Eye on Indian art


Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan. Gouache on paper, circa 1830
Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan. Gouache on paper, circa 1830

Yasoda churning butter. Gouache on paper, circa 1800
Yasoda churning butter. Gouache on paper, circa 1800

IT’S not just at Deepavali that the eyes of the world are on Indian culture. A week ago, it was the major auction houses that were bringing it out for admiration and purchase.

Contemporary Indian art has more references to Hinduism than contemporary Western art has to Christianity but it’s still fairly sparse. When it happens, the consequences can be severe.

One of India’s top artists, the 94-year-old M.F. Husain is currently on the run from Hindu supremacists who issued their equivalent of a fatwa against his work. This comprised divinities such as Durga looking the wrong sort of divine without their clothes on.

Antique Indian art was what was being sold at auction houses in London last week. It was generally lumped together with Islamic art, one of the few areas in which the UK is supreme over New York, Hong Kong or anywhere in Asia. While other fields have been taken from them, Islamic and Indian sales have no real competition elsewhere, and the results were impressive.
Sales that used to call themselves simply “Islamic art” are now inclining towards “Islamic and Indian”, no doubt as a reflection of the new collecting dynamics that exist.

India is a huge market but older material does not function at all well in its homeland. The UK is still the motherlode for this market.

Of the big three auction houses, it was Bonhams that pulled out more of the sub-continental stops recently. Christie’s did have a fascinating sale of objects owned by the film producer Ismail Merchant but this was something of a one-off event.

Instead, Bonhams had an extraordinary array of the items for which India was once so well known – miniature paintings. This field has been neglected in recent decades, offering many great buying opportunities for collectors who want art that looks like the Western concept of “art” rather than a fancy spittoon or back-scratcher.

A few thousand ringgit will still secure works that are highly relevant to the Deepavali season. The entire Hindu pantheon is on display, mainly in the form of charming 18th and 19th Century vignettes showing the likes of Siva exchanging loving looks with Parvati, or Yasoda churning butter. Less appealing at first glance is that of Kali waving a severed head, although even this one can grow on the viewer.

Not all of Bonham’s successes were Hindu. The highest-priced item turned out to be from the sub-continent’s most renowned Sikh ruling family. A 19th century emerald necklace, reputedly worn by the wife of the great Punjabi warrior king, Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), went for twice its estimate to fetch more than RM300,000.

The auction also included a number of works in a category that deserves more attention. The Christian art of Asia is generally neglected, unlike its equivalent in South America. This is partly because the indigenous Asian input was small, which is reflected as much in objects of worship as in the buildings themselves. South America has a prolific 500 years of home-grown Catholic art, much of which now ends up in the Santa Fe market for looted antiques. There is no equivalent for Asian items because there are so few of them around, although the backstreets of Manila offer a few buying opportunities.

The market is changing a little, however. Latin American Catholic art was once ignored by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant collectors of North America.

Now that anything connected with United States history is so expensive, these individuals have been looking south of the border and finding more than domestic helpers.

Increasingly, Asian Christian objects are finding homes in the West. Many of these works have been there for generations anyway, but there is enough left in Asia, so collectors should begin to look more carefully at what they might be missing.

Despite the presence of early Christianity in Asia being so small, there is a surprisingly long association. Some of this requires a huge leap of faith, including St Thomas the Apostle’s mission to China in the 1st Century AD. Pope Benedict has accepted, however, that St Thomas had, at least, made it to southern India.

It was in the 16th Century that Catholic conversions in Asia became common. India was an important stop on the route eastwards and Goa remains the most famous Indian outpost.

Goan devotional works, usually images of Christ in ivory, turn up frequently on the market. Bonhams’ recent sale featured two delightful Goan ivory figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.

Less well-known is the role of the Mughal empire. Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) allowed a thriving Jesuit community, which was brought there by one of India’s more open-minded rulers. The Muslim Akbar’s obsession with knowledge made his court a model of tolerance by the standards of the time.

Among the strangest items to appear at auctions of Islamic art are Mughal paintings from his reign depicting Christ or the Virgin Mary in triumphant glory, all recorded in typically Mughal style.

This reign of open-mindedness continued under Jahangir, whose palaces were decorated with Christian images. The Jesuits did less well under Shah Jehan. This emperor, who loved his Mumtaz enough to build the Taj Mahal, did not think much of bell-ringing and had the local church destroyed to show his displeasure. He did at least return the stones to the Jesuits on condition that they build a house with them rather than another church.

Mughal Christian works fetch huge amounts when they appear at auction but the simple devotional works of Goa represent as good a deal as Hindu miniatures. You’ll have to wait till April for the next round of major auctions though.

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