Delhi’s annual India Art Fair, which closed last night, is as important for the focus it brings to Indian art and for other events that happen at the same time across the city as it is for the show itself, which has settled into a predictable mold in its sixth year.
Indeed, the exhibitions away from the fair grounds that are featuring leading modern and contemporary artists are more exciting than the fair itself, which this year has lacked dramatic new contemporary displays. In a depressed market, galleries have been showing conventional works and there has been some criticism of a lack of consistent quality, especially with Indian galleries – “kitsch” was the unkind word used by one critic to describe some exhibits, responding to me saying it was all very “predictable”.
Maybe there is nothing wrong in that. Arguably, there is no reason why India should not produce its own version of art fairs in the same way that it challenges other foreign concepts of orderliness, quality and convention. That said, the fair does confound sceptics with its efficient organization and presentation and, as I have written several times in earlier years, its importance is that it has successfully opened up interest in Indian modern and contemporary art both in India and abroad.
Thousands of visitors, including schoolchildren who would never venture into formal art galleries have been touring the stands, which provide them with access to culture that they would not otherwise experience. This is similar to the Jaipur Literature festival that I wrote about 10 days ago, though there the audiences are building on their existing interest in books whereas the art fair is opening new vistas.
Established Indian collectors have been at the fair to see, and some to buy, instead of relying on internet images which, gallery owners tell me, astonishingly suffices for many buyers.
The fair also brings foreign visitors to Delhi – this year, for the first time, there is a group of gallery owners and collectors and artists from China, while Christie’s, one of the fair sponsors, has brought an international group. Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of the fair, says that last year 40 percent of the works sold went to first-time buyers, some from what are known as second tier towns that do not have art events.
Several gallery owners however are skeptical about that figure, echoing doubts about some of the claims of attendances in past years which Neha has comfortably and rounded off to a cumulative unchallengeable figure of 400,000 over the past five years.
The array of art on show has ranged from Picasso and Andy Warhol to India’s reliable body of progressives such as M.F. Husain, F.N.Souza and contemporary artists such as Atul Dodya and a spinning mud installation (left) and digital prints in plastic boxes (above).
There were 91 exhibitors, the biggest of which is the Delhi Art Gallery with 330 works covering 400 sq meters. Nearly a third of the total exhibitors are from abroad, though some big international names, such as the Lisson Gallery from London and Hauser & Wirth from Zurich, have not returned after appearances four or five years ago.
This indicates some disappointment with a lack of sales to big buyers, and also frustration with shipping and other problems caused by India’s customs controls that make it impractical to bring many foreign works for sale.
“There is a risk of this not going much further if the organizers don’t develop a coordinated program with collectors and corporate buyers,” says Carlos Cabral Nunes of Portugal’s Perve Galeria, reflecting the views of other foreign exhibitors.
A quick survey of stands this evening produced some unhappiness, like Nunes’ frustration about a lack of big sales, and most galleries that had done well sold works ranging from under Rs100,000 (£1,000, US$1,600) to four or five times that figure, though some went far higher. London’s Grosvenor Gallery did exceedingly well selling works by Olivia Fraser., a Delhi-based British painter with limited edition prints of new works that started at Rs50,000. Archer Art Galley of Ahmedabad did well with reproduction edition of well-known artists starting at Rs15,000.
At the other end of the scale, Aicon Gallery of New York and London sold four works by established Indian masters, M.F.Husain and F.N.Souza, and a younger painter G.K.Irani, for between Rs400-500,000 to Rs1.5 crore (Rs15m).
Art Alive of Delhi sold a long Thota Vaikuntum (similar but smaller than the painting at the bottom of this article) that had been priced at Rs40 million. Mark Hachim of Paris was also happy, selling lively works, all foreign, and including the plastic bottles cases (above) from Euros 5,000 (Rs420,000). Sakshi Gallery of Mumbai’s sales included a tiffin (meal) container carried by Mumbai’s dabbawwallas who are pictured in the small buttons (above).
Sadly, the crowds at the fair do not then go on to the more dramatic and important exhibitions away from the event. The government-controlled National Gallery of Modern Art is featuring a retrospective by Subodh Gupta, one of India’s most prominent contemporary artists, and a collection by Amrita Sher-Gill, one of the most important painters from the first half of the last century. The government-supported Lalit Kala Akadami has an intriguing collection of specially painted extra-large works by established “moderns”.
Titled Ode to the Monumental it includes paintings by Krishen Khanna (above) and Vaikuntum (bottom) commissioned by a collector Tanuj Berry. These exhibitions could have been linked more closely with the fair, especially since the Ode works are being offered for sale by Saffronart, India’s leading on-line auction house that should benefit from the buzz with an auction later this month.
Subodh Gupta is famous for his shiny stainless steel assemblies of household pots and pans, milk containers, scooters, motorbikes and airport luggage trolleys that link his origins in Bihar, India’s poorest state, with modern living (left and below right). His works were a much-promoted and popular buy in the mid-2000s when, for example, a luggage trolley painting was sold in a Christie’s auction for a record $1.1m, but his prices crashed when collectors sold off Indian contemporary works in a falling market and a similar work fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s in 2010.
Now Gupta has bounced back with the normally staid NGMA devoting much of its public space to his Everything is Inside exhibition, together with the cachet of a foreign curator, Germano Celant from Italy. There is a new Penguin book on the show, and Gupta was also fortuitously one of the winners of a Forbes India art award this week as “contemporary artist of the year (mid career)”.
Rather more hidden away at the National Gallery is, historically, a much more important showing of nearly 100 paintings by Amrita Sher-Gill who lived only to the age of 28, dying in 1941. In that short space of time, she produced an amazing range of mostly figurative works that rarely appear in auctions or galleries but are on display now with the title The Passionate Quest, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia.
Collectors will now be watching to see what effect these events have on the market. Christie’s had an amazingly good first auction in Mumbai in December that produced record prices but that has yet to have a visible effect.
On a broader front, experts have been saying that India should look eastwards to the buoyant Chinese and south-east Asian markets to develop links. That will now begin following the visit of collectors from China, led by Philip Dodd of Made in China. Among them was Budi Tek, a prominent Chinese-Indonesian collector who is building a museum in Shanghai. He is considering buying a contemporary work from Delhi’s Espace Gallery. Earlier in the day, he said the Indian private sector needed to build museums and public awareness.
India always looks westwards to Europe and the US for foreign accolades and praise so it will, I guess, be some time before it recognizes that looking east is where the future probably lies if Indian art is to appeal internationally to a wider audience than its present relatively small group of western collectors.
(John Elliott, Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent, also writes the blog Riding The Elephant which appears on this page)