Delhi’s annual International Art Fair last weekend provided a classic example of how India produces order out of chaos, but doesn’t quite meet its potential.
Some 80,000 people arrived at the fair in the south of the city by car on chaotically crowded and sometimes gridlocked highways, or squashed into unbelievably crowded metro trains and then stumbled along broken pavements from a nearby station.
On arrival they found the orderly bustle of the fair’s vast specially erected and air conditioned tents, with works of more than 1,100 artists in 90 booths.
Fringe events around Delhi included special exhibitions in many galleries, a vast eve-of festival reception at an art museum run by Kiran Nadar, one of India’s leading collectors, art lecture breakfasts on the Taj Mahal Hotel’s terrace, and a throbbing end-of-festival evening at the Meridian Hotel.
Many, but not all, exhibitors reported good sales. The organizers claimed the total was 25 percent above last year’s (undisclosed) value, with the top 2 percent of collectors together spending “over Rs300 million [US$4.8 million). Among those buyers was Nadar, whose purchases included Circle Uncircled, a ceramics installation by Rahul Kumar and shown by Gallery Alternatives. Many sales went to new and younger buyers which, along with tours by schoolchildren, met the fair’s aim of spreading art awareness and building knowledge as well achieving sales.
So far so good, but the fair risks losing its international tag if it doesn’t improve its appeal for leading galleries from the US and Europe.
It would still remain a significant event in the region’s arts calendar, and would probably continue to bring in curious buyers and other visitors from abroad – this year, groups came from museums and galleries in the US, Spain, Australia and Tel Aviv. Last year there were collectors from China.
But while the total number of galleries and booths hasn’t changed much from around 90 for the past four years, the number of foreign galleries dropped from 31 last year to 21. There were even more in 2012 when I reported that half of the total came from 20 other countries and included names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, White Cube, and Other Criteria. None of those galleries was present this time, and one well-known survivor, Galleria Continua from Italy, had a bleak stand and no sales. Some were put off by unruly crowds, but that is now less of a problem and the layout is better organized.
Most of the foreign galleries that were there this time continued, as before, to offer more Indian than overseas artists, which points to the basic problem of whether the fair will continue to deserve the international tag. One reason for this is that most Indian buyers are not well enough versed yet to buy foreign art, and those that are can buy on their trips to London, New York and elsewhere.
The other reason, which takes me back to my point about India failing to meet its potential, is the primary problem that tortuous customs regulations and controls over how art can be brought in and delivered to local buyers deters foreign galleries. Neha Kirpal, the festival’s founder director and others have been urging the government to relax, or at least rationalize, these rules for some years but nothing has been done. People more used to manipulating such problems can of course manage – one Indian gallery was showing mostly foreign works.
Perhaps the most controversial and certainly one of the most successful displays was an 11,000 sq ft free-standing structure occupied by the Delhi Art Gallery. Located a few meters away from the main exhibition tents, it was regarded by other exhibitors with a mixture of envy and criticism, which led to speculation about how and why Ashish Anand, the gallery’s director, could and would afford such a display. Some onlookers put the cost at not less than Rs10 million[US$160,000].
Anand’s 700 works traced the history of modern Indian art from early Bengal works to the 2000s. This coincidentally showed how Indian mythology has been a constant inspiration – demonstrated by the works (right and below) by an unknown late 19thcentury Bengali artist and Manjit Bawa, who was a leading painter, in 2000.
With a total of 36,000 works, Anand said his gallery has the world’s largest collection of modern Indian art, which is partly displayed in a relatively small gallery in Delhi’s Hauz Khas, plus one opened last year in Mumbai. A third has just been announced for New York.
But, he said, he never had a chance before to display so many of the works in one place. He said he’d be happy if he sold 70 works, and it seems that roughly that number have been agreed or are being negotiated. Beyond that, his aim is to educate the young – 2,300 students toured the show and the gallery produced ten books and 100 short videos.
Finding new buyers in the short as well as the longer term is a constant theme in the Indian art market, which does not yet have a substantial collector base and has yet to recover from a slump four or five years ago after an investment-led boom in the mid-2000s.
Some galleries are finding new business from companies setting up offices in areas such as Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi and are actively marketing works for newly rich customers, sometimes co-operating with architects and designers.
That is excellent for business, but the fair organizers have longer term aims of building awareness among those who might become buyers for their own homes in the years ahead. It would be good if that could happen – and with the fair’s international tag in place
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent,. His blog Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s face page.