Updated: March 13, 2021 8:06:06 pm
Inspired by Zen philosophy and spiritual teachings, in the early 1960s, a young V S Gaitonde would spend hours staring at the sea outside his studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in what was then Bombay. His early figurative works had already taken more meditative leanings and this is also when the artist arguably painted some of his last few horizontal canvases — a 1961 untitled oil with layers of pigment in tones of blue.
Late evening on March 11, it went under the hammer at the Saffronart Spring Live Auction for Rs 39.98 crore ($5.5 million) — a new record for the highest price achieved for a work of Indian art in an auction worldwide.
Breaking the abstractionist master’s own previous record set in September 2020 — when an untitled 1974 oil-on-canvas by him sold for Rs 36.8 crore at an auction by Pundole’s — the recent sale also brought cheer for the art market recovering from the implications of the global pandemic.
“The success of our Spring Live Auction — led by a masterpiece by V S Gaitonde, which achieved a world record for the artist as well as a work of Indian art sold on auction anywhere in the world — sets a strong and optimistic precedent for the year ahead,” said Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and Co-Founder of Saffronart, one of India’s first online art auction houses.
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The work was part of the collection of Aditi Mangaldas and Aditya Mangaldas, the children of industrialist Harshavadan Mangaldas and wife Devyani who had first acquired it during a visit to Gaitonde’s Mumbai studio and put it up at their Ahmedabad home for over four decades.
Sharing her memories of growing up with the work that was purchased when she was two years old, in a video shared by Saffronart, Kathak dancer and choreographer Aditi Mangaldas said, “We had many interesting people coming to our homes. The painting was a silent but an extremely beautiful and powerful spectator of all these happenings in our family, the ups and downs in our lives. It’s something that informed our aesthetic landscape while I was growing up in Ahmedabad…When I was exploring my own passion for dance, it intrigued me as to what goes into an artist’s mind, what is the transformation, the thought… It has given us joy.”
While the world’s most expensive painting to sell at a public auction is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for $ 450.3 million in 2017 at Christie’s, it is only in recent years that Indian art has crossed the million dollar mark in the auction circuit.
The sale of Tyeb Mehta’s triptych Celebration for Rs 1.5 crore ($317,500) at a Christie’s auction in 2002, was considered a turning point for the Indian art market. Since then, several artists have achieved the feat, including S H Raza, Raja Ravi Varma and F N Souza.
“When we are painting, we are not thinking of the money,” said veteran artist Krishen Khanna. A close associate of Gaitonde, he was also a fellow member of the famed Progressive Artists’ Group, established in 1947 to forge a new vocabulary for Indian art.
Known to be a recluse who led a monastic lifestyle, recent years have seen renewed interest in the works of Gaitonde, who passed away in 2001. While in 2014-2015, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York organised a major retrospective of the artist, works by him have also attracted attention in the auction circuit.
“He was well-regarded and achieved some degree of success during his lifetime, but he wasn’t very prolific, so there was always a good demand for his work. He was always happy when his work sold, but I don’t think the record prices would have mattered to him; he lived modestly and was fairly detached,” said Meera Menezes, author of ‘Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude’.
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