Art, in Mumbai, isn’t a privilege of the elite. Unlike most other Indian cities, barring, perhaps, Kolkata. We have a precinct located at the heart of the island city that officially qualifies as an art district. We have an annual arts festival held at venues in this precinct—the Kala Ghoda Festival—that’s open to all.
Our stars, starlets and TV stars are a part of art show openings. They are not excluded simply because most of them might not know what neo-sculpture and massurealism mean.
The best of all, whenever I stop by the National Gallery of Modern Art or the Jehangir Art Gallery at any time during the day, I see many curious Mumbaikars like me, staring at canvasses, asking about artworks and taking long, leisurely walks along the adorned walls.
The only really inscrutable art zone in Mumbai used to be the art auction milieu. As a reporter, I have covered a few major art auctions in the city, including two of Christie’s in the late 1990s. But the one I attended last, Osian’s Masterpieces and Museum-Quality series auction, a couple of weeks ago, was an eye-opener.
Art auctions are now congregations of nameless fuellers of the global economy—business executives, professionals, small businessmen and entrepreneurs.
The bids were staggeringly high—an untitled work by V.S. Gaitonde, rather unappealing and dull to my unacquainted eye, fetched a record Rs5.76 crore. A rare Amrita Sher-Gil came a close second, and both went to anonymous telephone bidders. But the way the motley crowd sat down with the thick, hard-bound catalogue and took copious notes on it made the event seem democratic—at least as democratic as art auctions can be.
The Taj Mahal Hotel’s Crystal Room filled up through the first hour of the event, forcing the organizers to provide extra chairs all the way up to the back walls.
Whenever a work fetched prices above its expected value, the crowd didn’t break into a synergy of applause, but into sighs, groans and hurrays.
There were apprehensive bidders who did not care who the painter was. They just wanted to buy art for a particular amount. There were informed buyers who bid for either F.N. Souza or S.H. Raza or Amrita Sher Gill. There was a very large audience, observing, clapping, thoroughly entertained. And there were ladies seated on a row of chairs, constantly updating telephone bidders on the goings-on (one of whom were pulled up by Osian’s boss for not being fast enough on the phone).
The gentleman sitting by my side never took his eyes off the catalogue, letting out a loud sigh only when he wasn’t happy with the prices. His son sat next to him, obediently raising the card whenever his father would ask him to.
An hour into the auction, and they couldn’t fetch anything. Finally, a set of two small illustrations by Satyajit Ray (one of Gandhi and one of Tagore), and their bid went under the hammer. Starting with Rs3 lakh, they relentlessly counter-bid, until the small, framed set was theirs for Rs18 lakh.
Long after the hammer was put away, and the hors d’oeuvres consumed, we walked into the January night by the Arabian sea. Chauffeur-driven cars pulled over. Catalogues clutched in our hands, a lot of us got into shared taxis and headed to Churchgate station.
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