By: John Elliott

Delhi’s annual India Art Fair that took place last weekend had style and crowds, but there was more artistic spontaneity on display a short auto-rickshaw ride further to the south of the city, where street artists were painting railway containers at a cargo depot in the shadow of a mountainous rubbish dump.

This is the fourth year that the artists have been active around Delhi, painting buildings in an attempt to liven up urban areas. Arjun Bahl, one of the organizers, talks about the art “giving people a sense of pride” in places where they live and work. He sees it as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign that generally arouses more skepticism than support.

These are not the sort of random unsanctioned graffiti works seen elsewhere, but a more formalized arrangement carried out – however improbable it may seem – in co-operation with India’s Ministry of Urban Development that runs the Swachh campaign and the government-owned Container Corporation of India (Concor).

Now in its eighth year the Indian Art Fair (IAF), which also aims to spread knowledge about art, is establishing itself as an important regional venue for both established and new art collectors. For the biggest international galleries and collectors, it does not rival the annual Art Dubai fair that takes place next month, but it does attract a sprinkling of foreign buyers and institutions, though some galleries said they had seen fewer top collectors. It also generates a wide range of other activities in the capital,

This year’s overall quality of art on show was somewhat better than in the past. The organizers said this memorable, with few eye-catching installations, though the spacious layout of booths in large exhibition tents on the Okhla site was an enormous improvement on previous years.

The fair organizers have refused, for the first time, to announce attendance figures and indications of sales, even though many galleries said they had good results. This suggests that the attendance was not much higher than last year’s 80,000 visitors, though Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of the fair, talked without being specific about 100,000. Last year, the sales were said to be 25 percent above 2014’s (undisclosed) value, with the top 2 percent of collectors together spending “overRs300 million,” {then $4.8m) 

The actual totals however need not be so sensitive as the public relations blackout makes them seem because the fair is successfully consolidating its position as an annual focal point for art activity.

Galleries that reported successful sales, or potential sales, included the London-based Grosvenor with paintings by Senaka Senanayake, from Sri Lanka. South Asian art was a special focus area for the fair, which could help to compensate for some European galleries that have stopped attending because of a lack of sales of foreign art plus Indian customs’ complex import and export regulations.

Also reflecting regional interest was the Hafez Gallery of Saudi Arabia, which might indicate that India’s collectors are broadening to Middle East art. Nature Morte, the pace-making Delhi contemporary gallery, also had good sales, as did the Experimenter from Kolkata that had one of the more innovative and interesting stands.