ISSUE | 13
Text | Marjorie Husain
Photography | Marjorie Husain

The Auction House known as Bonhams of New Bond Street, London, has in recent times attracted considerable interest from significant art collectors of Pakistani and Indian origin. Many of these collectors based in London are currently engaged in acquiring modern and contemporary artworks of leading artists of the Middle East and South Asia. The largest and oldest auctioneers of fine art and antiques in their field, Bonhams was established in 1793 and has through the years expanded into a network that deals with numerous precious objects. Heading the Pakistani art branch of the business, London based Mehreen Rizvi is an extremely busy young woman with a supportive team, all of whom are extremely interested in the work that reaches them from all corners of the world. For research students of Pakistan’s art history, these events have proved extremely exciting, introducing hitherto unseen art by icons such as Ustad Allah Bux and A.R.Chughtai,

been a source of encouragement to artists and collectors organizing splendid events such as those that took place in October 2010, when an extensive Islamic and Indian art auction was arranged in London, in which manuscripts, miniature paintings, gold artifacts and exquisite
jewellery were exhibited before the event. Among the precious and historic pieces on show were exquisite miniature perfume holders, finely worked ceramic objects, and most eye-catching – a gold and jeweled finial, the small tiger’s head ornament from the court of Tipu Sultan. The extensive collection offered an impression of entering the grandeur of historic palaces. Many of the historic objects were acquired for prestigious museums. This event was followed by the sixth auction of contemporary and modern Middle Eastern and South Asian artworks held at the Royal Mirage Hotel, Dubai, in which a stunning collection of artworks were offered for auction. The first auction of art from these regions took place in London in the early 1990s and met with resounding success.

Similar auctions followed and to date, among the highest priced artworks from Pakistan have been the lapis as well as Sadequain’s work from his early years and the Paris period. Connoisseurs are also keen to collect contemporary masters such as Jamil Naqsh, Ahmed Parvez, Bashir Mirza, Anna Molka Ahmed and Ahmed Khan. In the early days of Pakistan, Karachi was the capital city where the foreign embassies were located. In those days young artists had settled in Karachi from many corners of the subcontinent, and although there were no art galleries or an art market to speak of at that time a vibrant art community evolved. Foreign art enthusiasts showed great interest in the artists and made it a practice to visit their studios.They were an appreciative and sympathetic audience who encouraged artists by acquiring their work. Several became patrons who would hold cocktail parties along with exhibitions of artworks at their homes and invite their friends to purchase the paintings and drawings of the independent young artists. In this way many paintings were taken overseas. Now, after decades, it is interesting to discover a number of these paintings from private collections – often included by the inheriting heirs – emerging the Bonhams auctions. In the sixties Karachi was known as the `city of lights’, vigorous, optimistic and growing apace. The opening of Karachi’s first art school – Karachi School of Art – took place in 1965
and that same year, the first commercial artgallery in the country was opened by Bashir Mirza. In the seventies, an affluent society in Karachi began to buy paintings for their newly built homes and offices and several art galleries opened.

In the most recent auction, among the artworks by Pakistani artists included there was a painting by Ustad Allah Bux from a private collection and seen in public for the first time. The artist, who after the emergence of Pakistan began a new chapter in his vocation, took as his subject the rural traditions of the Punjab, and depicted incidents from the folk stories of the region. The painting in question is a mural scaled depiction of the meeting of the star-crossed lovers of legend, Heer and Ranjha. It is truly a masterpiece, a museum piece that is suffused with colour defining the attitudes, the costumesand faces of people and the surrounding landscape that acts as background to the story. That painting as in many of the artist’s works, evokes vestiges of the artist’s youthful years as a painter of theatrical sets and backdrops. An interesting contrast was seen in two paintings by Jamil Naqsh. One, coming from a New York source, was painted in the early sixties when the artist experimented with style and subject and is a colourful still-life of a crowded bedside table. A recent canvas portrayed a gathering of birds in the signature disciplined style of the veteran artist. From New Zealand came exquisite etchings by A.R.Chughtai while from a Paris collection there was a beautiful piece by Sadequain. Anna Molka Ahmed, who began a fine arts department for boys at the Punjab University Fine Arts Department in 1955 with initially three highly talented young men as students, was represented by a portrait of a seated figure, a student named Sufi Waqar. It was an artwork painted with bold brushstrokes melding colour across the canvas, the work of a master.

Collecting paintings became a trend of the affluent and artists from Lahore showed their work regularly with growing popularity.Through the years there has been an incredible expansion of art in Pakistan through education. Fine arts departments were opened in every region of the country by teachers taught by Shakir Ali, S.S.Hyder, and Anna Molka Ahmed and their students. Art Institutions opened and many gifted artists emerged, many of whom are universally recognized. Aware of the art activities and talent in the country and realizing the possibilities, Bonhams have Abstract paintings by Ahmed Parvez and figurative work by Tasaduq Sohail contributed to the historic collection that traced the development of art in Pakistan from the earliest to the present times. Another heartening element in these auction events is the fact that for various reasons many of the artworks are donated to charitable causes such as Care for Children. In October, an outstanding painting, full of light and movement, included in auction titled: A Golden Horse; the work of the veteran Indian artist M. F. Husain which went for $95,000.00. was donated by the artist to the Pakistan Flood Relief fund. M. F. Husain, became a founder member of the Progressive Artist’s Movement in Bombay, 1947, along with Haider Raza, and F. N. Souza. Husain was close to Souza referring to him as his mentor, `almost a genius.’ He was also a friend of long standing of S. Ali Imam and during Imam’s lifetime Husain held several exhibitions of his work at the Indus Gallery in Karachi. His offering to the Flood Relief was a very gallant gesture. lazuli mosaic wall based artwork of Gulgee in the form of a horse in gradient shades of blue. The late S. Ali Imam, artist and proprietor of the Indus Gallery, Karachi, always predicted that Gulgee would be remembered in art history for his mosaic artworks. Gazing at this work of art one understood why. On another occasion the highest bid was for a beautiful watercolour painting by A.R.Chughtai. Sadequain also topped the bill on one occasion with a most unusual portrait of a woman against a signature background that was painted in the sixties. Due to the success of the events in the region, the Dubai office was opened in 2007, and the first sale of modern and contemporary artwork was held in Dubai in 2008. Since then there has been an increasing interest as hitherto unseen paintings emerge from the collections of art connoisseurs and patrons of earlier times. Among the highest priced Indian artworks one discovered a marvelous painting by Raja Ravi Varma documenting in great detail the arrival of the Third Duke of Buckingham and the General Governor of Madras to Trivandrum in 1880. There was a background of fabulous grandeur surrounding the visitors who were welcomed by the Maharaja of Travancore and his entourage. This painting broke a record for Indian art in auction. In 2006 and 2008 paintings by Francis Newton Souza went for the highest bids, while top prices acquired the work of George Keyt the artist from Sri Lanka in 2005, 2006 and 2008. A rare appearance in auction by Zainul Abedin’s work in 2005, witnessed the artist’s popularity with the highest bid in show.

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