Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Art: Nandalal Bose at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

nandalal bose Sati.jpg

The New York Times is essentially perfect in its review of a current major exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the painter Nandalal Bose. The exhibit was put together by the San Diego Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi (which is also, incidentally, very much worth a visit). We went there a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed it (though it certainly helps that the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a play area for children in the basement; otherwise, 2 year olds and art museums are usually not compatible.)

The key question the exhibit addresses is: what did it really mean to make "modern" art in an Indian idiom in the latter years of the British Raj? From the dominant colonial point of view, there was no such thing as "modern Indian art": by and large, the British were mainly interested in ancient Indian art, including traditional Indian art produced in the modern era. (One prominent exception was Ernest Binfield Havell, who actively supported Bengali artists who aimed to invent a modern style in Indian painting.)

Probably the best known Indian artist in the era just before modernism took hold was Raja Ravi Varma, who painted in the academic realist mode of 19th century western art. He made some very accomplished paintings, like this one, for example, but critics found his direct emulation of European painting styles unsatisfactory.

The modernist school that emerged at Santiniketan, with Rabindranath Tagore as a kind of god-father, and Rabindranath's nephew, Abanindranath Tagore as the most talented early painter, aimed to move away from academic realism, and towards a style of painting that was at once distinctly modern and formally and thematically Indian.

Sometimes, the path wasn't entirely clear -- several of the major figures in the Bengali school, after rejecting European realism, embraced Japanese minimalism instead. Indeed, a number of Nandalal Bose's own paintings do this. Perhaps they found the Japanese style less foreign; it wasn't until the 1930s that it became apparent that Japan could be every bit as "Imperialist" as western nations. In any case, for the most part Indian artists moved away from the influence of Japanese art as well in the 1920s and 30s. (The artist who did this most brilliantly might be Nandalal Bose's student, Benodebehari Mukherjee, who probably deserves his own show.)

The weak part of the current exhibit from an aesthetic point of view is probably the series of paintings and linocuts from Bose's "nationalist" period, in the 1930s and 40s. Some of Bose's work from that era became quite famous, including this linocut of Mahatma Gandhi, from 1940. But the paintings Bose did for the meetings of the Indian National Congress (the Haripura Congress of 1938) seem overly simplistic -- works of propaganda, not personal inspiration.

I did find some of Bose's paintings of tribal life in Bengal (of the Santhal community) quite powerful: see New Clouds, for instance. These are paintings Bose was doing around the same time as he was painting large religious murals on commission, and nationalist posters for the Congress Party. But they are quite different from those other works. Bose's paintings of tribals aim to quietly capture a local reality, not a magnified, iconic myth of Indian nationhood.

The last room of the exhibit has paintings by recent Indian artists who have been clearly influenced by Nandalal Bose and the Santiniketan school. I was particularly impressed by Atul Dodiya and K.G. Subramanyam, both of whom are painters I'd like to see more of.

If you're going to be in Philadelphia in the next couple of weeks, I would definitely recommend you check out this exhibit. Otherwise, you might catch it in India (where the show is headed next).

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Taking "Looting" to A Whole New Level: Vaman Ghiya

There's the makings of a nice suspense novel in a recent New Yorker piece on one of India's greatest -- and most evil -- contemporary antiquities smugglers, Vaman Narayan Ghiya. Ghiya operated a transnational smuggling network out of Jaipur, which included three Swiss shell companies that bought and sold smuggled vast quantities of Indian antiquities, ultimately so the priceless works could be acquired by London auction houses -- and "legally" sold at Sotheby's and Christie's.

Ghiya, who was extremely cautious in his business operations, was brought down by a dedicated police officer, Anand Shrivastava, who essentially dedicated years to learning about the workings of the international antiquities market in order to better understand the criminal side of it. Almost miraculously, Ghiya wasn't able to bribe his way out of prison, nor was bail allowed in his case -- and his case is currently in process. Just to give you a sense of scale, here's what the police found when they raided Ghiya's house and his various warehouses:

Then Superintendent Shrivastava and his men searched the house, spending hours rummaging through the elegant rooms. Behind the wood panelling of Ghiya’s private study, the officers discovered a set of secret cupboards, which held hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures: graceful stone figures of the deities Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati and Parvati’s elephant-headed son, Ganesha; Jain Tirthankaras and Chola bronzes; dancing goddesses with many arms and melon breasts, festooned with delicately rendered ornaments. The photographs were color snapshots, and the objects pictured sat outdoors, in patches of grass or mud. Many evidently had been roughly pried away from temple walls and were missing limbs or heads. The police also discovered sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

This stash seemed to confirm Shrivastava’s suspicion that Vaman Ghiya operated one of the most extensive and sophisticated clandestine antiquities rings in history, and that he had grown rich in the past three decades by smuggling thousands of Indian antiques to auction houses and private collectors in the West. The police found no sculptures in Ghiya’s home. But, in the days that followed, Shrivastava’s men raided half a dozen properties that Ghiya owned around Jaipur, his farm outside the city, and various godowns, or storage facilities, in Mathura and Delhi. They discovered antique paintings, swords and shields, marble panels, stone pillars, three hundred and forty-eight pieces of sculpture, and a dismantled Mogul pavilion the size of a small house. (link)

Ghiya was able to operate for so long partly because he had a legitimate crafts shop as a front in Jaipur. Ghiya was also helped by India's notoriously "flexible" customs system:

Ghiya’s handicrafts business had many hallmarks of a front. India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, passed in 1972, is a particularly stringent measure, which requires that any privately owned work of art that is more than a hundred years old be registered with the government. Since it is generally illegal to export such objects, to be an antique dealer in India with an international clientele is also arguably to be a criminal. But Indian customs officers are required to check only ten per cent of any large shipment of exports, and smugglers frequently bury a single priceless statue in a giant case of bric-a-brac. (link)

Alongside Customs, Ghiya's business was facilitated by India's underfunded Archeological agency, the Archeological Survey of India -- which has never even fully indexed all of India's major archeological treasures, much less employed staff to protect and maintain them. Ghiya also had an ingenious system, where he would commission the production of fakes of particularly important works he stole, and have the ASI officially certify that the fakes were in fact fake. He would then attach the "This is not an original" slip to the original he had stolen, so there wouldn't be a problem at Customs.

Of course, part of why Ghiya's crimes are particularly troubling is the fact that many of the stolen religious sculptures were in fact still being actively worshipped:

For religious Hindus, images of the gods are not merely representational; they can be inhabited by the deity they depict. The faithful anoint the statues with oils, camphor, and sandalwood, garland them with flowers, and make offerings of food, incense, and music. (The word “idol,” though largely abandoned by Western academics because of its perceived pejorative connotation, remains in use in India to describe these objects.) When, in 1986, the Indian government sued for the return of a twelfth-century bronze Shiva that had been looted from a village in Pathur, it did so on behalf of the offended god himself: Shiva was named as a plaintiff in the case. “In the south, people still don’t tell lies in Shiva’s temple,” Ashok Shekhar, a former state arts and culture official in Rajasthan, told me. “These are very hotheaded deities.”

This aspect of Hinduism seems not to have bothered Ghiya, who was more concerned about how much his western buyers were willing to pay than whether his actions constituted desecration on an extaordinary scale.

Of course, Ghiya is not the first to pillage India's treasures -- this goes back to the British Raj (and perhaps before; but let's not get into Vijayanagar again...). But this is fresh pillaging, and in some ways worse: what's striking is that western buyers, which includes museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum, as well as smaller museums (the Cleveland Museum) continued to buy "newly discovered" antiquities from India even after it was made perfectly clear that the export of such antiquities was forbidden by modern Indian law. Are any of these museums planning to return the stolen antiquities now that Ghiya has been arrested and his network exposed?

Sotheby's London at least has been deeply affected by Ghiya's arrest. Ghiya's contact at Sotheby's was a dealer named Peter Watson, who was forced to resign once it became clear that he had been extensively engaged in acquiring smuggled goods from Ghiya. Eventually, it spread: Sotheby's entire antiquities wing in London was forced to shut down.

The law itself might be part of the problem. Japan, which has also had its share of looting and pillaging, has what might be a better system:

The antiquities law has many critics. “The law as it stands doesn’t benefit anybody,” said the scholar and curator Pratapaditya Pal, who came to the United States in the mid-nineteen-sixties and built several renowned collections, including Norton Simon’s. The law is self-defeating, Pal believes, because it makes no distinction between a masterpiece and any generic antique. The result is a black market that the government lacks the resources to control. Pal prefers the model adopted by Japan, which identifies art works of national significance and keeps them in the country, while allowing everything else to be sold on the open market.

Yes -- taxes could be extracted on the sale of works deemed not of national significance, and those taxes could be directly channeled to the ASI, which would then be better able to protect and maintain the artifacts that are of national significance.

And there are many other issues raised by this article, which I unfortunately don't have time to get into at present. I would strongly recommend readers to check out Patrick Radden Keefe's whole article -- journalism like this pretty much justifies my New Yorker subscription.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Would You Pay $1.58 million for this painting?

(Photo of painter and reproduction of Mahishasura from Rediff)

A bidder at Christie's New York recently did so, according to the Calcutta Telegraph. At $1,584,000, it is the highest price ever paid for a work by an Indian painter. According to the Mumbai Newsline edition of Express India, the painting, by Mumbai-based Tyeb Mehta, was purchased by an NRI in New York. It may be just the bad reproduction, but I don't find the painting terribly exciting. Here is the story behind it, according to Rediff:

Mumbai-based 80-year-old [Tyeb] Mehta's Mahishasura is said to be a work in karmic origami depicting the Hindu tale Goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. But Mehta has depicted Mahishasura a sympathetic figure embracing the goddess symbolising the demon's transformation after uniting with the divine.

I'm not quite sure I see it in the painting. But ok. A little more from Rediff on Tyeb Mehta:

Mehta is part of the Progressive Artists Group which draws inspiration from European masters but interprets Indian themes. He is said to be a very meticulous artist and is not as prolific as Indian master M F Husain.

There is a full profile of Mehta here. The same page includes an older version Mahishasura by Mehta.

There are higher quality reproductions of Mehta paintings here and here.