Art as Heritage

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Proud heritage
Monica and Dalip Awasthi in their living room with 5-year-old twins Sheila, left, and Neil, center, and 4-year-old Eva.

by Liza Roberts

photographs by Mark Petko

For Monica and Dalip Awasthi, art is the glue.

It helped cement their relationship early on, and it links the two of them – and their three young children – to the Indian cultural heritage they share.

The Awasthis collect contemporary Indian art, which makes them unusual not just for Raleigh, but for anywhere. Sometimes abstract, often allegorical, modern art from India has only recently attracted a market outside its borders. In the last seven years, the global market for Indian art has grown quickly, according to the Arts Trust, from sales of about $50 million in 2005 to about $375 million.

That’s thanks to collectors like the Awasthis. When Monica, an Indian-American and Raleigh native, now 37, met Dalip, now 48 and a native of Pune, India, his collection of Indian art made a big impression. One painting in particular had her transfixed.

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Missing its mate
Golden Flute #15, a depiction of Krishna by Shuvaprassana Bhattacharya, hangs above the Awasthis’ bed. The couple hopes to find its match.

“That’s the reason I married him,” she says today, gesturing with a smile to the painting that hangs above their bed, Golden Flute #15, Parallel Faces, by famed artist Shuvaprassana Bhattacharya. “I had to have that painting.” Now they agree that they have to have its mate. Originally shown as one of a pair, the Awasthis regret that they let the other one get away.

“We have a tendency to buy art in pairs,” she says. It’s symmetrical that way, but also romantic. They have two Jaysari Burman watercolors flanking the front door, one that tells about the life of the Indian gods and goddesses, and one about the life of an average man, from birth to death. They have two tempera paintings by the revered artist Jamini Roy, one a depiction of an Apsara, or female spirit of the clouds; the other a landscape. And they have two mixed media canvases by Rini Dhumal that face each other across the living room: One a woman holding a flower, and one without.

Many of these works depict Hindu gods and spirits in some fashion. Explicitly in the Roy painting, with Apsara; and abstractly in the Bhattacharya, with Krishna playing the flute. Others show native landscapes or city scenes, like the charcoal rickshaw drawing that fills one of their living room walls.

Dalip, a former Lehman Brothers investment banker, became interested in contemporary art from his homeland about 10 years ago, when he had the opportunity to invest in Aicon, a New York gallery dedicated to work from the subcontinent. What seemed like an intriguing investment idea fed a passion that has only grown. And it’s one the couple is keen to pass on to their children, 5-year-old twins Neil and Sheila, and 4-year-old Eva.

Growing up surrounded by the art and food and traditions of their heritage, these young Raleighites are accustomed to the spicy flavors of their mother’s and grandmother’s home cooking, their father’s favorite contemporary Indian music, the rhythms of Indian dance, and the idea that art is a central part of life.

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On a recent chilly spring day, as the kids ride their bicycles in loop-de-loops around the living room, family room and kitchen, their parents don’t flinch about the art on every wall or their high-gloss cherry floors. Dalip takes a moment to brew a pot of chai from leaves grown on the tea plantation his brother manages in Assam, and the Awasthis take a moment to reflect:

About the unlikely paths that brought the son of a leading Peshawar family – Dalip’s maternal grandfather was president of Edwardes College near the Khyber Pass, his mother was an early Bollywood movie actress, and his father served in the Indian Navy – together with the daughter of a Cary architect (her mother) and engineer (her father), who are also originally from North India. And then brought them here to Raleigh, to live and raise a family.

They can’t think of a better place to do it, and that has a lot to do with the vibrant Indian community. “We’ve seen this area change so much,” says Monica. “There’s been an explosion of different cultures. Not just the Indian culture, but any culture.”

Nearly every weekend, there is an Indian festival of one kind or another nearby, they say; at least 60 Indian restaurants dot the region, and nearly a dozen different Indian organizations promote the culture. Their Hindu temple is important in the Awasthis’ lives, and so is the art that surrounds them.

Luckily, they tend to see eye-to-eye on that art. Both say they want to fill their dining room walls – empty at the moment, awaiting the right thing – with black-and-white charcoal sketches. And they agree that at the very top of their art wish list is the missing mate for their prized Shuvaprassana Bhattacharya.

For a couple who likes to keep things symmetrical, a match for the painting that brought them together sounds like fate.