Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mumbai terror attacks take their toll on Taj Hotel art collection


It might seem perverse to be monitoring the plight of works of art as a result of a terrorist attack but all too often the collateral cultural damage gets overlooked on these occasions. This was certainly the case with the nasty little war between Georgia and Russia earlier this year (the cultural heritage implications of which I reported here).

Meanwhile, as those two countries still squabble about who was responsible for the damage to their ancient sites and monuments, attention turns to the carnage in Mumbai.

One of the worst hit locations during last week's terrorist attacks was the Taj Hotel (lobby shown above left), an internationally acclaimed cultural icon and a symbol of India's thrusting new economy. Less well-known is that the Taj, owned by the Tata Group, has a vast collection of historical and contemporary works of art, an unknown number of which were damaged in the recent carnage.

Perhaps the most significant reported art casualty was a series of three paintings by Maqbul Fida Husain (born 1915), the grandfather of Indian modernism, whose auction record (for Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, right) currently stands at $1.6m (Christie's NY, March 2008).

In 2000, Husain was commissioned by Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata (whose family are major art patrons) to make a work for the Taj Hotel. Husain took up temporary residence in the Taj for several months, painting three large works for the hotel lobby. A widely syndicated report (here) suggested that those paintings were destroyed in last week's 59-hour siege.

The plight of other works by important Indian artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon (born 1940), Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), Tyeb Mehta (born 1925), Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Syed Haider Raza (born 1922), and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara (born 1913) is unknown. When I phoned the company this morning a Tata Group spokesman confirmed that the Taj hotel's art collection is currently housed in the 'Palace wing', which is out of bounds until further notice. The company declined to comment on the state of any of the works in the art collection.

M.F.Husain, now 93, (left) has told reporters he will paint new works for the hotel as a tribute to the Tata family and the Taj hotel staff "who laid down their lives for others."

"I have decided to paint a series of paintings condemning the attack," Husain said. "I am sure some day the Taj will regain its glory and I hope to show these paintings there."

Built in 1903, the Taj is home to a collection of 2500 works of art. In 2003, the auction house Bowrings (now defunct) was called in to catalogue and value the collection as part of the hotel's centenary. They unearthed treasures that not even the Taj management was aware of, describing it as one of the "finest collections of contemporary Indian art in existence," and worth millions. They also found evidence that many works in the collection had suffered significant neglect (see New York Times report of 2004 here). A very fine quality work by K.H.Ara, for example, was found to have been damaged by other heavy canvases leaning against it.

Such depredations may fade into irrelevance in the light of last week's terrorist attacks, as M.F.Husain seemed to acknowledge. "The Taj has so many paintings apart from mine," he told reporters. "I shudder to think what has happened to them. The Taj is the only hotel in Mumbai which has given so much importance to modern art."

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