The opening of India’s first commercial art gallery in 1959, Mumbai’s Gallery 59, coincided with Akbar Padamsee’s return to India after an eight-year stint in Paris.
When Bal Chhabda, the renowned artist and film-maker who’d set up the gallery, invited the artist to have his first solo exhibition, Padamsee threw himself into work. His experiences abroad had exercised a significant influence on his style and the 12 monumental canvases he created opened to critical acclaim.
These included a series of iconic paintings in black and white which came to be known as his “Grey Period”. An art critic in The Times of India wrote, “There are but 12 oils on view, but so overpowering is their size—ranging from canvases 10x3ft to one enormous composition about 17x6ft—and so outstanding is their quality, that even the normally reticent observer will be deeply moved.”
One of these, more precisely the 10x3ft painting of a reclining nude, is poised for stardom at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Indian and South Asian Art to be held in New York on 25 March.
Stark: Padamsee’s Untitled reclining nude may fetch over $500,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s
Coming to auction for the first time, the painting depicts a slender reclining nude of impossibly long proportions. Her still form mirrors the isolation and loneliness that is central to Padamsee’s approach to the human form. While Sotheby’s estimates it at a conservative $500,000-700,000 (around Rs 2.26-3.16 crore), the auction house’s Indian art specialist in New York, Priyanka Mathew, says she is expecting the sale price to exceed $1 million. “We’d be surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t,” says Mathew. Padamsee’s current auction record stands at $740,000 for a 2009 Sotheby’s sale, which means that the 83-year-old artist might well be creating an auction record for himself in the coming week.
Mathew’s comment hinges on the artwork’s excellent provenance: Sotheby’s bought it from the artist himself. Padamsee brought this work with him to the US in 1960, when he was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship. It was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Montreal the same year and then entered a New York private collection, where it remained until now. There were only three other works in the Grey Series. One was bought by artist M.F. Husain and subsequently lost, one lies in the collection of artist Krishen Khanna, and one is with Chhabda.
Leading up to the auction, the nude has already generated massive interest, including from collectors in India, many of whom had a chance to see it when it was shipped for a private viewing during the India Art Summit in January.
Art critic Yashodhara Dalmia points out that what makes the painting precious is its anomalous status in Padamsee’s colour-rich oeuvre: Colour was of central importance to Padamsee. In the Grey Period, he created a parallel palette in greys to replace his spectrum of colours. Padamsee even describes the nude as one of his “greatest paintings”, indicating that the two-year window when he took to greys was an important pit stop in his artistic journey. He articulates this fascination in a 2010 book on his life and works titled Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language: “Grey is without prejudice. It does not discriminate between object and space. The brush moves across them and from the will of the movement, form is born.”