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Aficionados Lament That Their Beloved Bollywood Works Get No Respect

The poster for a 1969 hit love story, left, sold for $714 at a recent auction that brought India's
The poster for a 1969 hit love story, left, sold for $714 at a recent auction that brought India's "high" and "low" art together. Oil paintings brought as much as $830,000. The poster for a 1970 thriller, right, brought $357. (Courtesy Of Osian's Auction Catalogue)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 28, 2008

NEW DELHI -- An hour before the auction in a fancy, five-star hotel, a frenzied flurry of activity grips the managers.

"Where are the catalogues?" a woman shouts across the hall at 6:30 p.m.

"I am slightly trembling," whispers another, sitting at a long table readied for phone bidding.

"Sip coffee," her neighbor suggests.

In the hall, priceless Indian paintings of the past century are stacked next to giant, garish Bollywood movie posters and billboards showing guns, girls and gore. This unusual auction brings high art and popular "low" art under one roof.

Men in white gloves cautiously hold up "Sisters," a famous 1967 oil painting by Ram Kumar, sort of an impressionist Indian Amedeo Modigliani. High-heeled women in saris crowd around it and sigh.

Nearby, young hotel workers stare transfixed at a large, hand-painted billboard of three melancholy faces from the 1964 Hindi hit movie "Sangam." The mushy movie, about a love triangle involving two best friends in love with the same woman, had seven songs and enough melodrama to move a generation to copious tears.

The stern-faced owner of the auction house breezes in, sending the workers into a tizzy.

"Ninety percent of our movie memorabilia is lost, gone forever. We are a negligent nation when it comes to popular culture. It is the largest film industry in the world, but it is not considered worth preserving," says the owner, Neville Tuli, who also keeps a cultural archive. Tuli has about 300,000 objects of movie memory -- posters, costumes, billboards, booklets and props. Two years ago, he began including them in his traditional art auctions.

"I have retrieved many posters from poor people living in slums behind old cinema halls," he says. "Many are from roadside ragpickers who have hoarded them for decades because they love their glamorous stars."

At 7:30 p.m., Sanjay Dhar, a soft-spoken spectacled conservator, talks to a patron about a print of the 1952 Bollywood classic "Baiju Bawra," about a legendary medieval classical singer.

"This poster is the Russian version of the movie," Dhar says. "The art of poster-making in communist countries was very refined. Just observe the fine, fragile lines. It belongs to an era when India and the former U.S.S.R. were allies, and they loved our movies."

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