In 1976, London’s JPL Gallery distributed a standard deck of playing cards among 54 of the leading lights of contemporary British art, including Howard Hodgkin, John Hoyland, Patrick Heron, Allen Jones, Maggie Hambling and David Hockney. The gallery asked each artist to produce their own, distinctive version of the card they received, ultimately creating a new and completely unique pack.
Exhibited in London as The Deck of Cards, the full collection was purchased by Anthony Jones and toured to over 20 countries by the British Council. The works were eventually published as a functional pack of cards, copies of which continue to be sold all over the world.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of this project, the British Council repeated the exercise — but this time, it commissioned work by 54 of India’s most important artists. The resulting collection of original works, titled Taash ke Patte (Deck of Cards), serves as a mini-survey of modern and contemporary Indian art. In 2016, Taash ke Patte was exhibited alongside the original 1976 The Deck of Cards at the British Council.
Here, Christie’s Indian Art specialist Nishad Avari spotlights seven key works from the deck. A full copy will be offered in the South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale on 25 May in London.
Arpita Singh is best known for her figurative oil paintings that explore the intersections between the private and public lives of women, although drawing is equally central to her oeuvre. Intricately detailed, these works in ink reflect her time as a textile designer at the Weavers’ Service Centre in the 1960s, where she studied Indian cloth-making traditions including the fine kantha embroidery of Bengal. Singh’s drawings from the 1970s and ’80s are currently on view at Talwar Gallery in New York, offering new insight into the development of her rich body of work.
Painter Krishen Khanna is as well-known for his portraits of the overlooked and oppressed as he is for his eloquence, wit and charm, so it was fitting that he picked the King of Hearts. Over the last seven decades, Khanna’s efforts as an artist, advisor and patron have contributed greatly to the development of Indian modern art. Here Khanna depicts the King as a ‘roadside Romeo’, with an upturned collar, long hair held in place by a headband emblazoned with hearts, and a flower in his hand.
Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s practice is firmly rooted in the figurative-narrative tradition of Indian painting. His Jack of Clubs, rendered in his signature palette of pinks and greens, seems to be a self-portrait. Wielding pen and brush, this double-sided knave appears to be drawing himself into existence.
The card conceived by Ram Rahman, a photographer, designer, curator and activist, is the only one to engage with the medium of photography. Rahman’s Five of Clubs uses the visual language of street photography. The card shows the closed doors of a shop, on which a dress and the numbers one through five have been painted. The three-lobed symbol that represents the suite can be seen in the lower right corner.
Bhuri Bai was one of the first women in her community to paint on paper and canvas, rather than the mud walls and floors of the homes in her village. Now internationally recognised, Bhuri Bai’s design for the Five of Spades draws from Bhil life and culture. Its style is characteristic of her work, with its flattened perspective, vivid palette and decorative dots and lines reminiscent of Bhil tattoos.
In her design for the Three of Hearts, Shilpa Gupta draws from her seminal project, Don’t See Don’t Hear Don’t Speak. In this ongoing series of photographs, site-specific billboards and international performances, Gupta re-examines the folklore of the three wise monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil. Gupta’s version reflects her cynical realism in a world where ethical dilemmas are constant, and in which it can be easier to ignore violence than to address it.
The back of each card in this unique deck was designed by the duo Thukral & Tagra, whose work explores issues of urbanisation and consumerism in India. Combining fantasy with reality and high culture with kitsch, the artist-designer duo have painted a vintage home appliance sprouting petals in the sky. In images such as this one, Thukral & Tagra offer playful, unconventional commentary on Indian contemporary life.