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AUCTION HOUSE AND A DEAD BODY

A model of yesteryears dies starving while deals worth crores are struck over wine and champaign at auction houses.

It is a blistering hot summer morning.


Inside the walls of the plush, air-conditioned auction house, delicate and discerningly dressed men and women engage in muted dialogues sipping wine and champaign from crystal glasses held in delicate manicured hands. Cheese platters and other delicacies are laid over the large table at one side of the hall. One wall is adorned by a couple of M F Hussains costing between four to six crore Rupees each. Another wall displays a Ravi Varma. The price ranges between ten to sixteen crores. There are many walls. Each holds precious masterpieces. In a few days the auction will begin. Now the preview is going on. Deep conversations ensure at pockets around the hall about the massive potential of making a killing from the booming art market. After all, money cannot sit idle. Too much has piled up. Stock exchange. Real estate. Diamonds. Or even scraps. In fact, a leading scrap merchant of the town is engrossed in animated exchange of dialogues with the curator. Scraps or painting, the currency of value is money. And money must multiply, be it as scrap or as M F Hussain’s canvas. It is a serious affair.


And in this sweltering heat with a raging sun glaring down on everything on earth, an old woman lays unconscious by the side of the road. Passersby are in a hurry. They have things to do in life. It takes a day before she is noticed and taken to a hospital. Soon, she dies in the hospital. She used to be a model in the art college. Students did life study when she posed for them in exchange for some pittance. And the college authorities did not clear her dues for many years. Therefore, she could not afford one square meal for several days; and finally gave up her mission to win the war of life.


Yes, both are parts of the world of art.  Both are facts. I myself was in that auction house a couple of weeks ago. And the other is based on the narrative of artist-cum-author, Pradosh Paul. Many years ago, when artist Pradosh Paul was a student in the art college, there were more than a dozen models helping the students muster their skills in drawing human figures. He managed to convince the college authorities to ensure a small allowance for the models. But that money often remained unpaid. On the intervention of the artist, the college authorities cleared the payment at times. But this time, the old woman could not sustain her subsistence any further in absence of the money due to her for years. She collapsed by the side of the road and eventually passed away.

My intention is not to explore the inefficiency or politics in the art colleges. I am simply seeing the irony. On one hand, a handful of people with deep pockets and over satisfied stomachs consider investing in art inside an upscale auction house over wine and champaign. On the other hand, an old hungry woman who posed for students in the art college for years, courts an ignominious death by the side of the road. Perhaps, an artist too may end up with a similar fate. History has plenty of such failed artists whose paintings are valued at millions of dollars today.


A few days back, an art collector told me proudly, ‘I do not live for money. My life is dedicated to art and art alone.’


I asked him to buy a couple of paintings by the emerging artists in an ongoing group show where we both were among the guests of honor. He replied, ‘I buy paintings of only dead artists.’


Yes. Indeed, he holds hundreds of crores worth of paintings by Raza, Souza, Hussain, S M Pandit and so on. I have seen those at his house. I asked him, ‘Why do you prefer only dead artists? They will not be inspired because you buy their paintings.’


He said, ‘That is exactly the point. Dead artists do not paint any more. There is a scarcity and hence their works grow expensive with time.’


I could not help but tell him, ‘Look, you have little to do with art but everything to do with money. When you crack a deal for a Tyeb Mehta or Ravi Varma, who gets the money? Tyeb Mehta? Ravi Varma? Nah! They are long dead, and they do not need money at all. The money goes to your pocket and the pockets of a few other middlemen. Art or artists do not exist in this affair. It is only money and nothing else. Don’t glorify yourself as an art lover. An old canvas is a financial instrument for people like you. And I do admire you as a very glorified trader but nothing more.’


He was upset. He said, ‘You are wasting your time and energy working with faceless painters.’


I said, ‘I enjoy the companies of Hussains and Picassos of tomorrow. I shall help them if I can, so that you can make money out of their paintings once they are dead.’

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