In the 2 May auction of Indian art at Sotheby’s in London, there were four lots by a distinguished artist who is little known outside England. The works, neat pen and coloured ink drawings of landscapes and people, were vaguely reminiscent of Klimt and Klee, intricately patterned, and delicately hued. Their estimated prices for these works— £4000-6000 (about Rs3.28-Rs4.92 lakh)—were modest, but the significance anything but. Avinash Chandra was a man not known to dramatic outbursts and egoistical tirades, and had he lived past his 60th birthday, he likely would have occupied the same hallowed podium as Raza and Husain, his Progressive contemporaries who he abandoned early on to pursue a remarkable career in England. He remains highly coveted in England—his works hang in the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, and several notable private collections—but is rarely sought after in India, showing up as no more than a blip on the diaspora artist radar.
“He was quite a flamboyant character,” said Zara Porter Hill, head of the Sotheby’s India department. “He was an intellectual, a pure artist.”
Chandra, who died in 1991, was born in Shimla in 1931. Exceptionally talented, he became one of the youngest artists to be given a solo exhibition by the Progressive artist movement. Yet, despite the accolades, Chandra left for London at 25, accompanying his artist wife Lata who had been granted a scholarship to a London art school.
From there, Chandra’s career followed an upward trajectory as he abandoned the rigid training of his Delhi school days, and immersed himself in the chaotic, vibrant art scene of the 1950s and 1960s in London. His experiments with oils and watercolours took him into unfamiliar territory as he began rendering the landscapes of Belfast, where he lived for some time, with an abstract gaze that was already being championed on the continent. Soon he was picked up by noted collectors, and exhibited in galleries and private houses to great acclaim, even becoming the focus of a BBC documentary in 1963. Notably, he became the first Indian artist to have his works exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London.
A fixture on the London scene, he was often found in the company of fellow artists such as F.N. Souza and Balraj Khanna, with whom he held lively debates on the nature and future of Indian art. Chandra’s works, though now on equal footing with his British peers, were still viewed through a post colonial gaze, and it would be some time before his importance to the British art scene was catalogued and appreciated.
Today his works rarely surface on the market, their owners unusually possessive and cognizant of their value. “A lot of collections with outstanding works have no intention of selling,” rues Porter Hill. “People love his work, so they’re not parting with it. Some of his works from the 1970s have never actually been seen.”
Chandra, who died at 60 from kidney failure, remained productive until his last few months. Writing in an art catalogue, his second wife Valerie Murray-Chandra said, “His life was art, his work was art and his pleasure was art.” Sadly for the world, that life lasted all too briefly.