘Almaity’ of contemporary Indian art: Paresh Maity, 52, currently India’s most saleable painter and sculptor. His 100-piece solo exhibition (his 79th) at the Jehangir Art Gallery in mid-February was a sell-out. It had over a dozen artworks on display priced at above Rs1 crore.
A couple of weeks after the Maity show wound up, the gallery displayed the works of ‘Million’ Milburn Cherian. The extremely low-profile 56-year old NID graduate had nearly 50 artworks on display, each one of them painted with her famous Point One brush. Every painting was a marvel of extremely detailed human figures; some paintings with as many as 200 characters. Lord Jesus and His flock dominated the themes. As also did clowns and jugglers. The paintings went from pale sepia to golden ochre to rainbow renditions. The top price tag exceeded Rs 1 crore.
Maity has had a meteoric rise. He shot to fame with his 850-feet long mural called the Indian Odyssey at the T3 terminal of the Delhi airport. It is perhaps one of the biggest paintings in the world, and is testimony to the fact that Maity is a painter with a big canvas that is his playground. The painting showcases Maity’s world of colourful, cubic and almost angular faces with spectacular backgrounds and different moods and motifs. The painting comes alive with the mirth and celebration of Indian culture making a lasting impression of wondrous kaleidoscopes captured across different Indian states. Maity’s genius was rewarded with the Padma Shri a couple of years ago, and he was Artist-in-Residence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan a few months back.
Milburn Cherian is almost the polar opposite. She is shy, to the extent of almost being invisible. She was having a solo show in Mumbai after 16 years. Her paintings had buyers literally lining up at Jehangir. Only last month, a splendid painting of the Lord, listed in an auction at a floor price of Rs 8 lakh, went for almost 4 times the amount in frenetic bidding. Cherian fans covet her work and value the torturous detail in every figure she paints. For years, her palette was sepia in tones, and sepulchral in messaging. A humble piety pervaded every work. In recent years, she has enriched her canvases with richer colours and varied themes.
“I was inspired as a 7-year-old boy to emulate the creations of idol makers in my home town of Tumluk, near Midnapore,” says Maity, “and I earned my first few rupees selling my creations at the village fair.” It has been a long, and lucrative journey since, one that has brought in its wake global recognition and vast fortunes. Maity is reputed to sell for prices that range between Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh a square foot. And his sculptures, most of monumental sizes, are priced in the Rs 40 lakh plus bracket. “Paresh has ready buyers. In 2017 itself with just two months hardly gone, he has had four solo shows in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Singapore. All sold-out, that too at prices he decides. No bargaining. He is prolific too. His Delhi show at Lalit Kala Academy had 130 water colours. The one at Jehangir has over 100 exhibits. His works are gone in no time,” says art connoisseur and collector Anurag Yadav. No wonder, Maity counts Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, the Birla clan and many more amongst his admiring buyers.
Pieter Bruegel is the single inspiration for Cherian who works out of her Mumbai studio, almost hidden from the world. “I just do not solicit any PR or engage any gallery. The Lord sends me those who love and covet my works,” says Cherian. Rejecting realism to uncover a deeper truth, experts say her works have a bit of Salvador Dali, the master of Surrealism, and the German romantic Caspar David Fredrich.
The Crorepati Club of Indian art is dominated by artists long dead. Some of the older artists still alive, like Anjolie Ela Menon, Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Satish Gujral, Laxma Goud, Jatin Das, Thota Vaikuntham and Ram Kumar, do command stratospheric prices but fall short of the Rs 1 crore mark. Paresh Maity and Milburn Cherian are the super stars of the contemporary art firmament.
Are Maity and Cherian notable exceptions in an art market that many say is still in doldrums? Yes, and no. Good art even today has buyers, albeit fewer. Those art lovers not obsessed by posthumous art (of Raza, Gaitonde, Husain,etc.) are today lining up not just for older Masters, but newer masterpieces. Tracking auction house sales and gallery prices, out of the younger turks, we see Ajay De, Ravi Mandlik, Avijit Dutta, G.R. Iranna, Manish Pushkale, Maya Burman and Sujata Bajaj joining The Crorepati Club in the next few years. Much as Ajay De’s charcoals are pure poetry, Sujata’s Ganapatis are global representations of a traditional Indian God. All of these younger masters-in-the-making already have established fan followings. They are just waiting to explode commercially.
Maity and Cherian are the ignition required to re-energise and rejuvenate Indian art. They are magnets to discerning patrons, that too those with fat wallets. The Indian art market is today closely following their success as it indicates green shoots for the revival of the business, which has remained in low spirits since almost adecade
Carol is pursuing her Masters at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.Tanya Goyal is Chairperson of The Kailasham Trust.
Disclaimer: Paintings of both the artists are owned by the authors under the aegis of the Kailasham Trust
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.