India Art Fair Boosts Market After Disappointing Auctions

Auctions planned of works from three private collections

By: John Elliott

Indian modern art has received a boost in the last few weeks from Delhi’s successful India Art Fair, which was accompanied by auction previews including one by Christie’s with razor-blade etched works of Delhi-based Rameshwar Broota, and Mumbai’s annual Gallery Weekend that included an impressive exhibition of life in the city painted by a leading artist, Sudhir Patwardhan.

Neither Patwardhan nor Broota, both of whom are still actively painting, get the attention they deserve in the upper reaches of India’s art auctions, where buyers mostly seek the safety of famous names such as Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain and S.Raza, now deceased.

This will be tested in the coming weeks when, after dismal results at three South Asian modern art auctions in December, Christie’s, Saffronart and Pundole all have sales of single collections.

Two involve works from well-known private collectors. One (including Broota works) belongs to Dubai and London-based Kito and Jane de Boer and will be at Christie’s in New York, while works from Masanori Fukuoka’s Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan will be at Pundole in Mumbai.

The other auction, next month in Mumbai, is Saffronart’s second sale of impressive works owned by Nirav Modi, a former international jeweler now languishing in London’s Wandsworth prison. He is facing extradition proceedings, charged in India with money laundering and corruption.

The India Art Fair (IAF) was hailed as a success last weekend, run for the first time by London-based Angus Montgomery Arts, controlled by Sandy Angus, which boosted its minority stake when it bought out Basel’s MCH group last September.

International and Indian art galleries of all sizes reported good sales and growing domestic and international interest. New York-based David Zwirner, returning for a third year, said it was the best so far.

The Aicon, also from New York, said it had a “great response across all of our price points and artist seniorities”.

The Akar Prakar Gallery of Kolkata and Delhi said European and American visitors purchased artworks within a $30,000 range while high-value works were bought by local Indian collectors.

Sales were especially strong on the first day, according to many galleries.

A young Delhi-based artist, Vipeksha Gupta, had a stunning success when all her 19 works (above) on the Gallery Blueprint12 stand sold within three minutes of the start of the private viewing. With prices ranging from Rs 95,000 to Rs380,000 for a set of six, the de Boers were among the buyers.

Gupta, who has been helped by Broota at Delhi’s Triveni School of Art, says her “contemplative drawings” are based on “the exploration of my own breath” with each work being “indented 10,000 times with circular cells.”

The number of galleries with booths was roughly the same as last year at around 70, but they were more focused on specific artists with less repetition of India’s old favorites such as the Progressives.

India’s politics and authoritarian rule under Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government however intruded when police arrived to check allegations that an interactive work displaying the “strength of Indian women” (above) was opposing controversial citizenship law amendments. The work, on the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre stand, was withdrawn.

The Sudhir Patwardhan retrospective exhibition, Walking Through Soul City, is open in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art till February 12. Arranged with the Guild Art Gallery, it gives an overwhelming sense of Mumbai life as it is experienced by the vast mass of people in their homes, at work, and travelling and struggling in crowded streets.

Painted over five decades, many of the works are of Thane where Patwardhan lived for 30 years in what became the suburbs with shantytowns and open countryside soon to be devoured by satellite cities.

Maybe reflecting his training as a radiologist, Patwardhan stands back from his subjects and sometimes divides a painting with a sharp line that gives two views of the same scene. “I distance myself,” he told me, “not projecting myself or my emotion.”

The NGMA was one of about 30 galleries with special shows that began during Mumbai’s annual Art Weekend in early January.

The Pundole Gallery had a striking show of Jogen Chowdhury’s figurative works from Fukuoka’s Glenbarra museum (bottom picture). This closes on February 7 and moves to Delhi’s Bikaner House on February 20.

Rameshwar Broota talked at a pre-auction reception in Delhi with Kito and Jane de Boer, who are two of his biggest collectors.

Kito de Boer says they were “blown away” when they saw Broota’s large works of black and grey, or dark brown, shades, along with figurative and other studies. They found it was “not possible to turn away” from “works of such originality, purity and passion.”

They discovered the artist when they lived in Delhi in the mid-late 1990s and bought a vast triptych Traces of Man that hangs in their London home and is not for sale.

Broota says that a worn razor blade is essential for many of his paintings. He applies six or seven layers of paint, often thick black, and then, when it has dried, scratches with the blade to create the subject.

The de Boers are compulsive buyers of art and have a collection totaling about 1,000 works, of which only about 250 are displayed in their London and Dubai homes – ranging from the Broota triptych to all the main Progressives, dating from the middle of the 20th century to more recent works by Atul Dodiya, Anish Kapoor, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Chittrovanu Mazumdar and Hema Upadhyay.

The rest are in store, which is why they are beginning to sell. “It seems wrong to keep them hidden,” they say. About 150 stored works will be offered at auction in New York in mid-March and in a parallel on-line sale. The collection was the subject of a book published last year.

Saffronart held its first auction of Nirav Modi’s extensive collection in May last year when over $8m was raised for India’s tax revenue department.

The coming February 27 live auction is being held for the government’s Enforcement Directorate. It includes artworks estimated up to $2.6m each by Amrita Sher-Gil, M.F. Husain, and V.S.Gaitonde along with watches that include a Jaegar-LeCoultre estimated at up to $100,000 and a 2010 Rolls Royce Ghost car with a $135,000 top tag.

All three single-owner auctions are significant because they involve works that are new to market, and thus have the distinction of being acquired by committed collectors from varied backgrounds.

The contest between the three auction houses is to attract the best buyers, who will take the bidding to high levels.

The market, and interest in modern Indian art, would also benefit from buyers taking more notice of artists like Patwardhan and Broota instead of the repetitive million-dollar-plus focus on the worthy Progressives.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant