By: John Elliott

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair was a success last weekend, even though its Swiss owners have put it up for sale. It brought together a focused collection of 75 Indian and international galleries that reported substantial sales, plus other displays, though the organizers shied away from revealing attendance figures.

The fair is becoming significant for inspiring fringe events, which this year included gallery exhibitions of leading artists such as Arpita Singh, an under-recognized painter now aged 82, and the opening of an art museum at the Old Delhi’s Red Fort with four galleries of works tracing India’s history that is attracting thousands of visitors.

Ayesha Kidwai with Grandma, oil on canvas by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar Museum

The past year however has not seen strong sales in the Indian modern and contemporary art market. This was confirmed by ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, whose 2019 South Asian Art Market Report recorded only a 6.8 percent increase in sales of seven leading auction houses during 2018 compared with 17 percent a year earlier.

The report highlights a trend that has been evident throughout the year and reported on this blog – that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are being beaten on sales by Indian-based auction houses, notably Saffronart but also Astra Guru, whose sales rose 63 percent.

Overall, art market sales rose 7.7 percent to an estimated USUS$240m with gallery sales rising 9.1 percent. This included a revival of the flagging contemporaries, whose sales doubled to USUS$5.82m. But, as ArtTactic emphases, the auction market is still dominated by a handful of famous names led by Tyeb Mehta (USUS$15.4m sales), S.H. Raza (USUS$15.2m) and M.F. Husain (USUS$10.8m), with the top 25 artists accounting for 87 percent of the auctions’ total.

A Krishen Khanna bandsman and F.N. Souza painting on the Dhoomimal Gallery stand at the art fair

ArtTactic also produced a report on South Asian Art and Philanthropy, focusing on a growing number of public art initiatives that have more than doubled in the past ten years with over 30 new openings.

The latest of these is the Red Fort project where the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), building on its reputation for substantial expenditure on shows, has taken over a 27,000 sq. ft. three-storey barrack block for a year.

It has four historical exhibitions  with patriotic themes covering three centuries of art, the most stunning of which are portraits by British and Indian artists of people ranging from grand maharajahs to a self-portrait by modern artist Paritosh Sen, and a collection of works by India’s nine “art treasure” artists including Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma. There is also a remarkable collection (bought intact by DAG from a London owner) of all the 144 aquatint prints produced by Thomas and William Daniell after they traveled around India at the end of the 18th century.

Restored by the government’s usually lethargic Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the colonial era barrack is part of a revival project supported by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who is encouraging the development of patriotic and nationalist museums. He opened galleries in two barracks at the Red Fort last month, including the DAG’s and one devoted to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a prominent political leader who sided with the Japanese against the British during the second world war. Two other museums follow the theme critical of the British covering the 1857 army uprising (mutiny) and the 1919 Amritsar massacre.

According to the ASI, about 4,000 people visited the museums on February 1. Some 1,500 of them went to DAG’s galleries that were only just opened, a figure that rose to 2,500 two days later. This is presenting a challenge faced by all such public shows in India – how to make people aware of the remarkable works they are viewing.

I was at the DAG museum on February 1, and many of those I saw seemed to have no comprehension of what they were looking at. Walking quickly, they glanced briefly at important works, thus reducing the value of the exercise. “The visitors are mostly ill-informed about art. Most would never have seen an original work in their life, so they will not know quite what to make of what they are seeing,” acknowledges Kishore Singh of the DAG.

A similar point is made by Peter Nagy, who runs Nature Morte, a gallery in Delhi and is the curator of an impressive sculpture park in the Madhavendra Palace at Jaipur’s 18th century Nahargarh Fort. This is the first such exhibition in India and, while it is not part of the art fair program, it was linked to the annual Jaipur literature festival last month. Displaying the sculptures in the grand setting of the palace, it is another example of the new ventures mentioned in the ArtTactic report, in this case a partnership between the Rajasthan state government and private philanthropists.

Spine of Spine by Savia Mahajan in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park

“We get 5,000-6,000 people visiting the Sculpture Park every day during the October-March high season…..If we get 100 people per day paying attention to the art and being inspired to learn more about contemporary art in general, then I think we are doing great,” says Nagy.

The DAG is working on ways to improve the access to information and has hired staff and interns to guide visitors, while the sculpture park is developing an educational program.

“Once visitors encounter the artworks, they are engaging by reading our signs in both Hindi and English, taking photographs and asking questions,” says Noelle Kadar, the park’s director.

Arpita Singh