In search of a literally 
priceless work of art

In search of a literally 
priceless work of art

One excellent bit about art galleries is that you get to see pictures there. Not the kind of pictures we’re used to seeing on Google Images or mobile phones or billboards or glossy magazines. But paintings and stuff. You know, pictures that artists make out of colours or pencil or ink on paper or canvas.

By Indrajit Hazra

Published: Fri 19 Oct 2012, 6:06 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:57 PM

On a whim and a spark, I decided to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in the heart of Delhi last week. Sitting on a sofa inside a moderately empty air-conditioned space on a weekday morning is quite inviting by itself. Add to that the bonus of being surrounded by paintings whose prices are not mentioned and you have an irresistible combo in your hands.

Not knowing the monetary value of paintings hanging all around you is an important element in enjoying art. We all know of auctions and galleries where paintings are bought and sold like Monopoly real estate.

I don’t want to knock the money that’s circulated through the arteries and veins of the art world as some folks need to make a living in a better, more wonderful way than I do.

But I’ve found people talking about loving Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players only after they’ve found out that it’s currently priced at $254 million. People who roll their eyes at any ‘abstract’ art — “Isn’t it confusing to have so many paintings named ‘Untitled’?” they complain — suddenly find stunning beauty in the carefully-careless chaos of Jackson Pollock’s giant canvas, No. 5, 1948 as soon 
as they’re told that it’s valued at $159.4 million.

At the NGMA, I didn’t know what the market value of the glorious, untitled oil-on-canvas by VS Gaitonde was. And I didn’t care. I was standing in front of this sunshine-captured-on-a-flat surface, a painting that captures the feel — and the feelings — of burnished gold. It was literally priceless.

But the real reason I had come to the NGMA was to look at a painting that was much smaller in size, quieter and unfashionably figurative.

It was a 50.8 cm by 54 cm brown ink-on-paper work by Rabindranath Tagore titled Woman Face. I had stared at it before, obsessed about it, imagined conducting a full-fledged ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ with it (read: stealing it), and continue to struggle forcing the picture into the story line of one of my novels. I even have a printout of the picture that I had downloaded from the Internet and cello-taped onto the glass of another painting print I have in my study.

So I went up to the first floor where the Tagores (and Amrita Sher-Gils) are displayed and… it wasn’t there. The picture of a woman’s face, un-humanly gentle and looking at the viewer with the slightest hint of a smile, is stunning in its zen simplicity. And yet, like a ghost story, it holds back much more than is on display. I asked a gallery attendant whether he knew where the Tagore picture was.

“They’re all there,” he said, nodding towards the pictures that I had almost proceeded to look under to find my missing masterpiece.

I Google-searched the image of Woman Face on my BlackBerry and showed him the picture. “This one. It’s not there,” I told the man. “It used to be there. Any idea where it is now?”

“It’s probably gone to the restroom,” he said in Hindi, but using the English word ‘restroom’.

Flummoxed, I crossed the floor to ask another gallery attendant who repeated pretty much the same thing. It was only after I went downstairs to check with the gallery shop girl that the paisa dropped.

“It’s gone for restoration,” she said. Restroom. Restoration. It’s kind of 
the same thing, I guessed. Disappointed, I spent a bit more time at the 
NGMA before leaving. But not before 
I started wondering what kind of 
price the temporarily missing Tagore would fetch in case it made its way 
out of the restroom. Restoration. Whatever.

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