The year was 1989 and I was at Sakshi Gallery in Chennai during an exhibition by an artist called Badri Narayan. Each painting cost almost as much as my monthly salary at the time. But I was drawn to this one small, black-and-white, ink-on-paper crosshatch work titled ‘Hamsa Jataka’. It had this bird, presumably the mythical Hamsa, being watched over by a bearded man with a forlorn look on his face. Something about the whole scene was surreal. I paid Rs 500 for that painting and it started my journey with contemporary Indian art.
I see Badri as a dreamer, who gave many regular, real-life situations an almost abstract, dreamlike context. He always portrayed people connecting while in transition to another world, or dreaming about situations, or participating in our folk stories by becoming one of the characters. His still lifes had a childlike simplicity that drew on our folk traditions. He experimented with media—Sarmaya’s Badri collection is mainly watercolours, although we also have one oil painting and some of his works on tiles and plates.
I met Badri a couple of times at the Pundole art gallery in Mumbai. The man was simple and unassuming. He wanted to keep his art accessible so he never indulged in aggressive price hikes. He also made his work available generously to agencies and organisations that worked with children to create learning tools. It was important to him to get children to connect with art. He created books, illustrations and little things like table mats, all to awaken within young people a love for art and our folk cultures.
Paul Abraham is the founder of Sarmaya. Watch this video to find out how his journey of collecting began