Becoming an Indian Contemporary
Art Collector From the Rubin Museum of Art to Shyamal Mukherjee

By Vinanti Sarkar

The Eyes of March will feast on the major auctions at Christie's and Sothebys'  Contemporary Indian Art opening on 21st and moving to Sothebys' on 22 March 2007.  So watch out for the April issue, where major art buyers will be creating headlines, bidding high, buying paintings by Husain, Tyeb Mehta (priced est.1,000,000); Ram Kumar, Jamini Roy, Hemendranath Maxumdar, Jogesh Chandra Seal, Francis Newton Souza, S. H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, and Jogen Chowdhury (Est.500,000), to mention a few.  

Artistic appreciation is something young people in India learn to enjoy at a very early age.  As children, they are given choices - studying dance, vocal and instrumental music or a teacher is hired once a week to give lessons in art.  While my sister thumped the floor learning Bharat Natyam steps, I dabbled in painting for over seven years, which eventually developed into a hobby.   By the age of 12, my writings were being published in major newspapers and magazine, and I soon learned that writing is a jealous mistress, demanding all my attention, so I became a slave to multimedia communications involving print, radio and film.

Rubin Museum of Art

With the opening of the Rubin Museum of Art in 2004, headquartered on 150 West 17th Street, (, exclusively focusing on Himalayan and South Asian Art, I met Donald Rubin, Chairman of RMA who told me that "it cost over $68 million to re-design the old Barney's building into this beautiful six storey museum complex."  He had come a long way from his humble beginnings as a immigrant and had a small collection of Himalayan and South Asian paintings which he started to collect over 30 years ago.   His favorite paintings was a Jain mandala which he adored and hung in the master bedroom.   As he prospered in business, he started buying more art,  although he knew nothing about the Himalayas nor South Asia.  He paused and said, "May be, in some re-incarnation, I may have lived in the Himalayas or some place in the Sub-continent! of India."   Next thing he knew he was looking for a place to "house" his paintings.

With a twinkle in his eyes, Donald confessed, "It is my dream to have the first-ever Jain Art Collection on the East coast.  I think Jain mandalas are the mother of all mandalas, and I need help to make this happen."  I informed him there were many Jain diamond merchants in New York and his dream could come true, so we started welcoming the wives and daughter-in-laws of the Jain community in New York to set up a committee, and  move on the dream.

At the same time, I remembered meeting and interviewing Dr. Narender Kapany in Palo Alto, CA, where he spoke of his Sikh Art Collection which was exhibited in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the prestigious Smithsonian in Washington DC.   So I asked Donald Rubin whether he would be interested in having the first-ever Sikh Art exhibition on the East coast at RMA.   He replied that he never knew nor had seen any Sikh art, and I told him that within the past 500 years, the Sikhs in Punjab had their own art which was more concentrate on religion and Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.  If he was interested, I could contact Dr. Kapany and start the ball rolling.  Donald thought it was a brilliant idea, so we contacted Dr. Kapany who sounded very pleased with the invitation, as he had been working on having a Sikh exhibition in New York.

I See No Stranger - Sikh Art Exhibit

Planning art exhibition for most museums takes over two years to formulate, especially when some paintings are coming for countries like India and China.  Within nine months to less than one year, RMA celebrated the gala opening of "I See No Stranger" displaying paintings on the early Sikh art and devotion for the next four-and-half months until January 29, 2007.  The successful evening entertained mainstream Americans with a Punjabi dinner banquet and visitors browsed the sixth floor, learning about Sikh art in the early 18th century in the Pahari and Mughal styles.  Hindu and Muslim artists represented the Sikh gurus through the eyes of their respective religious beliefs.  It was evident in the paintings that the portrayals of the gurus resembled Hindu gods and deities, in contrast with the Moghul artists portraying Guru Nanak as Muslim pirs (holy men).

Most new comers interested in Indian contemporary art need to visit museums and galleries on weekends to discover the different styles of paintings by artists from India.  Today, collecting art from India is big business and it  is important to understand the styles, mediums and where the painter comes from.

How to become an art collector

It is important to take the inexpensive route when buying a painting.  None of us can afford to buy Husain,Tyeb Mehta, or Jogen Chadhary, etc. unless we inherit it from our parents who had started the family art collection in the 60s-70s.   Most contemporary artists from India during that era are expensive.  Buy paintings you enjoy looking at and can afford.   Starting around $1,000 to $5,000, but concentrate and study the artist's style and technique.  Remember, it will take 2 to 5 years to double your investment, if you watch the art market.

For example, Shyamal Mukherjee has a unique style.  Whenever you see his paintings, it brings a smile on the face.  He is quoted in saying: "It is a pleasurable exercise for me to create art work on the reverse side of glass or acrylic sheet. The concept of painting on glass came to me while I was studying at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. It was during my student days, that I started creating this artistic style and learned how to capture the outer and inner perception of folk elements. My figurative art is part of the Bengali School, portraying people in vibrant colors."

He recalled: " Once I started to develop this technique of painting - my favorite medium - reverse oil or acrylic painting on transparent acrylic sheets, it became a satisfying experience, seeing the stage-by-stage development of the paints. This style of  drawing on acrylic sheets gives me more time to meditate over the face I try to reproduce. Though it takes more time, the painting acquires more elegance on acrylic. Although I may change my themes and subjects, I will never give up painting in this medium - even though this style is not an easy one."

Unlike on canvas, he has to paint the object in the reverse direction, so that it can be viewed correctly from the other side. Then, he also has to be very careful in painting the details, as getting them according to their requirement is difficult. Drawing on acrylic sheets "gives me more time to meditate over the face I try to reproduce. Even though it takes more time, the painting acquires more elegance on acrylic."

The moment you see a Shyamal Mukherjee canvas - you can immediately recognize his style. Each painting tells a slightly different story with folkloric elements. He paints a variety of everyday people in their moods and actions, expressing a unique comic joy, which transmits a similar feeling to the viewer.  Faces are painted with chubby cheeks and bright little eyes, with the auspicious marks of caste on their foreheads. Then the expression of joy in the paintings, somehow transmit similiar feelings to the viewer. Each picture says something about the character's custom and beliefs, and at the same time, each picture reveals the artists' love for faces.

At first I started looking for Shyamal Mukherjee's paintings with a sense of curiosity. His riot of vibrant colors leave me with a sense of joy.  It seemed he enjoys paintings street performers, "putting on an act for everyone else - something all of us do everyday of our lives." He paints the figures dressed in bright, almost gaudy orange, red and green costumes worn by street performers, but their eyes are gazing and drawn. It is their faces, almost cartoon-like and their podgy fingers, visualizing irony and pathos that surrounds them evident. It is with vibrant colors, that he enjoys seeing the lives of everyday people living in Kolkota and parts of West Bengal and tries to enact their personal stories.

Reviewing some of his colorfully paintings of beggars and street vendors, I noted that suddenly his paintings show their pitiable condition in his trademark style, but then he seems to re-focus on the fact that each individual character has a great deal in common with the other.  Especially when he paints "people in pairs or larger groups, he highlights the fact that, though they are physically separate and unlike each other, there is no real difference between their characters and behaviors."

"I feel an artist has to be known and seen as one. The world around him should get joy out of his works. The artist must be a content and joyful person to get this effect," Shyamal Mukherjee stated. Twenty years and 45 shows later, he feels that sense of joy still filling his heart, when he observes the happy and fleshy faces around him. Now that curiosity has become a challenge. He uses color and imposition of forms and try to achieve variety in his compositions. His inspiration comes from observing people in a very contemporary idiom.

To conclude, Shyamal Mukherjee loves to paint, but confessed he has many other hobbies. He also collects rural artworks and the crafts of Bengali artisans. What he enjoys most is teaching children in his spare time, where he learns more from them than they realize.  It is his eye for details, and not the sight of suffering that prompts him to work his brushes on happy and content faces with broad smiles. It is not easy, but his immaculate handling of this different medium of reverse painting and the depiction of the simple life of common people, his signature caricature style amuses and enthrals art lovers.

Contact For more information to learn and seriously consider buying Contemporary Art of India in the USA.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.


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