The Nine Gems of Indian Art

Art Wise

India has, over decades, produced some of the most exceptional masters in the field of art, who have manifested the culture and tradition of the land by creating a visual harmony of emotions. In 1972, the Government of India, led by Indira Gandhi, passed The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which restricted the export or movement of antiquities and art treasures that came under the purview of this legislation, outside the country’s borders. Over the course of the 1970’s, artworks by nine artists were declared ‘national treasures’ under this Act, thus disallowing their sale outside India. However, artworks by these artists that were already outside India by this time, were not impacted by the law.

The nine artists whose artworks were declared as ‘national treasures’ are Abanindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Gaganendranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Nicholas Roerich, Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Ravi Varma, and Sailoz Mookherjea. The legislation, while according tremendous respect and importance to the artists, unintentionally contributed to the lack of exposure and popularity of their paintings, since they couldn’t be sold or auctioned outside India, unlike works by artists such as Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain or S.H. Raza, from a younger generation. And hence, for the longest time, these nine artists commanded very low prices in the art market, with the exception of Amrita Sher-Gil, whose artworks were already in the European market. Things changed to a small extent when Christie’s, one of the world’s leading auction houses, held an auction for the first time in India in 2013, carrying some of the national treasures.

Ashish Anand, Managing Director and CEO of Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), who had collected a large volume of works by these nine artists, has also been instrumental in helping promote their work. DAG held a showing of several of these national treasures at an exhibition titled Navratna: Nine Gems, at the India Art Fair, New Delhi, in 2018. With over 750 artworks of the ‘Navratnas’ in his possession, out of the 3000 that are privately held and not at government run museums, Ashish Anand perhaps owns the largest collection of works by the nine artists. 

Meet the Nine Gems that have left an indelible mark on Indian art.

Abanindranath Tagore

A self-trained artist from Jorasanko, Kolkata, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) entered the world of art at a later stage in life. Inspired by the vibrant colours in Mughal and Pahari miniatures, and the frescoes of Ajanta, his work is a blend of traditionalism and innovation. Abanindranath Tagore attempted to reject western academic art education by developing an art movement called The Bengal School of Art. His painting, Untitled (Siva-Simantini), got sold at the Christie’s New York auction in 2013, for $555,750, setting a world auction record for the artist.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Referred to by acclaimed author Salman Rushdie as the “greatest woman painter”, Amrita Sher-Gil was the first important woman artist to emerge out of India in the 1930s. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1913, she received her early art training in Florence. Her art was heavily influenced by the European style of painting, especially by the post-impressionists, before she moved to India in her twenties. The Indian influence became more apparent once she started interpreting the life of Indians, particularly that of poorer Indians. She depicted their angular brown bodies and the impression their sad eyes created on her. Her journey as an artist was cut short at the age of 28 as she left for heavenly abode in 1941. Sher-Gil’s untitled rare self-portrait got sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction in 2015 for $2.9 million.

Gaganendranath Tagore

A self-taught artist and cartoonist, Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) is considered one of the earliest modern artists in India. He experimented with Japanese and western modern art, including cubism, futurism, German expressionism and caricatures reflecting social and religious hypocrisies of his time, making him a pioneer in the field. According to Partha Mitter, writer and historian of art and culture, Gaganendranath Tagore was ‘the only Indian painter before the 1940s who made use of the language and syntax of Cubism in his painting.’ In 2015, his untitled watercolour on paper got sold at a Christie’s Mumbai auction for Rs. 43.7 lakhs. 

Jamini Roy

An iconic artist, Jamini Roy (1887-1972) is internationally recognised for his endeavours in the world of Bengali folk paintings, that ushered a new beginning in the history of Indian modern art. Having studied at the Government School of Art in Calcutta, Jamini Roy’s initial work reflected the Post-Impressionism genre of landscapes and portraits in line with the western tradition taught there. Not satisfied with the outcome, the Padma Bhushan awardee soon found his own voice in developing a style that drew inspiration mainly from traditional Indian folk and village arts, especially those of Bengal, and restricting his palette to earthy colours like red, yellow ochre, cadmium green, vermillion, grey, blue, and white. In 2014, at a Sotheby’s auction in London, his untitled tempera on canvas got sold for £68,500, more than thrice the estimated price.

Nandalal Bose

Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), a noted artist of the Bengal School with great sensibility and technical range, was asked to sketch the emblems of the Government of India awards, Bharat Ratna and Padma Shri. The Padma Vibhushan awardee has also illustrated the original manuscript of the Constitution of India. Painting vibrant subjects and themes from rural India, Bose’s frequently depicted cobblers, tailors, farmers, and women milking cows. In 2013, his grandson sold a collection of 81 paintings for $2.9 million at a Christie’s New York auction, that not only consisted of exclusive works by Nandalal Bose, but also included some of Rabindranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings.

Nicholas Roerich

Due to his significant contribution to Indian art, Nicholas Roerich’s (1874 – 1947) works were deemed ‘national treasures’, despite him not being an Indian. A Russian artist, writer, archaeologist, theosophist, and philosopher, he trained at the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, Russia. After living in France and America, Roerich came to India and settled down in the Kulu valley of the Himalayas in 1928, due to his deep interest in Indian culture. The influence of Theosophy, Vedanta, and Buddhism can be detected in many of his paintings. In June 2013, during Russian Art Week in London, Roerich's “Madonna Laboris” got sold at a Bonham's auction for £7.8 million.

Rabindranath Tagore

Renowned writer and a Nobel Prize awardee, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) first started painting at the age of 63. His preferred mediums ranged from inks to watercolours to crayons and his subjects varied from landscapes to dramatic human faces and figures. Tagore’s art created a new unity by welding together different styles of art and art movements, and through his art, he expressed that which he couldn’t through his verses. A collection of 12 paintings by him were sold by Dartington Hall Trust charity, in London, for £1.6 million in 2010.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was a celebrated Indian artist, famous for his realistic portrayal of Indian gods, goddesses and mythological characters, in scenes adapted mainly from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas. Considered as one of the greatest painters in the history of Indian art, Ravi Varma fused European techniques with Indian sensibilities. Though a protégé of royalty, Raja Ravi Varma was the first to make lithographic prints of his artworks affordable and easily available, bringing fine art to the masses. An original 1890 Ravi Varma oil on canvas, titled “Radha in the Moonlight” was sold for Rs. 20 crores at a Pundole auction in Mumbai in 2016.

Sailoz Mookherjea

Regarded as one of India’s earliest modern painters, Sailoz Mookherjea (1907-1960) received his diploma in Fine Arts from the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1937. Soon after, he moved to Paris, where his style of painting transformed adhering to European principles, but his subjects were still rural Indian people and scenes. Mookherjea stressed on colour over form and focused on expression and movement. His artworks rarely come up for sale, and when they do, they are sold for very moderate sums. In Saffronart’s Summer Online Auction, 2018, Mookherjea’s “Hill Fair” got sold for Rs. 14 lakhs.

Although undervalued and unappreciated at the time when they were alive, these nine gems have left a lasting impression on Indian art and continued to serve as inspiration to artists over subsequent generations.

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