Art for Art’s Sake- Sara Abraham’s love affair with Contemporary Indian Art

18 Feb

Phulki and the Akundo Flowers by A. Ramachandran

Contemporary Indian art is big, no, it’s huge. While art paintings of top-selling contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta go for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, older generation artists like M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and A. Ramachandran, rake millions in the international markets. According to the Economic Times, Christie’s, contemporary fine art auctioneers with their headquarters in London, realized 10.1 million dollars in South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art alone in an auction held in September 2007.

Given all these heady figures and glamorous economics, it is a bit disorienting to sit next to a rather unlikely looking original prospector of the gold rush that is Contemporary Indian Art – a 79-year-old grandmother, who sits in her stylish but comfortable drawing-room in Chennai, sipping her mug of tea, her close shorn white hair silhouetted against the golden light of a tall brass lamp.

The first thing that you see when you enter Sara Abraham’s home is a painting of a lotus pond by A Ramachandran, which takes up almost an entire wall. You feel almost accosted by its deep rich colours, and it demands that you look at it for more than the polite minute. Yes, when you enter Sara Abraham’s house, you get kidnapped by Indian Art.

Other contemporary artists that her walls feature are M.F. Husain, F.N.Souza, Ganesh Haloi, Gogi Saroj Pal, Ramanujam, Bikash Bhattacharji, Tyeb Mehta, Vivan Sundaram, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chawdhury, and Janaky Ram. In a brightly lit corner sits her pet – a portrait of Sara by M.F. Husain, a present for her sixtieth birthday. “Sara at Serene Sixty”, proclaims the wooden overleaf, in a childish, comical scroll, presumably the artist’s.

Sara Abraham found Contemporary Indian art, but in a way Indian Art found her as well. When she was a new bride in the 1960’s, with nothing to do, Sara started looking at art the way other women of her time looked at saris and jewelry. Three years at the Government School of Arts in Madras and another year in Bombay gave her the eye she needed to fire up and sustain a passion that would last the better part of a lifetime. “Being a student of fine art, I saw real quality in Indian Art, and pushed it till others saw it too.” she said.

She tried her hand at painting herself but soon gave that up. “I felt I was a mediocre artist, so I decided to promote others instead of promoting myself.” Now Sara can sit back and see the culmination of her life’s work, in the form of an exhibition held by Gallery Sumukha in Chennai, to commemorate the occasion of her eightieth birthday. The exhibition will showcase every piece of art that she has collected over the years. There will be almost 200 pieces on display.

On the night of the opening, Sara is wearing her trademark cotton sari- black with a geometric pattern in dull gold on the pallu and border. The exhibition is on two floors and guests slough their way from one painting to another, as if on a pilgrimage of beauty. A woman in a pink sari snaps open a gossamer fan and started fluttering it, even though the air-conditioning is on full blast. On the landing between the two floors was a family portrait by Vikram Bhattacharya – a much younger Sarah Abraham seated with her husband Zachary, surrounded by her three teenage children. The second floor has an entire wall full of paintings by M.F. Husain, including a charcoal sketch of Zachary. The place is teeming with friends, family, artists, the press and every shape and size of Chennai cognoscenti. Sara stands there, unfazed by any of it, basking in all of it. She greets people as they walked in, and poses for tons of photographs with her children and grandchildren.

“I will always remember Sara for her great generosity,” said the contemporary artist Lakshma Goud. “In the early 80’s, when no one knew me, Sara offered me a piece of land in Banjara Hills. I told her I couldn’t afford it. She told me to pay her back in water colours,” he grinned. “I was amazed that someone would put so much faith in an artist.”

Later on, people gathered downstairs in the courtyard for the unveiling of a book to commemorate Sara’s life and her achievements. As they stood under the mango tree sipping their cocktails in the tepid evening, Sara’s brother-in-law, Bobby Sistah, gave a celebratory speech. “If anyone deserves a celebration of her life, it’s Sara,” he started, smiling.

However, as the saying goes, even the longest journey begins with a single step. “My first piece of Indian Art was an Akittan Narayan. It was painted on a board of Madras Kirk. Unfortunately, the board wasn’t prepared and the paint dropped off over the years. I was very sad, but I didn’t let that discourage me.” she said. “I bought art whenever I could all my life.”

Sara Abraham bought Contemporary Indian Art at a time when nobody else wanted it. At that time, people were more interested in buying foreign prints to decorate their homes than the works of Indian artists. “My sister pointed out that instead of buying prints; why not buy original Indian contemporary artists for the same price. I believed in Indian Art when no one else did. But I did my best and kept pushing peoples’ awareness. To the extent that I even gifted paintings to my friends and relatives to increase appreciation for Indian art. And finally, people began to be aware of the quality of Indian Art.”

Talking about the time before the Christie’s and Sotheby’s of the world swooped down on Indian Art, she said “Back then, foreigners who bought our art were only interested in exoticism, they weren’t interested in India. The popular themes amongst foreign buyers were things like temples, or poverty.”

In the mid to late 70’s Sara’s close association with the artist M.F. Hussain, who was already a known name then, inspired her to start “Kalayatra”. As the name suggests, “Kalayatra” was a roaming contemporary art gallery whose purpose was to showcase contemporary Indian Art and make it popular. “Kalayatra, because it wasn’t a static gallery, created a lot of awareness. We traveled all over the country, exhibited in all the metros and in some smaller towns like Hyderabad, Nagpur and Kochi as well.”

The gallery did about one or two shows a year and was a huge success. Other art dealers that were doing similar work at that point of time were Keku Gandhi of Chemould, Dadabhai of Pundole, and Alkazi of Art Heritage.

Talking about how she met M.F. Hussain, Sara said “It was in the 70’s, me and my sister Suzy were outside Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, when Suzy suddenly yelled “There’s Hussain!”. She opened the car door and ran after him. He took us to his house, where Suzy bought a painting and a sketch. I bought my first Hussain later, from Chemould Art Gallery in Bombay. It cost Rs. 2000, I couldn’t afford it so I went to Jhaveri Bazaar and sold my diamond earring for a thousand rupees, and paid the rest in four installments.” M.F. Husain and Sara Abraham have known each other for over sixty years now. “His wife once joked that I was the only woman she felt secure about leaving him alone with.” She laughed.

Although she has now retired from a professional role in the art world, Sara is always happy to assist people in buying good art. When asked the all important question – What is good art – “Good art is something you can look at every day of your life and not get fed up of it. There is not one piece in my house that I wouldn’t be happy looking at, at least ten times a day.” She replied, smiling contentedly.

(Note: I had written this piece two years ago for an ACJ assignment, but I really like it so I thought I’d publish it here)

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