With Syed Haider Raza’s landmark painting up for sale, Bharati Chaturvedi traces its glamorous history
IN A few days, an important piece of art history will change hands. Syed Haider Raza’s historic early painting, Village with Church, goes under the hammer at the Sotheby’s auction on 19 March. The world first saw this work in a grand manner: at a landmark exhibition, Trends in Contemporary Painting in India, sponsored by the Asia Society. It comprised works from the Progressive Group, picked from its peak. The show travelled all over the United States from 1959 to 1960 and opened several American eyes to modern painting from India.
In its February 1959 edition, Art News described the painting thus: “Raza, the strongest member of the group, views colour as energy imparted by the image, destructive of its form and yet allied to it. In Village with Church, all is sombre dark blues except for the crystalline excitement of the village and the warm bursts of colour in the nearer foliage.”
This landmark show evolved from a previous one that Thomas Keehn, representing the Rockefellers in India from 1953 to 1961, put together in Delhi — 8 Painters. This show comprised Husain, Gaitonde, Raza and other members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, whom the Keehns were friends with. As the Rockefellers created the Asia Foundation, the show, sponsored by it, became a larger, more ambitious creature.
The painting is then one of Raza’s most important early works. Important, because not only is it clearly evocative of the European trends that influenced him, but also, it underscores the evolution and experimentation that Raza pushed himself into. Note how different Village with Church is compared to his later works. For those accustomed to the geometric works, Village with Church serves as an important education. Rather than the flatter, evenly lit paintings we are familiar with, it oscillates between a rich dark night and a warm red glow. The church predominates, and other buildings are hinted at. Thick slanting strokes juxtapose against the stillness of the night. The painting is Raza anchoring himself — his Indian context and European present.
Blanchette and John D Rockefeller acquired the work for their personal collection, which means it was rigorously scrutinised and stood the test. That Thomas Keehn knew the artists personally, and well, implies he was able to pick their best works for the show. If this Raza was selected, it speaks for its importance and quality within the Progressives. And then, as Priyanka Mathew, Vice-President, Head of Sale, Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art at Sotheby’s, describes, “It’s a work whose history deserves to be considered at this spring auction.”
WE DON’T know who will acquire this work, and for how much. Speculation is that it will fetch a handsome price, and may even do more. But what will this mean for those who enjoy art? Will the new buyer recall its history and the public spirit of the Rockefellers and find a way to share it — if only occasionally —with an Indian audience? And will such a buyer get these opportunities? We can scarcely predict any of this. But as this work goes under the hammer, we should consider how important art works must find a way to reach and engage with wider audiences in India.
Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and follows and writes on contemporary art.