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Indian Art Market On A Slow Incline

There is no quarrel that Indian artists are at par with their peers globally, but value is determined by such factors as museums and important collectors that seek out their work

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma


All over the world, experimentation in art on one hand, and record prices on the other, continue to make news. When Damien Hirst’s shipwreck fantasy of larger-than-life figures in his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, conceived as underwater sculptures complete with barnacles, coral growth and a sea patina, was derided as “extremely bad” and labelled “plagiarist”, visitors at the Venice Biennale couldn’t have enough of it because it made headlines anyway. For an artist who had made a fortune from interring calves and sharks in formaldehyde, and substituting millions of butterflies, bugs and moths in lieu of paint, this was not entirely unexpected. Contemporary art is nothing if not shocking, if only for the sake of being provocative.

The other kind of disbelief has to do with prices, and it might prove as gimmicky as Hirst’s installation. When a small painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, sold for $450 million this March — making it the world’s most expensive work of art — it made news as much for its value as for the controversies surrounding it. Experts derided it as fake; others claimed it was shoddily restored; most believed it was definitely not worth its humungous value. It’s buyer? An Emirates prince who intended it as a bequest to the recently-opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, where it will guarantee millions of footfalls and the success of the museum. Who can argue with that?

India nowhere matches the shenanigans of the global art world, its contemporary artists having scorched the fingers of collectors when the crash of 1982 took the gilding off the local art market. Prices had zoomed in 2002; 2006 is described by gallerists as the peak year for Indian art when the term “investment” and “art” were used interchangeably. The bubble was waiting to burst —and it did, smirching the reputation of many, and casting a slur on the market that it has found difficult to shrug off a decade later.

Still, prices have continued to soar — at least for the moderns, termed the “masters” of Indian art. Topping the charts is V.S. Gaitonde, who in his lifetime lived in penury, but whose posthumous success ranks him right on top with an eye-popping Rs 29.3 crore. For an artist whose work most people struggle to understand — his abstract or non-representational paintings appear like mottled layers of colour to the uninitiated — the value is all the more surprising. Auction houses routinely feature his works on the catalogue covers. Unfortunately, those images rarely do his paintings justice, which needs to be viewed in person to understand at least a little of what it represents to the better informed.

 Leave aside Gaitonde, the list of top-rankers includes F.N. Souza (Rs 26.9 crore for Birth, Tyeb Mehta (Rs 19.8 crore for Mahishasura), Akbar Padamsee (Rs 19.2 crore for Greek Landscape), S.H. Raza (Rs 18.6 crore for La Terre), and Amrita Sher-Gil (Rs 17.5 crore for A Self-Portrait). The names are exchangeable but do not include that of M.F. Husain, for decades India’s most popular artist and reckoned a marketing force in his own lifetime. But his values are at least consistently high, as are those of Ram Kumar. Every once in a while, new records are set as Indian artists gain recognition overseas. Bhupen Khakhar, India’s first openly queer artist whose show at the Tate Modern in London was panned for its uneven quality, has a benchmark of Rs 9.5 crore (De-Luxe Tailors). Nasreen Mohamedi had remained under the radar of the collecting community till a Met-Breur exhibition in New York catapulted her to fame, and prices soared. With Nalini Malani’s outing at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, her success is now assured.

 Within the industry, these prices are dismissed as petty change, particularly in comparison with international prices. There is no quarrel that Indian artists are at par with their peers internationally, but value is determined by such factors as museums and important collectors that seek out their works. In the case of Indian art, barring few exceptions, it is Indians and non-resident Indians who make up the bulk of the Rs 1,460-crore market, according to the FICCI-KPMG report ‘Visual Arts Industry: Painting the Future’. Demonetisation and GST have had an impact (with a 6 per cent decline in art sales in 2017), but the market is on a slow incline, with gallery sales making up 64 per cent of the market, while auction houses with their transparent pricing constitute 36 per cent.

 China and the US are in a scuffle over the larger bite of the global art pie with Chinese buyers competing for a larger share of the market, confirming its growing confidence as a consuming economy. The Chinese market appears unregulated given the many snafus that have art writers in a thrall, and occasionally billionaires from the Middle East and Japan make news, but today London, New York and Shanghai lead art sales and set trends, with buyers in private planes jet-setting to Basel and Venice to snap up the best deals. India’s India Art Fair and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale are tiny — but important — blips on this landscape, and the war remains uneven with the contemporaries having ceded the space to the moderns. Antiquities — an important segment around the world — hardly finds a mention in India.

But it is the contemporaries who still have the power to surprise, often for the breadth of their vision and the size of their installations. Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta are names that warrant instant recognition, the latter currently making waves once again in Europe. Back home, at the recent ceramics triennale in Jaipur, L.N. Tallur proved his capacity to catch the unwary visitor unaware. Pakistani Huma Bhabha’s totemic figure atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the curatorially strong Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, the manifestations of various contemporary artists at Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur — the slow return of South Asian contemporary to the mainstream — is notching up a few gains. These artists are in plain sight. If only the infrastructure, and collectors, would catch up.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Kishore Singh

The author is art writer and curator

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