Posted by: John Elliott | October 13, 2015

Amrita Sher-GiI joins the top end of Indian art auction sales

Three works by Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter regarded as a pioneer of modern Indian art, have been sold for over $2.5m at auctions this year. All are self-portraits by an artist whose works have a rarity value internationally because they have been declared “national treasures” by the Indian government, which means that those in India cannot leave the country. 

A.Sher-Gil_Untitled-Self--portrait-Oct-2015The latest of the three works (left), a 22in x 18in oil on canvas, went for £1.75m ($2.65m) including the buyer’s premium (£1.45m hammer price) at Sotheby’s annual South Asian art auction in London on October 6.

That was half way between Sotheby’s top and bottom estimates, but was below the artist’s record of $2.92m achieved at Sotheby’s New York sale in March this year (below left). It was also just under a similar work (below right) at Christie’s in London in June that fetched £1.76m ($2.72m), and is rumoured to have been bought by one of London’s richest Indian industrialists. The other two works are said to have gone to US-based collectors.

The artist died in 1941 at the early age of 28 and there are only 173 documented works, 95 of which are in Indian museums, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art that has an impressive permanent exhibition displaying the full range of her work. 

amrita_sher_gil-self_portrait_Sotheby's March '15Very few are abroad, so those that come to the international market have a rarity value that boosts prices. Once a benchmark figure is set for such an artist, as happened for the first time for Sher-Gil in March, collectors are encouraged to sell, egged on by auction houses and dealers who seek out potential lots.

Last month, works by F.N.Souza hit new records twice in just eight days, reaching $4m, so there was hope that demand at the top end of the market was strong enough for the latest Sher-Gil to beat the March record.

But it was not to be, even though it had the added attraction of being  sold by the daughter of Boris Taslitzky, a left-wing French painter with Russian Jewish parents who was Sher-Gil’s lover and muse when both were young art students in Paris.

AmS-G Christie's June '15Sher-Gil’s international background was quite different from India’s other leading modern artists such as Souza and M.F.Husain, and she was well established by the beginning of the 1930s, 20 or more years before their Progressives group began in Mumbai.

She is respected because her works have more originality than the Progressives, who drew heavily on established western artists such as Picasso and Matisse, and because of her use of strong colours.

Born in 1913 in Budapest with a Hungarian Jewish mother and an Indian Sikh father, she was taken by them to Paris when she was 16 to pursue her artistic studies, and she remained there for about five years till she moved to India. In Paris, she lived a bohemian life style with both male and female admirers who included Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and controversial personality, as well as Taslitzky. 

sayed-haider-raza-bhartiya-samarohSotheby’s sale produced mixed results with some other good prices, including one for an Husain, but 27% of the 111 lots failed to reach their reserve price and did not sell. A similar percentage were sold below the estimates.

Those that did not sell included a major work (left) by Sayed Haider Raza, a leading member of the Progressives. It’s top bid was £480,000 ($730,000), which was not only below Sotheby’s £500,000 lowest estimate but was also lower than the rupee equivalent of $905,000 (£483,000) paid by the owner at a Mumbai-based Saffronart on-line auction in 2010.

The sale totalled £4.85m ($7.39m) including buyers premium, which put it in third place behind two other leading auction houses’ recent South Asian auctions – Christie’s, which totalled $8.77m in New York last month, and Saffronart, India’s main on-line auction house. Saffronart occasionally stages live auctions, which it did in New Delhi a week before Christie’s and achieved sales totalling $12.7m, with only two of its 75 works not being sold.

Lot 46 A prince holding a falconTrailing dismally behind all three was Bonhams, which had a modern art auction in London on October 5 and sold only nine out of 33 lots. Sales totalled about £163,000 ($250,000), about half of which came from a remarkable 120cm x 108cm lapis lazuli mosaic of two horses by Ismail Gulgee from Pakistan that fetched £86,500 including the premium.

Sotheby’s did much better with a sale of Indian miniature paintings owned by The Sven Gahlin Collection, which roughly doubled £2m-2.8m pre-sale expectations with a total of £4.6m. The sale was led by a late 17th-century painting (above) depicting a Mughal Prince on horseback holding a falcon, which sold for £329,000 that had been estimated at £60,000-80,000).

There is now a continuing stream of Indian art auctions throughout the year. Pundole’s of Mumbai, one of India’s oldest galleries, has a significant auction in Mumbai early next month, and Christie’s plans a high-profile one, also in Mumbai, in mid-December. After the recent mixed results, the market will be watching to see whether these two auctions pack in the key ingredients of winning selections of works and sufficient high-spending buyers.


LONDON: What do Narendra Modi, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Arvind Kejriwal, to name but a few, have in common? They are all politicians (or in one case, a potential politician) who have emerged recently because of voters’ disenchantment with the way that their predecessors have run broadly consensus politics supported by establishments controlled by vested interests. 

All of them are populists who have inspired voters with the prospect of a change, and their emergence has shocked and horrified the old establishments. 

Jeremy Corby addressing the Labour Party conference yesterday

Jeremy Corbyn addressing the Labour Party conference yesterday

The cosy courtiers and generations of supporters of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India can’t accept that Modi, an arch Hindu nationalist with a controversial past as chief minister of Gujarat, can be trusted as prime minister to run their country.

The cosy mainstream politicians of the UK can’t come to terms with the fact that Corbyn, a 66-year old outsider who has been a Labour Party far-left rebel for most of his life, is a credible leader of Britain’s main opposition party, even though he won 59% of the votes in a election for the post two weeks ago, defeating three more conventional candidates. 

There was similar shock horror when Kejriwal, a 47-year old social activist-turned politician, won a landslide victory to become chief minister of Delhi in February at the head of his new Aam Aadmi Party, defeating Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose fresh popularity, won just a few months earlier, was already waning. 

And there is similar amazement and concern around the world that Trump, an egotistical business tycoon who grabs headlines with insults and other extravagant remarks, has cashed in on disenchantment and emerged as the Republican Party’s leading contender for next year’s US presidential election.

At last year’s general election, Modi offered India’s aspirational youth more hope for the future than the subsidy-oriented backward-looking Gandhis. Kejriwal then offered Delhi voters the prospect of clean and more honest politics in a deeply corrupt country, and now Corbyn has miraculously boosted the Labour Party with thousands of mostly young and prospective members who had tired of previous remote middle-of-the road leaders and want more involvement, debate and honesty.

Modi and Corbyn come with baggage of the far right and far left of their country’s politics, which they will both have to overcome if they are to succeed. 

For Modi, that means not only showing he can change the way than India is governed but, almost more importantly, controlling the anti-Muslim nationalistic rhetoric of many of his colleagues so that he is re-elected at India’s next general election. He also needs his BJP to win state assembly elections in the intervening years, starting with Bihar in a few weeks’ time. 

For Corbyn it means surviving as party leader for longer than the couple of years that he is being given by a sceptical verging-on-hostile British media, and by most of his shell-shocked MPs who fear losing their seats at a general election under his leadership. To do that, he needs to show, as he is doing, that he is prepared to debate and trim his anti-war, anti-nuclear lines and then find a way to turn debates into firm policies, though he would risk alienating his more extreme ideologues.  

Modi-at-San-Jose-380Both men have been on stage in the past few days. Modi has been doing what he does best, wowing thousands of overseas Indians at pop-star type events at St. Jose in California. He has also been appealing to the young during a session with Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has met Barack Obama, and lectured United Nations and other conferences on climate change and security. His next mega event will be wowing some 70,000 overseas Indians in London’s Wembley Stadium in mid-November.

Modi must be the first prime minister or president in history frequently to invade his hosts’ territories by staging such spectacles. He started a year ago with some 18,000 cheering and screaming overseas Indians at New York’s Madison Square Gardens (where the Pope blessed thousands at a mass last weekend). Since then he has done the same thing in Sydney, Toronto, Dubai and even Shanghai. What his hosts really think of such politically inspired ego-trips  is not recorded.

Corbyn made his first speech as Labour leader yesterday at his party’s annual conference in Brighton. He won the standing ovations and constant applause that any leader would expect, even though he almost failed to be nominated for the leadership election because of a lack of support from Labour MPs. He wears boring brown jackets and has a chatty style of answering interviews’ questions, both of which are easily mocked but are a refreshing change from the slick suits and the bland dodging-the-issue spins of David Cameron and Labour’s Tony Blair.

His theme in Brighton was that he would introduce “kinder more inclusive” politics. He was primarily against the Cameron government’s austerity programme, preferring to tackle economic problems with (ill-defined) growth. He is intent on gradually re-nationalising the railways, which it is no bad thing to debate because the privatisation craze has romped out of control to such an extent over the past 35 years that the Post Office was recently sold off way below its market prices. 

The Econ Backwards ComradesHe wants to change the balance of tax to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, which is an inevitable old Labour policy. He harks back to Labour governments of 40 years ago with talk of a national investment bank, and he has horrified people by favouring a united Ireland, which could stir up motions and hostilities that are best avoided.

He is also in favour of abandoning the £100bn renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile, a possibly laudable aim, but one which rakes up decades-old arguments about nuclear disarmament. Abandoning Trident is also opposed by trade unions and MPs who, fearing job losses in naval shipyards, stopped Corbyn having it debated at the conference.

Even The Economist magazine, which greeted his election with the headline Backwards Comrades and an illustration of him in a Vladimir Lenin pose, had to admit however that Corbyn would “at least enrich Britain by injecting fresh ideas into a stale debate”. Voters who “felt uninspired by the say-anything, spin-everything candidates who dominate modern politics have been energised by Mr Corbyn’s willingness to speak his mind and condemn the sterile compromises of the centre left”.

That comment also applies in broad terms to Modi and Kejriwal, who have changed the tone of India’s political debate, awakened political interest among the young, and tried (so far with little success) to improve the way that their governments operate.

Few people think Corbyn has any chance of becoming prime minister at Britain’s next general election in 2020 because of his Leftist past, but his leadership appeal will be tested before that in local council elections beginning next year, and he has to try to win over the masses lot Labour MPs and the party’s Blairite supporters who are speaking out against him.

Aside from that, what he can and should do is to change his party’s style so that it becomes a firm constructive left-of-centre alternative in policy and approach to the Conservatives, distinctly different from the Blair style. 

Modi did that with the BJP, making it a nation-wide alternative to the Gandhis’ Congress, even though he had been an outsider till a year or so before he was elected. And Kejriwal, whose party was even more of an outsider, has shown that voters are ready for new ideas and new faces.

So outsiders can wreak surprising change. Maybe one can write off Trump, but watch Corbyn, Modi and Kejriwal because they all have the potential to bring new life and meaning to their countries’ politics – and maybe, hopefully, their governments.

souza_-_birth Christie's NY

A new record price for an India painting was set today at a Christie’s auction in New York when India’s most prolific collector, Kiran Nadar, bid $3.5m ($4.01m including buyer’s premium) for Birth, a monumental 8ft x 4ft oil on board (above) by F.N.Souza, one of the country’s most famous artists who died in 2002.

The previous record price of $2.59m for a Souza work was set just last week at a Saffronart auction in Delhi, when his 5ft x 4ft Man and Woman Laughing (below) went to the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) for a hammer price of Rs14.6 crore (Rs146m) – Rs16.84 crore ($2.59m) including the premium.

Souza ManWoman Laughing SaffronartSouza’s earlier record was held by Birth, which was bought at a Christie’s London auction for £1.27m ($2.5m) in June 2008 at the height of a boom in Indian art by Tina Ambani, wife of Anil Ambani, one of the two Mumbai-based Reliance business brothers.

She bought it for her Harmony Art Foundation, which has made a tidy profit on the sale, though the work was estimated in the Christie’s catalogue at surprisingly low figures of $2.2m-$2.8m.

India’s old modern masters have been taking it in turns to hit record India prices at auctions. Souza’s sometimes tortured canvases and evocative line drawings of figures, often nude, and of townscapes, are regularly on offer, but their prices have been beaten in recent years by other old members of the Progressives Group such as V.S.Gaitonde, who held the record till today with a $3.79m work sold at Christie’s in Mumbai in December 2013, Syed Haider Raza, and Tyeb Mehta, plus Amrita Sher-Gil.

“It is a world record for a major work and it is well deserved,” says Hugo Weihe, who was the auctioneer both for Birth in 2008 and the Laughing work last week, having left Christie’s and joined Saffronart in recent months.

Painted in 1955, Birth embraces many of Souza’s main themes of extravagant female nudes, gaunt male faces, still life, religion and townscapes. For some people, it captures all the magic and intimacy of his works, while others see it as too oppressively dark with little apparent joy in the pending birth.

raza_cityscape Christie's NY

There’s been speculation that this is why Tina Ambani never took the work to India. I was in the London auction room in 2008 and watched Preeti Ambani, a cousin of Anil and president of Harmony foundation, make the bid at a sale buzzing with excitement that may have encouraged her to push up the price.

Her bid was 56% higher than the previous record for any modern Indian work. But Birth then went not to Tina Ambani’s Mumbai home, nor to the Harmony foundation in the city, but to the US on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Subodh Gupta Seven Seas Christie's NYThe dramatic changes in the market since the boom of the mid-2000s are demonstrated by the fact that Christie’s did not even put Birth on the cover of its 2008 catalogue. (See Comment below.) That honour went instead to Subodh Gupta, a contemporary artist whose installations and paintings of shiny pots and pans, and poor Indians travelling through airports and delivering milk, were then fashionable market leaders.

A large installation of his pots and pans fetched £601,000 ($1.2m) at that auction, but his prices have slumped from their peak as buyers have swung away from contemporaries to the safer havens of the older moderns like Souza. A Gupta work consisting of two cast bronze airport luggage trollies went today for a hammer price of $70,000 ($87,500 including buyer’s premium).

Gaitonde watercolour and inkThe Delhi Art Gallery has one of India’s largest gallery collections of modern art but has not entered auctions at the $2m-plus level before. It intends to show Man and Woman Laughing  in a special section for masterpieces that it will display next January at Delhi’s India Art Fair. The $2.59m price might have been higher if Kiran Nadar, wife of the founder of the HCL software business, had bid, but she already has a similar rather grimmer work called Man and Woman Grinding and was presumably waiting to bid for Birth.

Apart from the record Souza, Christie’s New York auction had mixed results in the upper ranges. Three of the five works with the highest estimated prices failed to reach their minimum price, including two by old masters Raza (the cityscape above) and M.F.Husain (whose 100th birth anniversary yesterday was marked by with  the home page below).

Google Husain IMG_4296The sale totalled $8.77m including buyer’s premium and six of the 73 works on offer were not sold,

One of its star results was the first lot, an early 10in x 7in Gaitonde (above) similar in style to Indian miniature figurative painting, which went for a hammer price of $160,000, approximately five times the estimate.

Saffronart did better last week with a sale totalling $12.7m, and only two out of 75 works failing to sell. This is basically an on-line auction house and last week’s sale was one of its rare live events, which seemed to pay off because the auction room in a Delhi hotel was packed and lively.

Tyeb-Mehta_lot23 SaffronartIts second highest sale was by Tyeb Mehta (left) and was bought for Rs9.75 crore ($1.77m including buyer’s premium) by another Delhi collector, Shivinder Mohan Singh from the family that used to own the Ranbaxy pharmaceutical company and now runs healthcare businesses. That work was sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction in 2000 for just $26,000, which illustrates the enormous movement in prices over the past 15 years.

The lessons from the two auctions, as always these days, is that top artists’ best works sell well. Gone are the days of the early 2000s when, as Hugo Weihe said to me in 2008, “every new collector wanted an Husain”.

Extensive marketing is needed to match the works and buyers and, for the record prices, there needs to be a collector determined to acquire prestige works – as Tina Ambani was in 2008, and Kiran Nadar is today buying for her Delhi modern art museum.

Posted by: John Elliott | September 7, 2015

Bhutan leads the way in the quest for happiness

“Gross National Happiness is critical for Bhutan – otherwise we will undo all our success so far,” says Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of some 700,000 people that is sandwiched between the giant nuclear powers of India and China. For him, this means balancing economic development with maintenance of the country’s unique culture and identity. Otherwise, he adds, “we will be lost”.

This echoes what Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said during a rare interview he gave me for the Financial Times in 1987. He talked at length about how he wanted the country to develop and tied that into GNH with “political stability, social harmony, and the Bhutanese culture and way of life”.

Prime minister Tshering Tobgay

Prime minister Tshering Tobgay

Few other prime ministers would be taken seriously airing Tobgay’s views.

When Britain’s David Cameron extolled the virtues in 2010, a trade union leader was quoted in The Guardian  saying the prime minister would probably “claim that despite rising unemployment, home repossessions, longer NHS waiting lists and unaffordable education, the people of this country are happier under Tory rule”.

Cameron is not the only leader to pick up the idea, which was first mooted publicly by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s as a better national ambition than GDP.

Bhutan’s last prime minister, Jigmi Yoeser Thinley, energetically spread the gospel around the world (till he lost office two years ago). He focussed on the United Nations and persuaded it to take “happiness” as a development aim, and designate the UN’s first annual “International Day of Happiness” in 2013.

An international conference is being held in Bhutan in November to assess the progress in the country and internationally. Dasho Karma Ura video on GNH, an economist and historian who runs the Centre for Bhutan Studies in the capital of Thimphu, expects about 550 people to attend with visitors from 56 countries. He says that those who are “seeking better ways to improve life” around the world are mostly non-governmental organisations rather than governments. GNH has also been the subject of many PhD theses.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

The conference will assess how far the dream has spread and how seriously it has been adopted, despite considerable scepticism. In Bhutan there are four pillars of sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preserving the culture, and good governance. That was developed by Karma Ura’s centre into nine domains ranging from education and health to community relations and living standards, and over 33 detailed indicators.

A massive six-month national survey of some 8,000 people has just been carried out, with each person being interviewed for three hours or more. The results will be presented to the conference.

An earlier survey was mocked for producing findings such as men being happier than women, and young unmarried people being among the happiest. This time the analysis will reflect the impact of rapid development on people’s living standards, their ability to cope with rising prices, increased access to international television and the internet, plus more traditional issues such as the impact of rivers on a person’s contentment.

The significance of river waters in mountainous Bhutan is so great that it has even influenced a debate on privatisation of state owned assets. The rivers serve rural communities across the country and they also have rich potential for hydro-electric schemes. Projects are developed in collaboration with India, which already takes about 75% of electricity generation, providing more than 40% of Bhutan’s revenues. This raises environmental concerns, and there are also serious problems on one of the current projects, which has large time and cost over-runs plus an unstable mountainside at the construction site.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

It suits the governments of both India and Bhutan not to lose control of such assets, but there is also a deeper view, espoused by Karma Ura, that the hydro input “is collective” because of the way that the rivers form part of peoples’ lives and because of their large role in the nation’s wealth. “It would be like privatising the sky,” he says.

The current GNH focus in Bhutan under prime minister Tobgay is to apply the principles in the way that the country develops. “I don’t want to be obsessed in exporting GNH,” he told me when I was in Thimphu recently for an annual Mountain Echoes literary festival. “I want to do, rather than talk about it”

In fact, it’s not talked about much and, at the opening of the literary festival, it was scarcely mentioned in speeches that extolled Bhutan’s virtues.

The festival formed part of the celebrations for the 60th birth anniversary this year of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king in the Wangchuck dynasty that was established when it united the country in 1907.

It was evident when I met him in 1987 that the King was anxious to map out a future for opening up the country, both to the outside world and to democracy. That led him to announce his abdication in 2006 in favour of his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was then 25 and was crowned in November 2008, six months after the country’s first general election.

There is now a delicate evolving power balance between the roles of the elected government and the monarchy, as there is between Bhutan and India, which has regarded it as a virtual protectorate for some 65 years. Prime minister Thinley destabilised those balances by drawing closer the China than either India or the monarchy wished, or even initially knew about. That seemed to be heralding movement on China’s wish for formal diplomatic relations. Thinley also proposed land reform legislation that would have reduced the monarchy’s role in land allocations.

Thimphu sprawl - Getty images

Following those developments, India is widely perceived to have intervened in the 2013 general election to ensure Thinley’s defeat, not least by suddenly withdrawing a kerosene and cooking oil subsidy in the middle of the election campaign.

Under prime minister Tobgay, the balances have been restored, though one hears criticism in Thimphu of the way that India used its professed friendship. That adds to the significance of Narendra Modi making Bhutan his first foreign destination for a visit after he became India’s prime minister last year.

The main domestic concerns central to GNH include maintaining the country’s free education and health care, and finding jobs for over 170,000 school children and students when they need employment. Every household has electricity, say officials, with solar energy in remote areas. The constitution requires forests to account for 70% of the land area, though the urban sprawl (above) that dominates the once green valley approaches to Thimphu illustrates the problem of maintaining that percentage.

It is the job of Lynopo Dorji Choden, a construction engineer and former bureaucrat who is now minister of works and human settlement, which includes town planning, to ensure that the Thimnphu valley type of development is not repeated elsewhere. She sees that as part of GNH. Heights of buildings are restricted to two floors except in urban centres where there can be three with traditional designs and colours.

These and other pressures of a modern consumer society are increasing, and that includes corruption. The fourth king talked at length to me about this in 1987 and said that, though it was small problem compared to other countries, it had started when development began in 1961. Now the opportunities have become greater, and the current king has described it as “the highest probable risk to development”. The government set an example when it sacked its foreign minister earlier this year for embezzlement of public property when he held an earlier post.

Sometimes the country makes sudden modernisation strides, and at other times change comes surprisingly slowly. In 1987 Kinley Dorji, then a young journalist and now the government’s secretary for communications, had just launched Keunsel, Bhutan’s first newspaper, using advanced technology – an Apple Mac computer and a laser printer.

On this visit I was amazed to discover that there is no helicopter anywhere in the country. When Bhutan needs one, it has hired or borrowed from India, or sometimes Nepal, say government officials, explaining that Bhutan is a poor country. Now it is about to get one for $3.6m. Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Ltd has been set up, and its offices were opened by the prime minister last month. Services will begin, appropriately, on November 11, the fourth king’s 60th birthday.

fruit stall on the road from Thimphu to Bhutan's airport at Paro

the road from Thimphu to Bhutan’s airport at Paro

There is no prospect of India and Pakistan coming to terms and settling their border differences in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the lifetime of the two countries’ present governments and probably not for much longer. Efforts to improve the relationship in other ways will also be precarious and uncertain.

That has been clear for years, but it became even more obvious at the end of last week when planned talks between the two countries’ national security advisers (NSAs) on cross-border terrorism were scuttled in a flood of accusations and counter-accusations.

There are two reasons for the lack of hope.

One is that there can be no deal while Pakistan’s army chief and the ISI intelligence agency are the country’s final authority, not the democratically elected prime minister – and there is no prospect of that ending. Both the army and ISI have for decades seen aggression against India as central to their existence and ambitions. Behind them of course there is China, which likes India being preoccupied with Pakistan.

As a democratically elected government, India would not deign to engage formally with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, or the intelligence chiefs. So, officials say, they have to take the country’s democratically elected leaders such as prime minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation) at face value, which can obviously be misleading to put it mildly. (The army chief does meet other country’s leaders – including David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, in London last January where the government gave him a ceremonial guard-honour welcome – below.)

Gen Raheel Sharif meets David Cameron - Jan 15 '15 The Sindh TimesThe second reason is that India is implacably opposed to any third party becoming involved as an intermediary, so the chances for incremental improvements in the relationship become mired in antagonistic confrontations.

Countries like the US and, to a lesser extent these days, the UK, can advocate peace talks and military restraint, but they have learned to their cost not to offend India by trying to mediate. The most recent major exception to this was in 2001-02, when India accepted both those countries mediating to defuse a potential border war after a terrorist attack on the parliament in Delhi, and there were earlier examples.

Consequently, there was no chance last week of a desperately needed third party being able to try to bridge the gulf over debilitating quibbles – mainly about the agenda for the talks and who the Pakistan NSA could meet in India aside from the formal events.

Viewed from abroad (I was in Bhutan reading Twitter and other news sound-bites), the events looked like a cross between a French farce, with characters rushing nosily across the stage banging doors, and a Chinese opera with actors belting out scripts to impress the audience without quite looking at each other.

This was a setback for Narendra Modi, who has wanted to draw Pakistan into a circle of improved sub-continental relationships that would lead to the sort of connectivity and interchanges that are routine between most neighbouring countries elsewhere in the world. In South Asia, such a development has been stymied by decades of Pakistan-India antagonism. It has also been complicated in recent years by a growing Chinese presence.

Modi has however succeeded, to varying degrees, in showing how India can be friendly and useful – with Bangladesh where there has been a cross-border land swap deal and other talks, with Nepal on immediate earthquake relief and other initiatives, with Sri Lanka since the defeat of a pro-China president (who has lost two elections this year), and with Bhutan which is a long term land-locked ally.

modi-sharif-7591 UfaModi’s hopes were raised on July 10 when he met Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa where they were attending BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits (left).

The talks appeared to be unusually constructive. Sharif and his officials seemed to want to improve relations and join Modi’s circle of co-operation. With Pakistan’s security forces preoccupied with terrorism at home and a worsening situation in Afghanistan, Indian officials hoped that the country’s all-powerful army chief would support Nawaz Sharif acceptance of India’s request for talks between the two countries’ NSAs on “all issues connected to terrorism”.

Hopes rose when it was agreed that the foreign secretaries, Pakistan’s Aziz Chowdhury and India’s S. Jaishankar, would jointly draft and read out a statement (below) after the meeting – a rare if not unique event. Constructive agreed points included meetings between border security forces, and Modi attending a South Asia regional (SAARC) summit in Islamabad next year.

Ufa statementAs soon a Nawaz Sharif returned to Islamabad however, there were negative noises from Pakistan. The main complaint was that the statement agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues” but did not specify the usually-included issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Firing quickly increased across the Line of Control that divides the two countries in Kashmir, and there was a 12-hour terrorist attack and gun battle on July 27 at an Indian police station at Gurdaspur in Punjab near the border that killed seven people including four Indian police guards. On August 5, there was an attack on an Indian border security forces’ bus in Kashmir.

The NSA talks were planned for last weekend, August 22-23, to discuss terrorism, which India thought would provide it with an opportunity to pinpoint incidents of cross-border infiltration, and attacks such as the one at Gurdaspur.

But Pakistan began to insist that Kashmir should be specifically included in the agenda, which India said was against the Ufa agreement. Pakistan also said that its high commissioner (ambassador) in Delhi would be inviting leaders of separatists based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, who want varying degrees of independence or autonomy from Delhi, to a reception before the talks.

That was a direct challenge to the Indian government because Modi had unexpectedly cancelled talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries in August a year ago after the high commissioner similarly invited the separatists for talks. India has tolerated these meetings for years, but Modi wanted to demonstrate that the separatists and their Hurriyat umbrella organisation were not a party to India-Pakistan relations.

In Delhi, Ajit Doval, 70, the NSA and one of Modi’s closest advisors, who earlier headed India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), was playing a leading role. This inevitably changed the rhythm and tactics of the interchanges from the usual diplomacy.

Both sides announced that they had prepared detailed dossiers of each other’s terrorist attacks, Pakistan claiming that India responds to attacks in Kashmir with disruption in the province of Baluchistan and elsewhere. Maybe they were eventually content for the talks to be abandoned, which happened when Pakistan eventually withdrew last Saturday night. They then did not have to respond to the dossiers, which would inevitably have been leaked to the media.

Losing the plot

Rakesh Sood, a former senior Indian diplomat, has commented in an article in The Hindu, that “a diplomatic engagement was converted into an ‘us versus them’ battleground”. Somewhere along the way from Ufa, “it was clear that the plot was lost sight of and the management of the process was reduced to a rhetorical tit for tat.” Other commentators have referred to what they regard as a lack of focussed diplomatic preparation and groundwork before and after the Ufa meeting.

The story entered the realm of unreality when Indian officials indicated that they would not mind too much if Sartaj Aziz, 86, Pakistan’s NSA and a former foreign and finance minister, met the separatists’ leaders after, not before, his formal talks. That was after India put some of the leaders under house arrest for an hour or two in Srinagar, then released them, and then arrested others when they arrived at Delhi airport to stop them reaching the high commissioners’ reception.

That is surely where an intermediary could have stepped in and found a compromise, as could have happened on whether Kashmir could be just mentioned in the talks. But such an idea is heresy in Delhi!

India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said last weekend that there are “no full stops in diplomacy”, which shows that she knows the dance between the two sides will continue. There was nearly a trade deal in 2012 (which maybe could be resurrected), and earlier in the 2000s there was an almost-soft-borders’ deal, but they remained almost-deals.

Talking is however essential. Both countries have nuclear weapons. They have fought three (or four depending on how you count them) border wars since independence, and there is frequent firing across the disputed frontier. Not to talk would be worse than what has happened in the past few weeks.

Posted by: John Elliott | August 15, 2015

Narendra Modi’s problems tone down his Independence Day style

11884085_632614840211658_3284405192525578021_o copyIf Narendra Modi has learned anything since becoming India’s prime minister, it must be that the country changes slowly and that bombast does not work, at least not all of the time and less in India than it does abroad.

That became evident when he delivered his second prime ministerial speech this morning (Aug 15) in Hindi from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on the country’s 69th independence day.

He was dressed more soberly than last year, exchanging a flowing bright red turban for a more subdued orange model that matched with a calm cream kurta and jacket

There were fewer extravagant claims and less egotistical bravado in the unusually long 90 minute speech, delivered in the 29 degree C sweaty heat of Delhi’s humid monsoon season.

That is scarcely surprising coming at the end of a three-week session of parliament that conducted virtually no business because of Congress Party-led opposition tantrums with MPs protesting so noisily that sessions had to be adjourned. Urgently needed sales tax reforms pushed by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government were not passed, partly because the government would not compromise with the Congress on some points.

He and his team also seem to have lost the plot on their once determined plans to speed up industrial and infrastructure projects by reversing key sections of land acquisition legislation that was introduced by the last Congress-led government.

The parliamentary disruption, which I described on this blog on July 22, continued with Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, stopping both houses of parliament operating because of corruption and ethics allegations involving three top BJP politicians.

rahul-gandhi-notes-telegraph_650x400_71439448382The only winner out of this shambles was Rahul Gandhi, who has found his voice leading the protests, though his limited abilities were exposed a few days ago when a photo of him carrying his detailed speaking brief was splashed across twitter (left).

Arguably the Gandhis are working against the national interest by blocking parliamentary proceedings (which the BJP did to them before the election). They have however successfully made Congress heard, punching far above its weight with only 44 members in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, and they have shown Congress has the power to take on the government. As Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security adviser said in a different context recently (he was referring to India-Pakistan border fighting), there is no point in having power if you don’t use it!

When Modi spoke from the Red Fort ramparts a year ago, he was capturing a national mood of hope and desire for change following his landslide general election victory, but that mood has been dissipating since last November when the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, not economic development, dominated the news.

Many of his dreams have failed to become reality. Perhaps the most significant is his job-creating Make in India campaign that was aimed at attracting masses of foreign manufacturing investments with relaxed and efficient regulatory procedures. But though foreign investment has increased, there has been little discernible improvement in procedures and, despite multi-billion dollar project pledges collected during Modi’a foreign visits, there have been no large scale job-creating manufacturing plans.

Narendra Modi climbs up to the ramparts of the Red Fort to deliver his speech - pics also above and below

Narendra Modi climbs up to the ramparts of the Red Fort to deliver his speech – pics also above and below

That failure seemed to have ended a week ago when Foxconn of Taiwan, which makes components for Apple and other electronics companies, announced a dramatic $5bn investment plan that would generate 50,000 jobs in five years.

The Business Standard however quickly pointed out that Foxconn has failed to implement similar grand plans in Brazil and Vietnam.

Perhaps realising Make in India’s limitations, Modi today announced a Start-Up India; Stand up India initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs, especially among the lowest castes. Modi said, rather hopefully, that this would give a new dimension to entrepreneurship and help in setting up a network of start-ups in the country.

He claimed progress in curbing government corruption and recovering black money secreted abroad. Picking up other points from his speech last year, he claimed that the promise of toilets in all schools had been “almost fulfilled” as part of a Clean India campaign, which was overstated. The Centre for Science and Environment said today that the campaign for toilets country-wide was only running at 25% of the target and that, at the current rate of progress, would be completed by 2032, not Modi’s promised 2019.

Along with the Make in India and other Modi schemes, this shows how difficult it is to generate change in India and, as I have written before, it now looks as if this will not be the transformational government that voters hoped for last year.


This might be broadly acceptable politically if there were no other downsides, but the government is developing an arrogance and self-aggrandisement that often comes unstuck. Modi is failing to solve problems before they become crises, most recently over changes for armed services’ pensions that he should have dealt with today but didn’t.

Potential success on subjects such as India-Pakistan relations and ending rebel activities in the north eastern state of Nagaland have recently been over-sold and risk failure. At the same time, the government has been bullying non-government social activists whose activities it dislikes and restricting personal freedom. Last week it even mishandled an aggressive attempt to block access to internet pornographic sites.

The next verdict on the government’s performance will come during October when assembly elections are held in the state of Bihar. The BJP will be competing against two regional parties that have the Congress as a minority ally. Modi still has strong approval ratings in national opinion polls, but his image will take a beating if the BJP does badly, as it did in Delhi assembly elections earlier this year.

Modi leaves tomorrow for the easier role of prime ministerial foreign visits where he can shake other leaders’ hands and woo enthusiastic overseas Indians. He will be in the United Arab Emirates and on Monday is billed to address an astonishing 50,000 in Dubai, mostly Indians working there. At the end of next month he is going to the US west coast where he is expected to address some 20,000 Indian-Americans in San Jose, California. A bigger adoring crowd beating even the Dubai figure is expected in London, where he is due in November.

Modi has undoubtedly raised India’s profile abroad, and last year inspired the hope of change. The question now is whether that is the end of the story or just the beginning – can he find a way over the next three or four years to turn voters’ hopes into reality? He hasn’t really begun to do that yet, and his problems are getting bigger, not smaller.

Of all the visits to 25 foreign countries that Narendra Modi has made since he became India’s prime minister 14 months ago, a recent trip to neighbouring Bangladesh yielded perhaps the most concrete outcome. On a relatively brief weekend visit in June, Modi signed an agreement with Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, for the two countries to swap 162 small parcels of land known as enclaves that were left behind in each other’s territories when boundaries were drawn in 1947.

The Indian government has announced today that the exchanges are being implemented from midnight tonight.

That may sound simple and unremarkable, but in the tortuous world of South Asian politics and diplomacy, it is a rare breakthrough. Among Modi’s visits, it has been matched only by the chord he struck with President Barack Obama in the US last October, having been denied a US entry visa for nine years after the 2002 Godhra riots in his state of Gujarat.

India-Bangla mapThe land deal, one of about 20 agreements signed during Modi’s visit, ended more than four decades of bickering with Bangladesh. It is a rare example of India getting its regional diplomacy right, and seeing a deal through to a successful conclusion.

Tariq Karim, a former top diplomat and, till recently, Bangladesh’s high commissioner in Delhi, praises Modi’s role for achieving what he describes as the “first solution for a post-colonial land dispute in South Asia since independence”.

India hopes it becomes an example of what it can achieve with its other neighbours, though such efforts are bedevilled by fractious relations with Pakistan, and by China’s ambitions to eclipse India and become the undisputed regional power. China has been increasing its influence on all India’s neighbours for many years, and has recently even emerged as an internationally accepted key player in Afghanistan’s embryonic peace talks, leaving India without a role.

It is rare for real progress to be made. Modi hoped that talks that he had with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister on the sidelines of a multi-lateral conference in Russia early in July would also yield positive results. The pleasantries, and the way that top officials jointly delivered their statements after the meeting, looked remarkably hopeful, but this was quickly followed by negative noises from Islamabad. Then on July 27 there was a 12-hour terrorist attack and gun battle at an Indian police station at Gurdaspur in Punjab near the border that killed seven people including four (inevitably) ill-equipped and under-prepared Indian police guards.

India and Bangladesh have a 4,100km (2,500-mile) border drawn erratically in heavily populated areas that left the enclaves invisible on most maps and on the ground. Some 50,000 inhabitants have effectively been stateless in 111 Indian enclaves located in Bangladesh and 55 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

The Economist reported that there was even “the world’s only ‘counter-counter-enclave’ – a patch of India surrounded by Bangladeshi territory, inside an Indian enclave within Bangladesh”. One theory about the history is that the enclaves “resulted from a series of chess games played between two maharajas centuries ago” while another suggests that they were “borne of 18th-century treaties signed between local rulers and the Mughal empire, before the emergence of the British raj”.

The next challenge for the two countries is to complete a long-delayed agreement on sharing the waters from the Teesta River, one of 54 rivers flowing between the two countries. The Teesta rises in the Indian state of Sikkim and flows through West Bengal to Bangladesh, which makes sharing the waters a sensitive issue in both countries.

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina

A bilateral deal was also almost done by Manmohan Singh when he made a prime ministerial visit to Dhaka in 2011, but he failed because Mamata Banerjee, the unpredictable irascible chief minister of West Bengal, refused to go along on the visit and approve the deal.

That may have been partly pique that she had not been properly consulted in advance, but she was also worried about political repercussions in the north of her state that could lose some water.

Modi’s breakthrough on the enclaves was partly the result of liaison with Banerjee that led to financial grants for her state and to her being in Dhaka at the same time as his visit. Modi was also able to persuade the Bangladeshis that Delhi would deliver on its promises, which meant overcoming historic distrust of India’s often over-bearing diplomacy.

Perhaps the most startling feature of the weekend visit was the welcome given to Modi by Bangladesh’s political opposition, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia, whose decades long rivalry with Hasina has held back the country’s economic and political development. Zia boycotted a general election in January last year and has has staged street protests to ry to force fresh elections.

Zia’s welcome indicates that the new co-operation with India could survive a change of government, though the BNP might create problems on a Teesta agreement. Bangladesh’s politics are volatile and unpredictable  – the latest instability comes from a leading BNP politician being sentenced to death for alleged war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Commentators in India have heralded the land deal as a springboard for Modi to transform relations with other neighbours. That however won’t be easy, though Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign secretary, has talked about the relationship with Nepal being transformed by the instant help that India gave after a recent earthquake  and by  co-operation on hydro power generation that Nepal had resisted for many years.

Wherever India goes however, China will be there as well, and in force. Sri Lanka had a pro China government till a presidential election at the beginning of this year brought in a leader who favoured Delhi, but that position might be reversed in a general election on August 17. Meanwhile, it looks as if China’s grip on the nearby Maldives islands, previously an India ally, is complete.

India cannot stop this trend, so the challenge is to make what progress it can, as Modi has done with the Bangladesh enclaves.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 22, 2015

Congress goads BJP government and blocks parliament

Until a few weeks ago, Shivraj Singh Chauhan was regarded as one of India’s most successful and responsible chief ministers. During the ten years that he has held that post in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, he has transformed its agriculture and introduced significant economic reforms, cared for the poor and for minority groups such as Muslims, and displayed a gentler Bharatiya Janata Party face than those of the nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and tough party president Amit Shah.

Now Chauhan is at the centre of one of India’s biggest and longest-running corruption scandals that, together with another scam linked to an Indian cricket league, is being used by the Congress Party-led opposition to stop India’s monsoon session of parliament functioning.

Congress is calling for Chauhan to be dismissed along with two other top BJP politicians – Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, and Vasundharan Raje Scindia, the chief minister of Rajasthan, who are caught up in the scandal involving Lali Modi (no relation to the prime minister), founder of the glitzy high-rolling Indian Premier League.

Parl protest

In a tit for tat response, the BJP has made corruption allegations against an official close to the chief minister of the northern state of Uttarakhand, and has also against two other regional politicians.

Congress is blocking parliament (left) and its students’ branch has been staging noisy street protests in Delhi, not because it expects the three to be sacked or resign, but because this is a simple and high profile way of drawing attention to alleged corruption at the top of Modi’s party.

Reduced ignominiously in last year’s general election to just 44 MPs in the 543-member Lok Sabha lower house, Congress has been resorting with its opposition allies to disruption and sound-bite politics on many issues instead of generating debates.

This is not a new tactic – blocking parliamentary proceedings with protests has become a regular practice for 10 to 15 years. During the last Congress-led government, the BJP staged so many protests that between 40% and 80% of time was lost in the years from 2010 to 2014, according to PRS Legislative Research.

Arun Jaitley, then the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha upper house and now the frustrated finance minister, was pleased with what he had helped to lead. “Parliament being used as a forum in more than one ways to expose the weaknesses of the government, I think, is a positive development,” he declared, after one session had been totally wiped out.

The tables are now turned and Congress MPs have become the rabble that storms into the well of the parliamentary chamber to stop proceedings – no business took place today for the second day running. This parliamentary session is only scheduled to last for 23 days and if little business is done, as seems possible because of Congress threats, progress will have been blocked on about 15 bills including long delayed measures on sales tax reform and land acquisition.

Shivraj-Singh-ChouhanThe Chauhan scandal shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is for politicians not to be tainted by India’s endemic corruption. Manmohan Singh, prime minister in the last government, is a prime example of how a basically honourable man felt he had to let corrupt deals on telecoms, coal mining and other subjects, wash around his desk.

Chauhan (right) similarly must have known about the scams but did little to ensure that official inquires actually made progress after they were started. Maybe it was simpler to allow the people involved to have their way.

Known as Vyapam, the scam engulfing Chauhan has involved masses of people obtaining civil service jobs, medical school places and false exam results for many years. Vyapam is an abbreviation of the Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, which is Hindi for the state’s professional examination board, founded in 1970, that from 2007 also conducted entrance exams for government jobs. Investigations are in progress and a total of some 2,000 people have been arrested.

The story has hit the national headlines and become a major political issue in recent weeks because it is alleged to have led to at least 26 (some reports say 40 and it could be far more) mysterious deaths of people involved in various ways including, earlier this month, a 38-year-old reporter and the dean of a medical college.

sushma-swarajMethods used in the scam, according to reports, have included an impersonator with a doctored admission card standing in for the student in the examination, plus an “engine and bogie” system (which starred in a Bollywood comedy Munna Bhai MBBS) where a clever guy sits between two other candidates who then copy answers from his (or her) paper – the examiners having been bribed to fix the seating arrangements. In a third system, candidates leave their answer sheets blank and are randomly given high percentages after the exam after which they fill in the answers

One of the first complaints were registered back in 2000, but its scale only seems to have attracted attention in 2009 when a book appeared on the subject, and it then took another six years for investigations and arrests to start in 2013.

The other scandal centres around the highly successful but tainted India Premier League cricket tournament and its original promoter, Lalit Modi who has been in living in London for the past five years to avoid court action in India.

Congress is demanding the resignation of Sushma Swaraj (above), the foreign minister, because last year she told the British government that her ministry had no objection to it issuing travel documents to Modi whose passport had been revoked by Delhi. The BJP argues that Modi was helped on humanitarian grounds because he needed to travel to Spain in connection with his wife’s ill health, and that Swaraj had done nothing illegal or immoral.

Vasundhra-Raje-ScindiaThe resignation of Vasundharan Raje Scindia (right), the chief minister of Rajasthan, who was close to Modi when she held that post a few years ago, is being demanded because she helped his application for residency in the UK four years ago when she was in opposition and not chief minister.

Neither of these two ministers is accused of any serious corruption of the type or levels of graft and extortion that enveloped the last Congress government.

But there are hidden depths to all such scandals, and Congress hopes that its campaign will undermine the prime minister’s over-stated claims that he is running a clean administration.

It might have seemed logical for Narendra Modi to want to damp down the controversies, which he has not done. Maybe that is because Swaraj, who has seen herself as a possible future prime minister, belongs together with Chauhan and Scindia to a faction within the BJP that was opposed to Modi becoming the party’s prime ministerial candidate last year.

There are few better ways of taming opponents than letting them be exposed to public scandal – and then protecting them, which is exactly what the government is now doing for Swaraj in parliament.

Posted by: John Elliott | July 2, 2015

Bajaj rickshaw sold for £100,000 in aid of wild elephants

London taxiIn India, the iconic Bajaj auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks cost around Rs200,000 or £2,000, Two nights ago, twenty were sold for up to £100,000 each in brightly coloured designs at a wildlife charity auction hosted in Lancaster House by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

There was a London taxi lookalike, a bamboo framed vehicle suitable for the jungle, one with bodywork covered with splashes of fried eggs, and a fluffy looking model called Princess Tickey-Tuk.

A total of over £700,000 was raised in aid of Elephant Family, a charity set up by Mark Shand, a writer and colourful adventurer – and Camilla’s brother – who died after a fall in New York in April last year. His death meant that the cause of protecting wild Asian elephants lost one of its most vocal and passionate champions. 

His involvement began in 1988 when he bought a scrawny beggar elephant called Tara and rode her over 600 miles across India (right). He then wrote a best-selling book, Travels on my Elephant.

Mark Shand on TaraThe auction auto-rickshaws, built to the same engineering specifications as those in India with 198cc petrol engines, have been roaming the streets of London for the past month with a top speed of 35mph. They were launched by actress Goldie Hawn (below with the friend egg paintwork). 

The campaign will be continued in November when 40 more ordinary auto-rickshaws will race 500kms across the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to Kipling Camp on the edge of Kanha National Park. The participants will come from the UK and elsewhere and each rickshaw team has pledged to raise £10,000 for the cause.

Several of the rickshaws went for between around £15,000 and £35,000 but top prices were achieved when between two and four determined bidders rivalled each other, encouraged by an enthusiastic auctioneer, Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. 

They included an intriguing bunch of backgrounds. There was Sir Evelyn de Rothschild from the banking family, who was involved in farming and retail investments in India a few years ago. He paid the top price of £100,000 for the London taxi look-alike, conceived by Benjamin Shine, an artist and designer. 

image003Vijay Mallya, whose Kingfisher airline defaulted and stopped operations in 2012, and whose massive corporate debts have lost him control of his family’s market-leading liquor business and Kingfisher beer brands, bid unsuccessfully for Golden Voyager.

This stylish bronze coloured rickshaw sported the British and Indian flags (above, carrying Prince Charles and Camilla). Designed by The Paintbox, custom car specialists, it went for £40,000. That was just a step too far for Mallya, who later paid a more modest £15,000 for a bright blue and red rickshaw styled by Mulberry, a luxury brand.

image001Other bidders included Olivia Harrison, widow of ex-Beatle George Harrison, who bought one lot for £55,000, Hilary Weston, the owner of Selfridges department store, who bought two for a total of £80,000, and Garreth Wood, entrepreneur and charity-organiser son of Sir Ian Wood, a Scottish oil industry businessman. Wood bid for several of the vehicles and bought one for £45,000 plus a 10ft high model elephant (see below). He plans to use them at restaurants and pubs he owns in Edinburgh and elsewhere. 

Behind the party’s flowing drinks, the trays of canapés, the presence of royalty, and the flamboyant bidding, lies the plight of the wild Asian elephant – there are only 35,000, down 90% over the past 100 years.

This 10ft high model of an elephant, symbolising Tara, was also auctioned for £42,000

This 10ft high model of an elephant, symbolising Tara, was also auctioned for £42,000

These grand animals are under attack not only from poaching and accidents on railway track and from electrocution. A more serious threat is conflict with local people who attack the animals when they roam through their crops and villages.

Elephant Family, now headed as joint presidents by Prince Charles and Camilla, aims to create 100 elephant corridors within the next ten years, starting with a major one in the north-eastern state of Assam. A memorandum of understanding was signed by five non-governmental organisations to achieve what Prince Charles described as “an enormously important cause, particularly because of its human-animal dimension”. 

Since it was set up by Mark Shand in 2002, the Elephant Family charity has raised over £9m, often through art related events. In 2010,  £4m was raised by auctioning model elephants that were paraded around London.

Now about 55, Tara lives a gentle life (below) in Kipling Camp, the destination of the November rickshaw race. India’s first private wildlife camp, it is run by Anne Wright and her daughter Belinda, who founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Elephant Family’s target is to raise £1m, and the £700,000-plus achieved at the auction, organised with the Quintessentially event-organising foundation, means that it is well on the way. And, as Prince Charles put it, the campaign will help to ensure that Mark Shand’s legacy is maintained and enhanced.

Tara in camp IMG_7515

Posted by: John Elliott | June 12, 2015

India’s old moderns keep the art auctions buoyant

Auction houses need to find something special to galvanise the hesitant Indian modern art market and make their sales a success, and that is what both Christie’s and Bonhams have succeeded in doing at their annual June sales in London this week.

A self-portrait painted by Amrita Sher-Gil in 1931 when she was only 18 - sold at Christie's for £1.8m ($2.7m) including buyer's premium

A self-portrait painted by Amrita Sher-Gil in 1931 when she was only 18 – sold at Christie’s for £1.8m ($2.7m) including buyer’s premium

Christie’s hit a winner on June 10 with a large historic work by M.F.Husain (below), one of the best known of India’s modern painters, who died four years ago this week.

The work sold for something of a record at £1.08m (US$1.67m), including buyer’s premium. Also in the auction, which totalled £7.23m ($11.15m) with 80% of the 76 lots sold, were memorable works by Gaganendranath Tagore (below) and Amrita Sher-Gil (right).

Bonhams scored yesterday with six Vasudeo S. Gaitonde drawings from the 1960s that rarely come to the market. They were sold for a total of £727,000 (including buyer’s premium) after keen bidding that included at least one established Indian collector and generated more telephone bidding chatter than is usual in auction rooms.

Also running at the same time was a two-day on-line auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart that totalled US$3.49m (Rs219.7m) including buyer’s premium, though only 67% of the 85 lots found buyers. Topping the sales was a work by another veteran modernist, S.H.Raza, titled Earth that fetched $1.23m (Rs77.6m).


Overall it was a successful week for the Indian modern art market that is still recovering from a slump in recent years. Christie’s best recent results have totalled $15.45m and $12.09m at its heavily marketed Mumbai sales in 2013 and 2014

Top collectors, dealers and a few artists gathered in London for the sales and a series of parties and gallery events.

Gaganendranath Tagore's unititled work, priced low as the Christie's auction opening lot, beat estimates by four or five times, selling for £56,250 (S86,738) including buyer's premium

Gaganendranath Tagore’s unititled work, priced low as the Christie’s auction opening lot, beat estimates by four or five times, selling for £56,250 ($86,738) including buyer’s premium

There has been a special emphasis on 89-year old Krishen Khanna, with the release of a film on his life and work, and an exhibition of his recent paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair (see his Bandwallas painting below).

He talked at the Courtauld Institute about his memories of Husain, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S.H.Raza and others who gathered soon after India’s independence in 1947 around what was known as the Bombay-based Progressives Group.

The auction market still largely depends on Krishen Khanna’s generation of painters for its big sales.

Only one of Christie’s top ten works was by an artist born after 1925, and all of Saffronart’s top ten were born in the 1920s or earlier. Art Tactic, the art analysis firm, calculated recently that 20 of these artists generated 75% of India’s main auction sales last year.

There are of course younger modernist style painters, but they do not command top prices. Once-prominent contemporary artists are no longer in demand, having reached unsustainable prices during the mid-2000s boom years. ArtTactic says the top 20 only accounted for only 5% of sales last year. Even a work by the internationally-recognised Bharti Kher, estimated at £50,000-70,000, failed to find a buyer at the Christie’s auction, though a large depiction of pots and pans against an urban background by her husband, Subodh Gupta, sold for a hammer price of £90,000.

Strong demand for the most interesting moderns was demonstrated by the record-making Husain (below, and to the left of the auctioneer in the higher auction scene) that was bought by Kiran Nadar, one of the India’s top collectors, for her Delhi museum.

Originally shown in 1956 at the Venice Biennale, the work is more than 8ft wide. Ten panels depict ideas and subjects such as a village woman, a triumphal elephant and galloping stallions that became Husain’s trademarks in later years, representing says Christie’s “a political testament to a progressive India”.
CKS_10247_0027Competition against another strong bidder drove the hammer price to the top pre-estimate figure of £900,000. Including buyer’s premium that came to the dollar equivalent of US$1.67m, which is almost three times the $602,000 paid for it by a dealer at a Sotheby’s New York auction just four years ago.

Christie’s says that this is a record for an Husain, which it is, just – $1.61m was achieved at its New York auction for the artist’s Battle of Ganga and Jamuna in 2008, when it was also an all-India record. This week’s figure is only slightly bigger, and that is more than offset by currency depreciation, but it does demonstrate the prices than collectors such as Nadar are prepared to pay for significant art. The sale is also important because Husain has lagged since 2008 behind record prices set by others of his generation, led by Gaitonde, Mehta and Souza.

Lot 31 - Vasudeo S. Gaitonde - Composition No. 3Gaitonde’s ink on paper drawings (left) of about 28in x 20in, reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e works, rarely come to the market – some are in a collection at Delhi’s National Museum of Modern Art.

The fact that Bonhams had six for sale drew international attention. The works were originally acquired directly from the artist by an American abstract painter, Morris Graves, who visited Gaitonde’s studio in 1963 and described him as “one of the finest painters I have ever seen”.

Estimated between £20,000-35,000 each, they went for hammer prices between four and five times higher at £110,000 to £130,000. Including buyer’s premium, that put the highest price at £158,500 for one of the works and the lowest £134,000.

The auction houses were happy with their results this week – Christie’s Deepanjana Klein said they showed that “collectors are coming back”. The next tests of that trend will be Sotheby’s annual London auction in October and Christie’s in Mumbai in December. Meanwhile, maybe, someone will find a way to persuade collectors to broaden out beyond the original modernists!

Krishen Khanna's 'Untitled' (Bandwallas in White and Blue), 2012

Krishen Khanna’s ‘Untitled’ (Bandwallas in White and Blue), 2012

Images of Christie’s auction works © Christie’s Images Limited 2015

Image Gaitonde work, courtesy Bonhams

Image Krishen Khanna work, courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

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