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This auction season has brought back into public memory stories of two lost paintings; and coincidentally, the late artist M.F. Husain is involved in both.

One of the paintings, Husain’s portrait of Indrani Rahman, was sold at the Christie’s auction of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in New York this September. A classical dancer and the first woman to be crowned Miss India, Indrani was married to the renowned architect Habib Rahman, whose house Husain used to stay in during his visits to Delhi in the 1950s.

M.F. Husain. Photo: HT City
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M.F. Husain. Photo: HT City

The portrait in the Christie’s auction, Untitled (Portrait of Indrani), 1998, is, however, not entirely the original. Husain, obviously enamoured with the dancer, had first made her portrait in 1955. “She had been his first muse, long before Madhuri Dixit," photographer Ram Rahman wrote of his mother in an article in Take on Art in 2010. “I’d only heard of the painting, which was shown at an exhibition in Delhi; there was no record of it," says Ram, who was quite young when it was made; it was his sister, nine years his senior, who had more specific memories of it, he says.

The painting was subsequently destroyed, and it was only in 1996, a year after Habib Rahman’s death, that Ram discovered in his father’s archives the negative of a photograph of Indrani in front of the painting. He made several prints of this, which he presented to his mother, sister as well as to Husain.

Habib Rahman’s photograph of his wife Indrani Rahman in front of Husain’s 1955 portrait of her
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Habib Rahman’s photograph of his wife Indrani Rahman in front of Husain’s 1955 portrait of her

In a dramatic recreation of his encounters with Indrani Rahman in the handwritten autobiography MF Husain Ki Kahani—Apni Kahani, Husain animatedly describes the dancer’s beauty, and how, between 1953 and 1959, whether she performed in Rome, Paris or New York, “ek seat par MF hamesha haazir (Husain was always be present)". And then in 1955, he painted her portrait in pearl white and cobalt blue, “lekin iss art aur nritya ke milan ko ‘gair’ bardasht nahin kar sake (some couldn’t stand this mingling of art and dance)".

Husain claims that the dancer rued the loss of the “blue portrait" for many years. In 1998, after Ram gave him the photograph, Husain recreated the painting and presented it to Indrani, just months before she passed away in New York at age 68 after suffering from a series of strokes. “Nartaki ki shayad yeh aakhri tamanna thi (It was probably her last wish)" Husain writes in his autobiography.

While Indrani strikes a similar dance pose in both paintings, in the 1998 recreation, Husain decided to also show her left hand in a complementary mudra. This painting has stayed with Ram’s sister in New York all these years, and has left the family’s possession for the first time post the Christie’s sale.

The cover of Marg featuring Akbar Padamsee’s lost painting ‘Juhu’
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The cover of Marg featuring Akbar Padamsee’s lost painting ‘Juhu’

The missing Padamsee

The record price achieved by an Akbar Padamsee painting at a Saffronart auction in New Delhi in September leads one to another story of a lost painting, which was in Husain’s possession. Greek Landscape, which was sold for Rs19 crore at the auction, was one of 12 ‘grey’ works shown by Padamsee at an exhibition hosted by Bal Chhabda at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, in 1960.

After his return from Paris in 1959, Padamsee was staying at a small house in Juhu, where he made these large canvases in different shades of grey in plastic emulsion. “Grey is without prejudice. It does not discriminate between object and space. The object is space," Padamsee had famously said of this series.

In a change from his usual routine (“Akbar is not a night person," reveals his wife Bhanumati Padamsee during a phone conversation while speaking of these paintings), Padamsee worked on these paintings at night, with a stray dog Pandu for company. Since the canvases were too large for his house, they were taken to the compound outside, where he worked against the light streaming in from a nearby badminton court.

Akbar Padamsee’s ‘Greek Landscape’ fetched Rs19 crore at a Saffronart auction in September. Photo: Courtesy Saffronart
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Akbar Padamsee’s ‘Greek Landscape’ fetched Rs19 crore at a Saffronart auction in September. Photo: Courtesy Saffronart

The paintings at this exhibition were mostly bought by Padamsee’s friends and other artists. While Greek Landscape— “I had not been to Greece, but always dreamed of it," says Padamsee—was bought by artist Krishen Khanna and stayed in his possession these past 40 years, another, of two reclining nudes against a landscape which was titled Juhu, was picked up by Husain, who over later years bought several other works by Padamsee. This painting formed the cover image of an issue of Marg edited by Bhanumati—Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language—which included text by, among others, Geeta Kapur, Krishen Khanna, Saryu Doshi, Homi Bhabha and Sudhir Patwardhan.

The exhibition was well received, and an Art Etc. article recalled that a newspaper at the time had noted that “though the work (Juhu) typifies Padamsee’s world, stark, pessimistic and bereft of laughter, it seethes with a taut, hidden energy". While Bal Chhabda and the actor Shammi Kapoor each bought a painting from this exhibition, another, Bhanumati reveals, was used by Padamsee to pay his dues at Chelsea Hotel. In 2011, Reclining Nude, which had hung at the hotel lobby, came up for auction at Sotheby’s and fetched $1.4 million.

Considering that this is considered an important phase of Padamsee’s career, it was then inevitable that exhibitions concerning the artist should include one or more of these works. Juhu was taken for a show in Montreal, Canada in the late 1960s and Bhanumati herself remembers it as being a part of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia.

Thereafter, Husain loaned it for another exhibition, after which it was never heard of again, reveals Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart. “Forty years ago, art was looked at differently, not with the kind of serious value (attached to it now). Friends used to borrow works (from each other all the time)."

When Husain told Padamsee of the incident, the latter was incredulous as to how a large format work such as Juhu could so easily vanish. “I was surprised and told him to go to the police but he said he did not want to involve them," says Padamsee over phone from his home at Mumbai. “I wondered at that."

“I hope one day we will find it," says the 88-year-old artist earnestly of his work.

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