Calcutta, April 28: The Trinamul Congress and the BJP were today locked in splitting hairs over the painting controversy raked up by Narendra Modi but the key question why anyone would pay lakhs of rupees for a work of art by Mamata Banerjee remained unanswered.
BJP state president Rahul Sinha clarified that Modi had meant a cumulative figure when he said “Rs 1.80 crore” yesterday and not the price of one single painting as had been mentioned by the party’s candidate for Prime Minister in Serampore.
Trinamul has made the specific amount the focus of its rebuttal, filing a complaint of “personal attack” with the Election Commission and threatening to file a defamation suit against Modi if he failed to apologise or furnish proof that a painting had fetched Rs 1.8 crore.
However, during the course of the day, Shuvaprasanna, well-known painter and key member of Mamata’s culture clan, said that some of her “big paintings” had sold for as much as Rs 6 lakh.
For A-listers in art, Rs 6 lakh is nothing to write home about but in a country where beginners consider themselves fortunate if their works sell for between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000, prices in lakhs are not everyday affairs.
Curiously, although it is not illegal to buy paintings, few people other than four businesspersons were willing to confirm on record today that they had bought paintings by Mamata Banerjee.
A person involved in a high-profile personal care venture, who had a few years ago made it a point to let it be known that a Mamata painting would be added to the home collection, today asked in response to a question: “Should I tell you which fish I bought from the market, too?”
But several persons spoke on condition of anonymity. Asked what prompted them to pay lakhs of rupees for the paintings, a real estate developer active in Bengal said: “Not always do you buy because of the painting. Sometimes, it depends on who the artist is.”
Asked if he was a patron of art, the businessmen replied with a question: “Do we go to all exhibitions we are invited to or buy from there?”
In reply to another question, about where Mamata’s paintings were being kept, the businessman said: “I cannot recall readily. They could be in our offices. It is difficult to say offhand which painting is where.”
Another businessman, whose venture is based in Calcutta, said nobody wanted to be “conspicuous by absence” at these exhibitions. “You don’t want not to be there. And it’s a pretty small amount to pay, not worth talking about. Must be a few lakhs only,” he added.
One industrialist made it a point to underscore that the chief minister never forced anyone to buy the paintings. “On the day of inauguration, she would be extremely polite. She would say, ‘Please don’t buy the paintings because of me. Buy them only if you like them’,” he said.
However, the following day, some people claiming to be “powerful politicians” would call up and request the industrialist to pick up a piece. “I cannot say who called me because I don’t know who were at the other end (of the line). In any case, do you expect me to verify who called and then take a decision?” he asked.
The same industrialist said he probably would have bought a few paintings on his own because they were by the chief minister. “So there is push and pull,” he added.
One businessman said his group bought three paintings of Mamata for around Rs 3 lakh each after Shuvaprasanna told them of an exhibition.
Asked, Shuvaprasanna said: “Who am I to recommend when a professional art gallery is presenting her work? I was not in charge of the exhibition. I was there to inaugurate the show. When I had organised her first exhibition, I had personally requested a lot of people to come, browse and buy because it was going to go towards Nandigram relief.”
Shuvaprasanna added: “Since people know that I know Mamata and am aware of her artwork, some people asked me for suggestions on which painting to select at the Galerie 88 exhibition but I did not go out of my way to invite or recommend (any painting) to anyone.”
Shuvaprasanna mentioned a city gallery but Supriya Banerjee, who runs Galerie 88, had said earlier in the day: “No Mamata Banerjee painting was sold from my gallery.”
Since some businesspersons who had bought the paintings and Shuvaprasanna mentioned the gallery, this newspaper tried to reach Banerjee again but the effort proved futile. There is nothing wrong in exhibiting paintings and it is possible that the gallery may have allowed the space to be used and was not associated with the sale.
Trinamul said all the earnings from the paintings were accounted for and the poll panel had been kept informed. The party also pointed out that the proceeds were used for good causes or elections.
Trinamul underscored that Mamata did not make any personal gains from the paintings, saying the proceeds went to charity and election work. The contention skirts the fact that the beneficiary of the election expenses and the goodwill generated by the charity efforts was Trinamul itself.
If the paintings indeed fetched lakhs of rupees from businessmen as they are claiming in private, it would mean that the money was used to earn goodwill for Trinamul and win elections.
That still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of why businessmen would spend lakhs — even if some of them consider it “a pretty small amount”.
Trinamul all-India general secretary Mukul Roy and finance minister Amit Mitra today held a news conference at Trinamul Bhavan and alleged that Modi had made a “personal attack” on Mamata.
Roy and Mitra said the party had lodged a complaint with the Election Commission.
BJP state president Rahul Sinha, who had yesterday “corrected” Modi when the Gujarat chief minister mentioned a figure of Rs 1 crore, today clarified that by Rs 1.8 crore, the prime ministerial candidate had referred to the proceeds from all paintings at an exhibition.
After Sinha “corrected” him, Modi had said yesterday: “Will you please tell the people of Bengal who bought one of your paintings for Rs 1.8 crore?”
Trinamul’s Roy said Modi “should prove that Mamata Banerjee’s painting was sold for Rs 1.8 crore in an exhibition. If he can’t, then he will have to apologise publicly. We have lodged a complaint with the Election Commission as we feel this is a personal attack and violates the model code of conduct.”
Roy said the Trinamul weekly mouthpiece Jago Bangla had organised some exhibitions since 2004 to sell Mamata’s paintings. “Every time, the amount we received from such exhibitions was donated for a social cause. In 2004, the amount was given to the Spastics Society. In 2011, money collected from an exhibition was used to fund our Assembly election (expenses). In addition to that, Rs 1 crore was given to the chief minister’s relief fund,” Roy said.
The Trinamul leader asserted that the money generated from the exhibitions was audited and income-tax returns filed.
“All the paintings were sold through cheques only and after each exhibition, we audited the income and incorporated it in income-tax returns. We informed the Election Commission too,” Roy said.
Asked if Saradha chief Sudipta Sen had bought any painting, Roy said: “This is an internal matter. Will you reveal how much you earned from advertisements of Saradha? If you do, then I will give you every information the next day.”
He added: “The whole of India knows Mamata Banerjee. She is known for her dedication and honesty. I challenge him (Modi) to prove that paintings of Mamata Banerjee were sold at abnormally high prices.”
Finance minister Mitra said it was not justified to “malign” a leader like Mamata, who, according to him, did not draw her salary as chief minister and didn’t use government cars. “If he (Modi) fails to prove the allegation he has levelled, he should be ready to face a defamation suit,” Mitra said.
Mamata refused comment on the issue, saying she would not react to what “a thief” had said.
Saradha chief Sen, who was produced before the Shyamal Sen commission today, said on his way out that he had not bought any painting by Mamata. “I did not buy any painting,” he said.
Sources in the Election Commission said Mamata’s affidavits for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and the 2011 Assembly by-elections did not mention her earnings from the sale of paintings.
Told that Roy had said the Election Commission had been informed about the income from the paintings, the commission sources said from Delhi: “The mention could be in the complaint, which we are yet to see.”
Bengal chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta said a report had been sought from the Hooghly administration on Modi’s speech. He added that video footage of the speech had also been sought.