A Market Analysis

– by Eddie Saint- Jean
Traditional and Western Influences in Modern and Contemporary Indian Art

Can the market appeal of the most popular Indian art be split into two camps – work driven by traditional cultural aesthetics and art influenced by Western art history and Eurocentric themes? This, of course, would depend on which particular art markets are being examined but, broadly speaking, one would expect visual language to impact sales – but one may be surprised at the way this shows itself.

Our focus will be the best-selling Moderns and chiefly (but not exclusively) the Progressives whose global market appeal exceeds all others. Also, it’s important to examine the work of the Bengal Movement that preceded them. They rejected the British-influenced art norms during the period of Indian nationalism and were the antecedent that shaped the Progressives’ internationalism. The Progressives produced their modernist manifesto as a response to the limiting orientalism of the Bengal Group.

Other regions of India also have art rooted in indigenous themes but the focus here will be on the period of Indian nationalism and independence and the evolution of Indian Modernism as artists wrestled with East-West aesthetics during and after colonialism. Both these movements were in many ways a reaction to British rule but their art expressed their cultural nationalism in very different ways.

The Bengal School was the first phase of the modern Indian masters and their work is amongst the biggest sellers at auction. The movement emerged in Kolkata and Shantiniketan in the early 20th century, when Calcutta was the capital of British India during the British Raj, and produced work rooted in indigenous aesthetics and national identity. It broke free from colonial constraints and British art academia to source Mughal, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist influences as well as folk art. It was championed by Ernest Binfield Havell, a teacher at the Calcutta Art School who embraced ancient styles and a new curriculum based on art that flourished in the Mughal empire (1526 -1857). He also founded the Indian Society of Oriental Art to promote native motifs.


The works produced by the leader of the Bengal School, Abanindranath Tagore and his pupil Nandalal Bose, are now navaratnas[1] or national treasures. The Indian government expressly forbids their export under a law passed in 1972. Bose, like many of the Bengal School, was at the heart of Indian nationalism, independence and therefore its history: he was friends with Gandhi. His linocut of Gandhi walking with a stick[2] captures him leading the Salt March in 1930 after the British introduced regressive salt laws that affected the country.


Gandhi called on Indians to be self-sufficient and break the law by manufacturing their own salt and salt came to symbolise the Indian push for independence and the spirit of nationalism. This act of defiance also changed Bose’s vision[3] and he now saw his art as integral to the documenting and building of a new nation. So any valuation of his works of Indian history, mythology and village life must take into account this contribution to his nation’s heritage.

Therein lies much of the market demand for similar indigenous works of the period for it could be argued that this historical footprint – the juxtaposition of Indian nationalism and independence – sets him apart from other artists across India who also produced work with powerful indigenous forms. He was held in such high esteem that he was selected to decorate the pages of the original Constitution of India with gold leaf and was much decorated himself by the Indian government. His ink and collage on card Beggar (1954) sold for $7,366.30 at AstaGuru’s online auction in June 2021.


The Bengal School sells best in the Indian market whereas the art of the Bombay Progressive Group, which formed after Indian independence, is more highly-prized in Europe and the US. Regardless, the Indian market’s firm affection for the Bengal School has proved a springboard for wider global appreciation, as these markets are inevitably connected and a ripple or wave in Mumbai or New Delhi auction houses is often felt in the US and Europe. An examination of the distinction between these two best-selling movements is key to understanding their different market appeal, but identifying indigenous and Western art influences is not always a clear cut task.

Even though the Progressives emerged as a reaction against the Bengal School, which was seen as too indigenous, it has to be said, classical Indian sculpture and traditional miniatures from the Mughal Empire also feature prominently in the work of great modernists such as Maqbool Fida Hussain, who is a founder member of the Progressives. These epic traditional miniatures emerged around the 16th century retaining distinct Persian elements – the Persian artists preferred fine, delicate brushwork – and also absorbing the prevailing aesthetics of the Shah Jahan era (1628-1658).

The Calcutta Art School, which helped launch the Bengal School, argued such works should be included in a new curriculum. The Rajasthani artists in northern India have inherited this depiction of turbaned individuals with large prominent eyes found in epic religious works such as the folio for the Dhola Maru Love Legend Of Rajasthan (c.1600) owned by the National Museum in New Delhi.


Hussain encountered these miniatures and sculptures shortly after the Progressives were formed. He visited the India Independence Exhibition and experiencing the pieces in person opened up a new vision for his own work and launched his career. He immediately began research on the Gupta (240AD – 550AD) and Basohli (comparatively short-lived and geographically limited) periods of Indian history and incorporated some of their cultural icons and themes into his own work. He also absorbed Indian folk art and mythology. This period is important in his development because it showed a move away from the British academic tradition of painting.

The Indian symbolism and themes in his work became more pronounced and were layered prominently in his bestselling works. His Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata painted in 1971-72 depicting a scene from the Hindu epic Mahabharata sold for a record $1.6 million at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale in 2008, smashing both the $600,000-800,000 estimate and the previous record held by Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura which sold for $1.58million at Christie’s New York in 2005. The Mahabharata, if you didn’t already know, is a Sanskrit text covering the period of Hinduism from 400 BC to 200 CE and tells of an epic power struggle between two groups of cousins. Hussain’s diptych portrays it as a battle between forces of right and wrong.


Traditional themes can also be found in the work of Sayed Haider Raza, another member of the Progressives and its biggest selling artist. His abstract work often uses Hindu and Buddhist shapes and symbolism woven into geometric patterns and circles. Wrestling with the aesthetics of East and West, he made his intentions and philosophies quite clear after joining the Progressive movement that he no longer wanted to be tied to the British academic style, which focused on realism but, instead, sought to embrace the uniquely Indian aesthetics of Antar gyan[4], which translates as inner knowledge but refers to an Indian inner vision.

His celebration of Indian elements has been equally well received and rewarded. His abstract landscape Tapovan fetched $4,452,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York, in 2018, the second-highest figure for Indian modern art. Painted in 1972 when he was still a central figure in the movement, it is at first glance not typically tied to his Indian heritage but therein lies the problem of trying to neatly categorise any work as indigenous. Raza saw the bright colours of the Indian villages of Madhya Pradesh from his childhood in canvases such as Village-en- Fête.(1964) which has definite nods to European modernism.


And if we are to extract complex indigenous and non-indigenous forms and influences in the work of Indian artists, then none so subtly multi-layered as Indian-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Pre-eminent amongst female Indian artists, her work sources European styles but has finer nuances tied to her mixed parentage. She was painting before the emergence of the Progressives and found the Bengal School too restricting. It’s an interesting juxtaposition in Indian art history because the Bengal School disliked the work of contemporary Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) because it copied the style of European paintings yet we find Sher-Gil painted during this bridging period between nationalism and Independence in the European style shunned by the Bengal School.

We find European modernism in her portraits of Indian women, which, at first glance, expressly pay homage to Gaugin’s paintings of Tahitian women. She did, though, live in Paris and had a Hungarian mother and Sikh father so her style has to be read within this multi-cultural context. It was only in 1934 when she returned to the India she had grown to love that her work more vigorously captured the essence of its people and sensibilities.

As she developed these new Indian influences, she became attracted to the Mughal miniatures – a passion shared with MF Hussain and, of course, the Calcutta Art School. Her work is much valued in the Indian market: The Little Girl In Blue fetched an Indian record of $2.1m in Sotheby’s Mumbai sale in 2018. The Indian government valued it so highly that they made it a national treasure. So one can surmise, the European modernist traits layered around the Indian subject matter is a major part of her market appeal.


One needs look no further than the Progressives, themselves, for evidence of this symbiotic mix of East and West. Hussain’s own work was arguably Cubist and he was even described by Christie’s auction house as the Picasso of India[5]. So marked is the comparison, that in 1971 his art was exhibited with Picasso’s at the Sao Paulo Biennial. Indeed, during a trip to Europe in 1953, it was the work of Picasso, Matisse and Paul Klee that caught his eye and helped shape his creative output.

Notably, he says it was Klee not Picasso who was his biggest influence and claims Klee was so well-versed in Indian aesthetics that he was almost an Indian painter. This observation shows that despite his Cubist roots, he felt his expression was resolutely Indian and was never wholly derivative. On his deathbed in 2011, he maintained: “I’m an Indian origin painter I will remain so to my last breath.”

The work of fellow Progressives such as Tyeb Mehta and Francis Newton Souza is also heavily indebted to the palettes and styles of Gaugin, Klee, Kandinsky and Cubism. The Progressives are credited with adding an undeniably Indian stamp to European art narratives and this mix of styles, as well as their pioneering break away from South Asian aesthetic norms after independence, meant the work developed an energy and identity of its own, eventually becoming much sought after at the likes of Christie’s and Bonhams. Damien Vesey, specialist head of sale at Christie’s London observes: “Their works are the cornerstone of any major collection of Indian art.”[6]

There is a crop of artists outside the Progressives whose East-West influences are more obvious and make great show of this mixture of cultural forms. Kolkata-based Anirban Mitra’s colourful canvases feature both Indian cultural symbols and easily identified US pop art figures such as Mickey Mouse. But although popular, their sales have never quite matched the Progressives. Inasmuch as the Indian art market has become more selective in the last decade with buyers increasingly snapping up top tier modern work in this category, art from the two movements dominate. Historical footprint outperforms market flux and trends.


Dealers, gallerists, collectors and auction houses are well aware of this identity issue in Indian contemporary art. Holly Brackenbury, director for Indian art at Sotheby’s London is a regular at events such as the India Art Fair and helps drive sales in London and New York. She says: “The national identity of Indian art is something that has been a concern for some artists since India’s independence. In some cases, the way modern Indian art evolved was by trying to find a voice or an identity. Some looked at taking on aspects of Western art and some looked at returning to traditional forms of Indian art, but using it in a new way to form a language.[7]

She recognises that the world of the Bengal School in the early 20th century and the post-World War 2 era of the Progressives were different to today’s internet-connected reality with, instant communication and the constant exchange of cultural language. She claims there is now an international cultural language and no longer an emphasis on national identity in Indian art – a claim that can be disputed. Decades after the Bengal School broke from the art constraints of the British Raj, and the Progressives sought to throw off the remnant shackles of British art institutions, it seems the British are again defining and shaping Indian art.

It’s a curious statement when you consider the importance of nationalism and identity in the development of two of India’s greatest art movements. Yet, somehow, Indian art that has no hardcore Indian identity is being lauded by auction houses. The counter-argument could be that it’s those indigenous elements in the works that set them apart in the international market and give them their value.

All of this considered, we can conclude that the historical footprint behind the work and master artist status are the best guides to how well they sell at auction, regardless of whether the content is indigenous or Western art-influenced. Visual language will inevitably impact sales but separating the aesthetics into East and West camps does not show the primary driver of sales. This historical footprint, of course, applies chiefly to the best selling movements – phase 1, the Bengal School and phase 2, the Bombay Progressive School.

Sales records show auction houses such as Bonhams and Christie’s prefer the work of these pioneering movements, particularly the Progressives. The founder members and their affiliates are the biggest sellers – the likes of Sayed Haider Raza, M F Hussain, Francis Newton Souza, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta – all of whose work is clearly rooted in European modernism. Raza, Mehta and Hussain have all broken sales records and V.S Gaitonde’s Untitled (1961) holds the world-record price at $5.5m, this abstract work was sold at the Saffronart Spring Live Auction in March 2021.


[1] India’s nine treasured artists: Can Christie’s create a market for their masterpieces?-
Read more at:

[2] The Salt Satyagraha and Dandi : when Gandhi marched towards freedom (theheritagelab.in)

[3] How Indian art has engaged with the Mahatma – The Hindu

[4] Syed Haider Raza: I’m very attached to Indian culture: Syed Haider Raza – The Economic Times (indiatimes.com)

[5] Maqbool Fida Hussain is described as the ‘Picasso of India’ – Christies, South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art, Live auction 10247, Lot 27, 10 June 2015.

[6] Damien Vesey, specialist head of sale at Christie’s London on the Progressives: “Their works are the cornerstone of any major collection of Indian art.” – author Emma Crichton-Miller, The market is hot for modern Indian art, Apollo Magazine

[7] Holly Brackenbury, director for Indian art, Sotheby’s London:The national identity of Indian art is something that has been a concern for some artists since India’s independence. In some cases, the way modern Indian art evolved was by trying to find a voice or an identity. Some looked at taking on aspects of Western art and some looked at returning to traditional forms of Indian art, but using it in a new way to form a language. – author Elīna Zuzāne, Witnessing history of Indian contemporary art, Arterritory

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