Inside India #10: The $4m Gaitonde – India’s most expensive painting

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The Indian art scene is booming. With record-breaking sales, art fairs that attract tens of thousands, a wealth of new talent, and a clamour of international interest, the value of Indian art is skyrocketing. 

Painting by M.F. Hussain

For many this is simply a fitting culmination to millennia of artistic tradition. 

India is a country associated with vibrant colours, expressive subcultures, and a fragmented sense of identity that lends itself to a diverse artistic enterprise. 

A quick jaunt through the history of art on the subcontinent bears this out.

Some of the earliest Indian artwork can be found in murals dating back to the 2nd century B.C. These paintings – largely religious, or the stories of kings and emperors – are found in the form of rock carvings, in caves and temples around the country, including eye-opening scenes from Indian sexual texts that so scandalised the Western explorers who first encountered them.

Miniatures paintings developed from the 10th century onwards, depicting the lives of religious figures such as Buddha or the Hindu god Krishna. These miniatures were colourful, delicately formed, and utilised intricate brushwork. 

This tradition of miniatures would later flower in the artwork of the Mughal empire.

The Mughals arrived in India in the 1500s, bringing with them a singular sense of refinement and courtly elegance. Mughal miniatures depicted the lives and triumphs of the Mughal emperors, resplendent portraits hung side by side with scenes of war and durbar. One of the most famous expressions of this type of art was fashioned in the reign of Emperor Akbar who commissioned the Hamzanama series, depicting the exploits of Amir Hamza – an uncle of the Prophet Muhammed – and his battles against the enemies of Islam.  

Western influences began to impact Indian art during the colonial period, from the mid-1700s, with artists embracing European ideas of realism, perspective, and composition, then applying them to Indian themes.

Modern Indian artburst onto the global scene in the 1990s, with artists such as M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, and Francis Newton Souza leading the charge. In the past two decades, records have been shattered repeatedly as the paintings of these artists and their contemporaries have beenauctioned by the likes of Sothebys and Christies for eye-wateringsums.

Francis Newton Souza, commonly referred to as F.N. Souza was a founding member of the legendary Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay, and the first post-independence Indian artist to achieve recognition in the West. Souza’s Birth sold for $2.5m in 2007. This work held the record for the most expensive piece of modern Indian art until June 2010, when it was overtaken byS.H. Raza’s Saurashtra which sold for $3.4m. Raza lived and worked in France for decades, his work focusing on colourful abstracts. 

Perhaps the most famous of this crop of contemporary Indian artists, M.F. Husain, began his career as a billboard-painter. Today, his paintings command two million dollars a pop. 

And the most expensive Indian painting of all? 

An untitled abstract by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde that sold for $4.4m in 2015. Like all legendary artists he died in obscurity, only finding fame after his death.

 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

 

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