Sanghamitra Mohapatra’s earliest memories with art are placed in the sprawling Cholamandal Artist’s Village: every Sunday, as a little girl, she would be left to play with other children as her father, entrepreneur Pradipto Mohapatra, caught up with his artist friends and perhaps even picked up a canvas or two on the way out. Most of these artists went on to become the greats of the Madras Art Movement.
She admits to having no clue of who they were or what they did until much after. Today, she wraps up a very challenging five-year project: painstakingly cataloguing her late father’s vast collection of artworks, with a sensitively curated show at Focus Art Gallery to honour his passion for art.
This collection, built lovingly over decades, holds many remarkable pieces: KCS Paniker’s rare paper sketches, RB Bhaskaran’s cats, KH Ara’s breathtaking large-format work ‘Nude’ and Laxma Goud’s etchings on metal plates: the crème de la crème of Indian contemporary art.
An MF Husain stands almost hidden on one of the crowded walls of Focus Art Gallery. Yet, it is unmissable. A simple watercolour on paper, characterised by the artist’s early brushstrokes, the work shows two women, perhaps dancers, accompanied by a meditating saint in whites. Inside, an entire wall features the Bengal School as Ajay De’s birds are captured in arresting shadows, and Suhas Roy’s beautiful pastel works of the female form sit beside forms of Christ, personalised by different cultures and artists in their own regard. A few sculptures, mostly in stone and metal, also make an appearance.
Collectively, they form around 275 works that span veteran artists, varied schools of thought, and changing styles that Pradipto Mohapatra, the man behind retail chains like FoodWorld, MusicWorld, Health & Glow and HMV India, collected over 40-odd years.
Sanghamitra remembers him as “the picture of health”, affable with a keen interest in horology and historical artifacts. Mohapatra loved his art and watches. “As for art, He was a huge fan of the Bengal School of Art, and the Madras Art Movement. He had a deep understanding of the Bengal School and the history of it,” says Sanghamitra. His father-in-law was an avid collector too. “Between father-in-law and son-in-law, a lot of notes were exchanged,” she recalls. This is also how a lot of works that characterise the Bombay School, like KH Ara, made it into the collection. The display is a fascinating walk through evolving thoughts, ideas and sensibilities.
In a collection as vast as this, dating and research pose unavoidable challenges. To make sense of the collection and devise a loose narrative, Sanghamitra did her own research into each of these artists’ lives. “Then there are provenances for each artwork: authenticity papers and invoices which give us an idea about the mediums and the prices. Some of them were bought pre-1990s, and don’t have the authenticity papers. For those, I had to dive into each piece, reach out to the family or an expert in the field to put the certification together,” she says.
A lot of the pieces from the Madras Art Movement are early works of the artists, procured around the 1980s, before they even shot to fame. Pointing to RB Bhaskaran’s oils and acrylics on canvas featuring his popular cats, Sanghamitra recalls, “He had no love for cats. But he bought a lot of work with cats for us. My mother’s side of the family was avid cat-lovers.”
While there is no set narrative to the display, the viewers are welcomed by the Madras Art Movement, and portraits who are then encouraged to travel to the Bombay and Bengal Schools, while passing by some abstract works on the way. Did Mohapatra have a favorite artist? “He loved [C] Douglas. In the Bengal School, he had a special love for the Tagores: ofcourse, we do have a few scribblings of Rabindranath Tagore.” However, they are not part of the display.
Why does she want to part with such an exhaustive collection? A lot of it boils down to the perils of preservation. Mohapatra had an affinity towards paper-formats: ink on paper and watercolours. “But they need to be on a wall, and aired,” says Sanghamitra, adding, “More so, they need to be appreciated and seen. There is no point in them being in our storage.”
The collection is on display at Focus Art Gallery, Alwarpet, from July 22 to 24. It is open to all.