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Room For Art

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The transition from art as asset class to artist as asset-buying class has been dramatic and without precedent. True, the artist is no longer a jhola-wielding, barsati-residing creature, the voluminous passport increasingly witness to travels for leisure than to the eponymous artists' camp, interested — and invested — in SUVs and multiple real estate. But a Rs 100-crore slice of central Delhi? Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher's eponymous leap into real estate haven is the stuff of which legends — and gossip — are made. From Bihar's badlands to satellite town Gurgaon to Delhi's Sunder Nagar, the journey has been more wondrous than their use of bartans and bindis to create gigantic installations and sculptures rooted in a middle-class consciousness.

While we don't know if Gupta and Kher invest in other artists, what's interesting is that in Sunder Nagar, the couple will be neighbours to Lekha and Anupam Poddar, among their earliest and major buyers and mentors. Nor could the timing be better — Kiran Nadar has recently bought Gupta's ‘Line of Control' mushroom cloud made from kitchen utensils for her South Court museum for an alleged Rs 14 crore, while back in Patna, the state government has paid Rs 1 crore for a public work as a mark of appreciation for its home-brewed artist.

Meanwhile, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is wielding its arc of influence to emerge as a serious buyer, conscientiously filling in the gaps in its collection which, hydra-headed, continues to grow. The Poddars have eased off somewhat on the purse-strings. The senior Ambanis have been commissioning rather than buying art, and with legal documents that are an arm long, artists are reluctant to share any information on what's going into Antilia. Tina Ambani has opened herself to contemporary art, but Chintan Upadhyay and Sujata Kejriwal are the extent of her comfort zone rather than the cutting-edge that characterised the Poddars's acquisitions. Rajshree Pathy is more adventurous — but only just.

Those who buy art haven't stopped, just slowed down, but it isn't hurting the established artists yet; they're only feeling the pinch on their prices, but like their customers, they're buying newer, larger homes and splurging on a lifestyle. The Razas and Souzas are moving, just not as well, and existing buyers are jittery enough to demand quality over quantity, and so patronage is changing hands from entrenched NRIs to newly-emerging corporates.

In the midst of this is emerging entrepreneurship and benefaction from neighbouring Bangladesh where the first couple of art, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, have taken it upon themselves to play kingmakers with their very public buy of Rashid Rana at the India Art Fair. With their interest spanning beyond Bangladeshi, or even Indian art, they are frontrunners among nascent aspirants who, like their Chinese counterparts, have emerged as a dominant force in the global art market, wanting to bid for Picasso and his peers with fistfuls of dollars. Should Indian collectors follow suit, it might nip any further attempts among artists to follow the path recently established by Gupta and Kher.

Kishore Singh is the head of exhibitions and publications, Delhi Art Gallery

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 30-07-2012)