Much before it was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London, Pune-based industrialist Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman of the Poonawalla Group, had made up his mind that he was going to bid for the rare pencil portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, irrespective of how much it cost. The portrait was painted in 1931, during Gandhi’s visit to London to attend the Round Table Conference. In the portrait, Gandhi is writing something while sitting on the floor. It is inscribed by him with the words – “Truth is God / MK Gandhi / 4.12.’31.”
Poonawalla was the highest bidder at the auction for the portrait, which he bought for 32,500 pounds (Rs 27 lakh); the estimated price of the portrait was between Rs 6.72 lakh to Rs 10.09 lakh. “I have great respect for Mahatma Gandhi, who has undoubtedly been the greatest leader in the world till date. I knew I had to buy the portrait. I would have bid higher if needed,” says Poonawalla.
He plans to put up the pencil portrait in the boardroom of his office at the Serum Institute of India, in Hadapsar. The boardroom already has paintings of some celebrated personalities. There are paintings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, created by artist M F Hussain. There is also a painting of Hussain himself, made by V S Gaitonde.
Speaking about the pencil portrait of Gandhi that dates back to 1931, Poonawalla says, “The sketch is of great historic value. It was a rare occasion, when Gandhi agreed to pose for the artist John Henry Amshewitz… the portrait is also endorsed by Gandhi himself, that makes it… more special and intimate. I feel very proud to possess this particular artwork and I am very happy that I am bringing it back to India.”
Describing the portrait, Sotheby’s says, “Gandhi would not sit for formal photographs, let alone for a portrait, so Amshewitz had to sketch him at his daily tasks; this sketch, in which he is writing with a look of intense concentration, gives a strong impression of Gandhi at work. Amshewitz produced a number of portraits of Gandhi in both pencil and oil…”. After Gandhi’s return, the artwork was given to a local resident who was closely associated with Kingsley Hall, where Gandhi was staying. It had remained in her family ever since. The portrait should reach Pune in a month’s time, says Poonawalla, adding, “I hope those who come to the boardroom will be delighted to see the portrait”.