In fact, this comes barely 10 days after modernist Syed Haider Raza’s painting titled ‘Gestation’ fetched Rs 51.7 crore at Pundole auction house. Raza’s ‘Gestation’, which features his signature bindu, now becomes the second most expensive Indian artwork while abstractionist Vasudeo S Gaitonde’s 2020 price of Rs 32 crore is at No 3.
It’s perhaps fitting a SherGil is now at the top of the heap. For a long time, she remained the only successful woman artist in India. Her work – when it did appear at auction – could put most members of the male-dominated Progressive group in the shade.
In March 2006, Sher-Gil’s ‘Village Group’ (1938), a melancholy portrait of a group of women, was sold for Rs 6.9 crore, a record at that time.
Born in 1913 in Budapest to aSikh father and a Hungarian mother, Amrita lived between Europe and India, studied at the elite Ecole des Beaux Arts where she became the first Asian to win a gold medal for painting. Even the nudes she painted in her Paris student days— when she used her sister as a model as well as herself –reflected ease and confidence.
She shifted to India when she was 25 and done with Paris. “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me,” she declared with characteristic audacity in 1938. In a letter to her parents, dated Budapest 1934, she explains her move to relocate: “Our long stay in Europe has aided me to discover India… A fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet is worth more than the Renaissance!”
The painting that set the world record is titled The Story Teller (1937), and merges Pahari and Parisian influences into adistinctive artistic language. It is also significant for being one of the few works she painted en plein air (outdoors). It portrays a group of women relaxing outside their house in the company of cows. One is eating paan, another waving a hand-fan, while the others chat. In Sher-Gil’s work, women are not pushed to the periphery of the canvas. They dominate “primarily because she could lend her empathetic self most easily to their condition…. Her emergent forms were those in which women’s very essence could be communicated,” writes curator and critic Yashodhara Dalmia in her biography of the artist.
Dinesh Vazirani, Saffronart CEO and co-founder, said the record price was a testament to the artist’s immense skill and enduring legacy. “The work is among her most honest and expressive figurative compositions, from a pivotal time in her brief oeuvre, and we are honoured to have played a part in creating a new benchmark for Sher-Gil with this auction,” he says.
Besides Sher-Gil, the auction achieved several records. A record was set for Keralaborn artist A Ramachandran as well as K K Hebbar, who is often referred to as ‘the reluctant modernist’ and S Nandagopal, one of the pioneers of the Madras Art Movement.