Laura Chowdhury would like to see experts and art auction houses work closer together to realise the real value of contemporary Indian art. At the moment, the Viennese art collector feels that a handful of Indian artists are unrealistically prized while many a young talent remains to be discovered.
Laura should know because she bought the works of MF Husain much before the world discovered the most highly priced Indian artist today. Part of Laura's collection is a rare, red canvas by Vasudeo S Gaitonde. Laura discovered India's foremost abstract artist in 1962.
Together with her three daughters, Laura's collection of Indian art is reduced today to 80 works, including works by Husain, FN Souza and Akbar Padamsee. Many Souza sketches carry dedications to Bill, her late husband, such as "from a great painter to a great collector".
But Laura has no clue as to how much this collection is worth. And she does not really care, and did not care when she began collecting contemporary Indian art in the early 1960s. "Those were the days when we bought art for the sake of art. We did not see art as an investment," Laura told Hardnews.
Laura had set up home in South Bombay in 1959. Her husband Bill, a chemical engineer from Bengal, became the sole representative in 1952 in India for FAG-Kugelfischer, Germany's largest ball-bearing manufacturing company. Goerg Schäfer was the most important German art collector of the time along with Otto, his brother and owner of FAG-Kugelfischer. Laura is from Austria, the home of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and together they were inspired to collect the works of Indian artists. Over the years, art became an obsession with Bill and he bought ‘The Death of a Pope' by Souza for Rs 10,000 in 1963.
However, their first buy was a still life by Krisna Howlaji Ara, the son of a car driver. The orphan from Hyderabad had earned Rs 18 per month during World War II cleaning cars at a Japanese firm in Bombay. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, his Japanese employer fled the city, leaving the home to his servants. Ara continued to paint in the tiny servant's quarter. His art was noticed by Rudy von Leyden, the Austrian art critic of and later president of the Austro-Indian Society in Vienna.
With recognition, Ara found a garage studio in Sital Bagh in Walkeshwar, which Laura remembers could be reached only after climbing up a steep ladder. Ara became the founder member of the Progressive Artists' Group along with Souza, SH Raza, SK Bakre, Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain.
A meeting place for these artists and art lovers was the home of Laura and Bill. Husain painted his ‘Benares' series in a flat in Nepean Sea Road that Bill lent for a year to the most expensive Indian painter today.
By 1974, the Chowdhurys had 120 oils and some 30 sketches and gouaches by emerging artists like Husain, Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, KK Hebbar, Jehangir Sabavala, GR Santosh, Satish Gujral, Laxman Pai, Har Krishan Lal, Homi Patel, Gulam Muhammed Sheikh, KS Kulkarni, Prafulla Joshi and others.
Laura has watched the Indian art market grow in recent years. The total sales of major auctions have crossed the hundred million dollar ceiling and according to reports are estimated to cross 300 million dollars before the end of 2008. However, she sees everyone running for the same, few artists. The problem is that most Indian contemporary artists do not have the exposure they deserve, feels Laura. All the million dollars revolve around the work of not more than half a dozen Indian artists.
The international art world has no clue about the real worth of the majority of Indian artists. Bharati Kapadia, for example, has been exhibiting in Austria since 1998 but is hardly talk of the town here. Kapadia, the Mumbai based artist, was back in Vienna in May with ‘Staging the Sets', a solo exhibition. "The venue of the exhibition is unknown. I don't know how many people will discover Kapadia," laments Laura, who hopes for a higher international exposure for Indian artists in the future.
The millions earned by a few artists in the international art market is a drop in the ocean when compared to the wave of talent that exists in the country. On her part, Kapadia says that she has sold work in Austria and enjoys returning to exhibit in the country. But, of course, her earning does not compare to prices earned by big names like Husain.