Issue Number: 93
Tyeb Mehta, Mahisasura, 1997. ‘Every successful economy needs a tangible celebration,’ says Rajeev Sethi, who has been a leading promoter of Indian arts and artists since London’s Festival of India in 1982. For India, which merges a celebratory culture with spiritualism and growing materialism, modern art has become a symbol of success and self-confidence both abroad and at home. This is because art adds value, in terms of wealth as well as image, for newly rich Indians at a time when the country is becoming an internationally significant economy, growing annually at about eight per cent. ‘People want icons that you can show off – you can’t put stocks and shares on your walls,’ says Sethi, adding sadly, ‘Art is recognised now as a commodity, a product for investment, rather than something in daily life.’
Prices of Indian art have risen to more than 20 times their original value since 2001. Last year’s total sales of around £106m are expected to double this year. The top recorded price so far of £835,000 was paid at a Christie’s auction in New≈York in September 2005 for a painting of a mythological man-buffalo, Mahisasura, by one of India’s old guard, Tyeb Mehta, aged 81. It was bought by Rajiv Chaudhri, a New York hedge fund manager of Indian descent, illustrating how non-resident Indians (NRIs) have been leading the boom. Four years earlier, a similar Mahisasura sold for £57,000. Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York auctions in September logged sales totalling £15m, with five works topping £525,ooo each (all prices include buyers’ premiums).
This surge of interest is relatively new: modern Indian art did not make waves until the end of the 1990s. Famous names (and current market leaders) like Mehta, Souza and M.F. Husain have been around since the 1950s, when they formed the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists’ Group, casting their own interpretation on Western masters such as Picasso, Modigliani and Rothko. Breaking with old colonial styles, the Progressives placed an ‘insistence on form’, says Krishen Khanna, a member of the group and now 81, who still paints (very profitably) on the outskirts of Delhi. Other schools developed elsewhere, particularly at Baroda in the western state of Gujarat, and Shantiniketan in the eastern state of West Bengal. But museums in Europe and the United States showed only occasional interest in the 1980s and ’90s, and there were few significant sales or collectors.
All that has changed in the past five or six years, driven by new wealth, initially among NRIs in the US and elsewhere overseas, and then by Indians at home where the 1991 economic reforms led by Manmohan Singh, now Prime Minister, have resulted in a booming consumer economy. Western designer labels and luxury cars are sought after by a middle class, ranging from 20m people for upmarket brands to 300m for basic household appliances. This rapidly emerging consumerism contrasts sharply with the popular view of India as a non-materialistic society – and it’s here to stay.
Through the second half of the twentieth century, the main collectors were old Indian business families, such as the Birlas, Tatas and Goenkas. There was also an occasional rare collector abroad – notably, Chester and David Herwitz in the US (many of their works are now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts), and Masanori Fukuoka, who runs a Japanese food-processing company and who is believed to own over 4,000 works.
Now the number of collectors is much larger, though gallery owners estimate there are only perhaps 500 serious collectors in India and internationally, out of not much more than 20,000 to 40,000 potential buyers. This collecting boom could not have happened at such a speed and scale without the internet, which has enormously widened the potential art-buying public, providing instant access to images and historical data. Dinesh Vazirani, founder of Saffronart, India’s largest internet auction house, says 60 per cent of his sales go to buyers outside India, with the vast majority being overseas Indians, mostly professionals aged between 25 and 55.
Alka Pande, an art historian and curator of the Habitat Visual Arts Centre (HVAC) in New Delhi, says that domestic sales are being driven by younger members of big business families at the top end, followed by young company executives working for multi-national corporations who spend up to £24,000 on a single picture, and by others in India’s booming software industry. Unlike earlier generations, these professionals have their own money to spare in their 30s, without having to rely on their parents’ largesse.
Anupam Poddar is at the forefront of the new generation of buyers and is especially interested in contemporary artists, such as Subodh Gupta , Atul Dodiya, Mithu Sen and Sudarshan Setty. ‘Something exciting is going on, notably among the young who are doing experimental work,’ he says. With his mother Lekha, who is from the art-collecting Birla family, he is setting up a not-for-profit foundation to help young artists and curators. Their collection is to be shown by Berlin’s DaimlerChrysler Contemporary in January.
The Mumbai-based Dodiya is seen as a leader of a generation of avant-garde artists in their 40s, whose work comments on modern India, from the Gandhian legacy to globalisation and politics. He and his wife, Anju, as well as artists such as Gupta and Bose Krishnamachari, recast everyday objects, such as shopfront shutters and stainless-steel pots, to reflect India’s burgeoning economy and the chaos of daily life.
Other artists producing more populist contemporary work include Jagannath Panda, Surendran Nair and Shibu Natesan, whose dramatic rendering of a leopard on a yellow Lamborghini, Existence of Instinct – 1 (2004), fetched £91,000 in September on Saffronart.com, doubling estimates. Eyebrows are being raised, however, at such high prices. ‘The increase in what is asked by the younger artists is just not justifiable,’ says Ashish Anand, director of the Delhi Art Gallery, one of the city’s leading commercial spaces. ‘It’s bold and young work, but I don’t see why they should be touching prices of established artists – only a few will survive.’
Kito de Boer, who used to live in India and now runs McKinsey & Co in the Middle East, agrees, noting that prices of Old Masters, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil, are artificially restrained because they have been declared national treasures and are thus inexportable. Having built up a collection of art that reflects India’s historical development over the past century, De Boer believes that in the contemporary art market ‘there has been a considerable amount of manipulation by dealers’. Some younger artists are cashing in on the boom with quick compositions, often dictated by the market.
The country’s oldest art veteran also causes controversy. The Garden Art Gallery, located in the diamond-cutting city of Surat, north of Mumbai, was attacked early in 2004 by radical Hindu nationalist protesters who destroyed paintings by Husain, now 91, saying they were disrespectful of Hindu deities. The gallery’s collection, amassed by Praful Shah, a director of Garden Silks Mills, where it is located, is now open by appointment only. The artist, meanwhile, now stays away from India because of attacks from his critics – and a London show of his work was shut down in May following protests.
Observers question whether India’s art has enough originality and quality to survive long-term as an internationally significant market, and if what is happening marks a renaissance. ‘I think the practices being developed have a strong ironic tone in the way in which they reappropriate and transform the works of important international artists,’ says Ilaria Bonacossa, a co-curator of ‘Subcontingent’, the recent show of Indian contemporary art at Turin’s Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. ‘There is a discreet number of interesting and challenging artists whose work is strong enough to show in international exhibitions and challenges notions of originality and creativity,’ she notes, naming Sarnath Banerjee, Chitra Ganesh, the Otolith Group, Ashim Purkayastha and Amar Kanwar as good contemporary examples.
On a broader front, Rajeev Sethi, who heads the Asian Heritage Foundation that he set up in New Delhi, is leading a task force for India’s Planning Commission to draw up an overall policy, which is currently lacking, to cover all creative and cultural industries. India has a mass of untapped artistic talent, including little-noticed tribal painters and those who reproduce mogul miniatures. Traditional folk artists, for example, can do film animation work, boosting India’s booming software-based business processing exports. ‘These artists have an innate capacity to replicate characterisation, and a great feel for the flow of a story,’ says Sethi. He also encourages former painters of Bollywood billboards – Husain’s original trade – to switch to painting pictures as their old, hand-painted craft has been replaced in the past few years by Western-style printed posters.
‘From a pool of less than 40 artists who had a nascent collector base in the early 1990s, at least 100 of them now have a significant market,’ comments Neville Tuli, the founder of Osian’s, Delhi’s leading fine art auction house, whose activities also include a growing market in film posters and other memorabilia. However, there is still the worry, aired especially by those who question the high prices of contemporary art, about whether there are too many artists (and dealers) cashing in on an investment-led bubble.
This concern is justified, but the current art boom is still important as the latest manifestation of India’s cultural heritage – and its visual and pictorial traditions that date back 4,000 years. ‘We were always creators of art, which has historically been a vehicle for worship – look at the Chola bronzes,’ explains Pande. ‘Now that heritage is re-emerging with a new identity.
Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection, DaimlerChrysler Contemporary, Berlin, Germany (+49 30 25 94 14 20), 19 Jan–20 May; A Guide to 101 Modern & Contemporary Indian Artists by Amrita Jhaveri (India Book House, £16.95); Subcontingent: The Indian Subcontinent in Contemporary Art by Ilaria Bonacossa and Francesco Manacorda, Francesco Bonami and the artists (Electa/Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo £20); Garden Art Gallery, Garden Silk Mills Ltd, Surat, India (+91 261 231 1103); Asian Heritage Foundation, New Delhi, India
(+ 91 112 626 3985)