Indian artists focus on the drama of The Last Supper

Saffronart exhibition of ‘betrayal, sacrifice, friendship’

By: John Elliott

India’s long links with Christianity, and the country’s acceptance of all religions, has been illustrated for generations by Indian artists’ fascination with the Last Supper, the pivotal meal that Jesus had with his disciples on Maundy Thursday, the eve of his crucifixion.

For Christians, the supper has religious significance, but it is the drama of the evening that has inspired others who have painted their own interpretations – following the lead of Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th-century epic mural (above) in Milan. Searching the web produces a mass of parodies from a pole dancer on a table, and people playing table football, to a Looney Tunes version.

More seriously, an online exhibition of 36 new paintings by Indian artists, mostly not Christian, is now being staged by Saffronart, the Mumbai-based auction house. As has happened with earlier works, the artists have produced a variety of settings and characters to replace the disciples, sometimes including fellow artists and politicians.

Krishen Khanna’s 40in x 60in oil on canvas, “The Last Bite”, with leading artist M.F. Husain in Jesus’s seat surrounded by fellow artists – Khanna facing Husain

“Indians are fascinated with story-telling and India is a secular country accepting religions across the board historically,” says Dinesh Vazirani, Saffronart’s co-founder and CEO.

“Key themes of betrayal, sacrifice, friendship, and community” appear in the Biblical accounts of the supper, explains Ranjit Hoskote, an Indian poet and art critic in an introduction to the exhibition. “They dwell on human weakness yet also emphasize the human ability to hope”. 

With that as the stimulus, modern Indian artists who have interpreted the drama go back to Jamini Roy, who died in 1972, but works were also being produced in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Famous artists outside India who have painted the scene include America’s Andy Warhol and China’s Zeng Fanzhi from Wuhan, an 86-in x 55-in oil on canvas that set a record in 2013 for Asian contemporary art at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, selling for HK$180.44 million (US$23.3m), more than double its US$10 million estimate (above).

Krishen Khanna, 95, who has a work in the current exhibition titled The Last Bite, and Francis Newton Souza, who died in 2002, have been among the most prolific in India. They were friends and both belonged to the Mumbai-based Progressives group that was formed in the mid-20th century – as did M.F.Husain, who also produced works, one of which sold for $1.1m in October 2017.

F.N. Souza’s famous rendering of The Last Supper with a conventional image of Jesus surrounded by distorted lopsided faces typical of the artist’s earlier works

Khanna has told me that he was introduced to da Vinci when he was five and his father brought a copy back from Milan. “He explained the painting to me and that was my introduction to the Bible in a sense,” says Khanna who, though Hindu, has developed a detailed knowledge of the religion. 

He went to Christian schools “where we were told we could sit aside while Christianity was being taught, but it fascinated me to listen, maybe more than the others and see what happened and how clever Christ was.” His wife is a Bengali Christian, though he thinks his schooling had a greater influence on him.”

Khanna focuses on the role of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, seeing it as “almost a universal phenomenon, with the supper showing him going back on what he really believed in.” That, he says, is “something that is happening here today in India.”

“The whole thing rests on Judas’s betrayal and Christ knew that it was going to happen.” Indian artists, he says, “understand what is going on and see it is a question of tragedy with victory at the end.”

Madhvi Parekh’s 60in x 120in reverse acrylic on acrylic sheet untitled folk art styled work of unknown characters

In his painting, which was done more than 10 years ago and is not for sale, Husain is seated in place of Jesus, surrounded by contemporary artists. Khanna says that is because Husain was “quite central to the art scene, a pivotal figure and quite the leader in attitude, looked up to by most of his peers”. 

He adds, somewhat mischievously, however, that “there is no specific Judas in the picture and I leave it to anyone who knows the situation to apportion that place”. The table is square, which Khanna explains, “leads the eye from the bottom to the top where Christ is in the middle – a more identifiable and sacrosanct place than in the da Vinci.”

Jesus and his disciples look down from a domed ceiling in this 48-in diameter acrylic and fabric on canvas, by Jagannath Panda, titled The Last Supper

Souza was born a Roman Catholic in Portuguese Goa, but lapsed, which led to him producing USmany tortured paintings around a religion “that fascinated and revolted him in equal measure,” according to one interpretation.

His best known Last Supper (above) was painted in 1990 and was owned for some time by the Japanese Glenbarra Museum, which offered it for sale in a Sotheby’s Mumbai auction in November 2019. It fetched a hammer price equivalent to US$960,000 but the sale did not go through following a dispute during the auction over whether Souza was the sole artist or was helped by his then muse (who triggered the dispute). Another work owned by the Glenbarra had been sold two years earlier for US$390,000) in a Pundole Mumbai auction.

This six-unit 44in x 89in mixed media on paper untitled work is by Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi who, the catalogue says, “unapologetically unmasks the men and women he draws in his large-format works to reveal the grotesque, robotic creatures he believes they really are.”

Prices in the Saffronart show range from the equivalent of about $13,500) up to US$150,000 for a large bronze sculpture of Jesus’s head in front of a cross and US$120,000 for a large 48in x 120in oil on canvas by Thota Vaikuntam of his characteristic south Indian Telangana villagers. Also following a familiar theme, is G. R. Iranna with rows of Buddhist monks in yellow robes eating from bowls of rice.

Husband and wife artists Manu and Madhvi Parekh are both well known for their Last Supper works and both appear in the show. Manu, who is a follower of Souza, has 13 panels showing heads and shoulders of public figures standing in for the disciples, among them artists, actors, and politicians. Madhvi’s is a more dramatic work akin to folk art with a variety of figures. Another artist, Veer Munshi, also favors a cluster of fellow artists.

There are many other interpretations, some shown above, in the Saffronart show. Assembled by two curators, Tanuj Berry & Saman Malik, they amount to what many might see as an unlikely collection in today’s India.