Personal finance: A sincere form of flattery

Sotheby's sale of contemporary Indian art shows that copying is not always a crime. By John Windsor

WHAT MAKES Indian art so Indian is that so much of it looks European. In Sotheby's third annual sale of contemporary Indian paintings on Wednesday, there is a Mir by Sunil Das, a Modigliani by B Vithal, and Picassos by Chiavax Chavda, George Keyt and Krishna Shyamrao Kulkarni.

You could be excused for asking "Where is the real contemporary Indian painting?" It is, of course, the wrong question. This is it.

If you view the sale, remember that you are entering a different culture - one in which copying is not a crime. A persistent force in India's artistic history is its craft tradition. For centuries, originality was not considered a virtue. Devoted students spent years copying their master's stylised images of Vedic deities. Even the master never signed his work.

Artistic originality, as we understand it, was let loose when the British founded art schools in Bengal and Madras in the middle of the last century. But their establishment, paradoxically, legitimised copying by Indians on a global scale.

For generations, Indian culture had preserved itself by adopting from foreign cultures whatever practices were compatible with its own, while rejecting the rest. It is a principal enshrined in the teachings of the Vedas. Without it, successive invasions by Aryans, Moguls, and finally the British, would have obliterated the Indianness of India.

Today, as members of the global village, Indian artists unashamedly draw from the artistic idioms of the world, whether it be Cubism, Chinese ink- and-brush, or their ancient, pre-Mogul flat-plane style.

It is no concern of Indian artists whether a style is ancient or modern. Like Indian historians of old, who recorded epic events but forgot the dates, Indian artists dip their brushes into art history as innocently as if they were choosing from different colours on their palette.

In the West, it is largely the dictates of fashion that condemn such copying as "derivative" art. Our view of history, art history, is in date order. Impressionism is history. Cubism is passe. So is Surrealism. Even trans-cultural Expressionism, adopted by artists in America, Germany and Britain in the Fifties, is old hat. With few exceptions - such as Desmond Morris's Surrealism - we don't paint in those styles any more.

But plenty of Indians do. As Sotheby's contemporary Indian painting consultant, Savita Apte, put it: "We were always post-modern before we were modern".

If you can bring yourself to accept the cosmopolitanism of Indian art as a virtue, rather than a vice, you will be amazed at the variety and exuberance of Sotheby's 227 lots. You will even find a few paintings that resemble our preconception of what Indian painting looks like - those brightly-coloured, sugar-sweet pictures of deities that are sold to tourists. That idiom is, in fact, Western academic realism. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), having won (British) Governor's Gold Medals for his realistic paintings in the 1870s, went on to found a chromolithographic workshop in Bombay.

Indians were painting in the natural-realist style as long ago as the 16th century, to please the Mogul invaders. So when we come across Indian flat-plane, perspectiveless paintings of deities, such as those of Jamini Roy (1887-1972), estimated from pounds 800 in the sale, we recognise immediately that they hark back to pre-Mogul style. At least we know where he was at. His "Krishna", gouache on card, is estimated pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 in the sale.

In the West, we would not dream of linking contemporary examples of flat- plane style to its origins in pre-Renaissance Byzantine painting. We would seek a more up-to-date art-historical link - such as Toulouse-Lautrec's borrowing of the style of Japanese prints for his posters.

It all goes to show that Western artists do copy - but do so surreptitiously. Our advertising posters are full of Surrealist and Cubist references. Even the cool, flat-plane figuratives of the American Alex Katz, bought by Charles Saatchi, are not the novelty they appear to be.

Whether Indian painting catches on in the West depends on whether we can shed preconceptions and make the appropriate aesthetic culture-shift. The market is buoyant - but 70 per cent of buyers are NRIs - non-resident Indians. Now is the time when they bring their families out of the heat of India to their smart houses in London and New York - and indulge in art-buying. In New York, the massive Herwitz collection, which put Indian painting on the map, sold in two Sotheby's auctions, 1995-6, shifted 96 per cent and 81 per cent by value. Sotheby's inaugural sale in London in 1996 sold 80 per cent by value and last year's sale - tucked into a general Indian sale - 73 per cent.

Names are beginning to emerge. The witty drawings of Jogen Chowdhury (born 1939) are rising in price. They resemble Bengal street market drawings - yet another idiom. Two examples are estimated pounds 1,500-pounds 2,500 in the sale. Some of the drawings of Ganesh Pyne (born 1937) look like stream- of-consciousness paintings by the American Jean-Paul Basquiat. But they draw on literary allegories from 16th- and 17th-century Indian literature. His work is full of double takes. On one he has written: "The crisis you have to worry about worst is the one you don't see coming". A Woody Allen witticism - or a reference to the ancient Vedic injunction to meditate in order to avoid "the danger that has not yet come"? Estimates from pounds 800.

Best bet: the work of artists who best manage to integrate foreign styles with an unmistakable Indianness. The subtle watercolour "The Apple Girl of Swat" by Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) adopts the flowing lines of Nouveau Art but could never be anything other than Indian. Estimate pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000. George Keyt (1901-1993) was capable of painting a slavishly Picassoesque "Recumbent Woman III" (pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000) but also of drawing an enchanting "Sri Krishna", (pounds 1,500-pounds 2,500) using Picasso's richly lucid drawing technique to outline unmistakably Indian forms.

Kapil Jariwala, leading dealer in contemporary Indian paintings, has sold to the National Portrait Gallery their only portrait painting by an Indian - Bhupen Khakhar's "Salman Rushdie: The Moor" (1995). Khakhar (born 1934) paints homosexual themes. You can't get more Western than that.

Contemporary Indian and South Asian Paintings, Wednesday (2pm): Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-293 5000). Kapil Jariwala Gallery, 4 New Burlington Street, London W1 (0171-437 2127).

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