Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Hindu: The state of the art

Is contemporary Indian art the next big thing in the global art market?
Sunday, Mar 26, 2006

TO say that an art boom is on in India is a gross understatement: prices of contemporary Indian paintings have gone out of control, spiralling upwards to uncharted heights — like the Indian stock market. When Tyeb Mehta's painting "Mahisasura" brought down the hammer at Christie's in New York last fall for $1.58 million, it sent shock waves through the international art mart. It was the first time a work by a contemporary Indian artist had broken the million-dollar barrier: few living international artists have crossed it in auctions.

The fact that it was an Indian buyer (albeit a non-resident Indian) coughing up such money signifies that Indian contemporary art has reached a critical mass, confirming the immense spending power of the Indian buyer.

Vibrant market
What happened in New York then — and what may happen here again later this week when both Christie's (March 30) and Sotheby's (March 28) auction paintings by contemporary Indian artists — affirms the existence of a vibrant secondary market for Indian art. Interestingly, the two auction houses have widened their scope to go beyond their usual staple of the established names like M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar and V.S. Gaitonde. Two works of the young Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta (estimate $20,000-$35,000) have also been included.

Gallerists and dealers from India are converging in the Big Apple to bid for works. Significantly, they are stocking up for their hungry clientele back home: skyrocketing prices here only mirror what is going on in India. Indian pockets back home are equally deep. And if an artist sells well in international auctions his price goes up correspondingly in India. Arun Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi told me that the real and serious buyers of Indian art are to be found in India.

Earlier this month the two auctions held by Saffronart and Osian's in Mumbai sent the art market in a spin with unprecedented prices. Osian's sold an Amrita Sher-Gil for Rs. 69,000,000 and a Gaitonde for Rs. 48,875,000 — in fact the auction house totted up Rs. 417,260,000 for 89 lots. Meanwhile, Saffronart hit pay dirt in its auction of living and relatively young artists, not all of whom are old marquee names. While Ravinder Reddy's work went for Rs. 3,145,450, one of the many Atul Dodiya paintings auctioned that day fetched Rs. 12,188,000. Anju Dodiya's painting was not that far behind at Rs. 9,669,000, and Subodh Gupta's work was also in demand: one of his paintings went for Rs 8,087,877. Suddenly, there is no business like art business. The emergence of cartels of galleries as well as bankers who put together portfolios comprised of investments in art (often reserving as much as 20 per cent of the portfolio) for their clients is gradually redefining the landscape of art.

Since the turn of the century, Indian art has "appreciated 10 per cent faster annually than the stock market" according to a recent article in Outlook Money. Art Funds have also mushroomed, enabling a group of investors to buy a large body of work. Today, it is really only about buying and selling. Increasingly, galleries rather than individuals bid at auctions. A few have even begun to stock artists whose work they believe will appreciate in the future, in a sense creating a scarcity to boost the prices.

What has sent the eyebrows of the art cognoscenti shooting upwards is the fact that the pool of "hot" artists has suddenly expanded. The X or unknown factor has come into play. The kind of excitement generated at auctions increasingly resembles what happens at the races, with the dark horses of the art stable galloping past the thoroughbreds. A younger breed of artists has begun to dominate the art market.

New breed of collectors

What has brought about a sea change is the change of guard of the buyers: the new collectors are in their 20s and 30s. Whereas a large number are children of old collectors — many scions of industrial families — a large number are young professionals and self-made entrepreneurs. Obviously, their budgets are a little more modest than those of the previous generation, and their tastes are also more eclectic.

Consequently, the kind of artists and art they are investing in has also changed. Canvases of Atul Dodiya, Shibhu Natesan, Natraj Sharma, Surendran Nair, Subodh Gupta, Paresh Maity, Anju Dodiya and Manoj Pushkale are eagerly sought after. As are those of T.V. Santhosh, G.R. Iranna, Chitravanu Majumdar, Jaganathn Pandey, Jayshree Chakravarty, Rajnish Kaur and many others.

Investors have also begun to take sculpture more seriously: Ravinder Reddy's amazing kitschy heads have been, and still are, in demand, but works of Ryas Komo and Mrinalini Mukherjee are now moving. Says Renu Modi of Gallery Espace who has relentlessly promoted sculptors: "Sculpture has long been under priced, but today there is an interest in it."

The Indian art mart is certainly ebullient but Indian contemporary artists have yet to make their presence felt in the international market.

NRIs almost uniformly comprise the international buyers of Indian art, and most galleries in the United States promoting Indian artists belong to people of Indian origin.

On the international map

However, in the last few years, galleries like Deitch projects and the Jack Shainman gallery in New York — a mainstream and not NRI-driven venture — have shown works of, respectively, Ravinder Reddy (currently) and Subodh Gupta last year. India is now on the map for international curators and museum officials. Moreover, the mainstream press, especially The New York Times, frequently write about Indian contemporary art. Apparently, Holland Carter, one of the major art critics of the paper, is a Sanskrit scholar and was brought in many years ago to expand their coverage to cover South Asian art.

The lead article of the Arts section of the paper this month was on Tyeb Mehta. After the current obsession with contemporary Chinese art, Indian art may just be the Next Best Thing.

The current issue of Art & Antiques magazine includes three Indian-Americans in its list of a hundred "top collectors" who have made a difference: Mahinder Tak, Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri and Sunanda and Umesh Gaur — collectors of Indian art. Perhaps three swallows may make an Indian summer.

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