Giving Indian modern art the museum it deserves
THE new Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, or KMoMA, is anything but unambitious. It is intended to be India’s answer to the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim and, of course, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The brainchild of the chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and a determined group of artists, collectors and assorted Indian-art lovers, it will present both international and Indian art from the 18th century to today. Its opening, in five years at a cost of well over $100m, will, its backers hope, confirm India’s role on the world stage of contemporary art, not just as a new country to plunder, but as a centre for critical debate, creative experiment and art-historical study.
To help the museum meet these grand goals, next week Sotheby’s will hold an auction in New York on behalf of KMoMA, selling modern and contemporary Indian art.
The timing is impeccable. With collectors in a buying frenzy and the search for ever newer artists intensifying, Indian contemporary art is the latest craze in the international art market. A few years ago it was Chinese art that was at the centre of attention. International curators, museum and gallery directors, auction-house specialists and eager investors descended on Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, thrilled by the prospect of exploring uncharted artistic waters. Leading figures of the Chinese avant-garde have since graduated to international contemporary sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury, and are found in museums and private collections around the world. Those hungry for the new are now setting their sights on India.
There has, of course, always been Indian art and there have always been Indian-art collectors. But in the past the market was a largely local affair. In 1995, looking for new areas to develop and recognising the early signs of resurgent Indian wealth, Christie’s started to nurture a fledgling market. As Yamini Mehta, head of modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie’s in London, says: “There wasn’t a foundation for an art market then...what we were trying to do was to establish a benchmark.” International collectors, meanwhile, were still scarce; a punitive tax regime made it difficult to bring contemporary art into or out of the country.
Since 2000 all that has changed. Taxation has eased, wealth has grown and rich Indians, both at home and abroad, have increasingly sought to buy contemporary art. This demand has in turn encouraged younger artists to travel and find recognition abroad, joining the international artistic elite who, while grounded in their local traditions, share ideas overseas.
In response, new collectors from Europe, America and beyond have begun to take keen interest. This spring the Tate Modern staged an exhibition of work by a glamorous Indian modernist, Amrita Sher-Gil, who died in 1941, aged 28. The Gulf Art Fair in Dubai this year included many Indian artists, including Jitish Kallat, a young favourite. The director of this year’s Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, invited the 36-year-old Riyas Komu, a rising star in Mumbai, to be part of his main exhibition. And the Arts India group, run by two America-based brothers, Prajit and Projjal Dutta, recently opened a flagship contemporary gallery in Larry Gagosian’s former spot on Heddon Street in London.
The sales figures in New York, Dubai and, increasingly, London, reflect the surge of excitement around Indian art. An Indian sale at Christie’s in New York in 2000, which featured modern and contemporary work as well as traditional Indian art, achieved a total of $600,000. So far this year Christie's sales of modern and contemporary art in New York, London and Dubai have together topped $21m. At the Christie's sale in New York in March, a painting by Tyeb Mehta, an established artist from Mumbai, broke the $1m barrier.
As Zara Porter Hill, head of Sotheby’s Indian art department, suggests, it is a sign of KMoMA’s importance to both artists and collectors that so many have donated works to the benefit sale next week. Both Riyas Komu and Tyeb Mehta have given pieces: Mr Komu offers a steel sculpture reddened by car paint, estimated at $12,000-18,000; Mr Mehta presents a forbidding green, black and white image of the Goddess Kali, transformed from a local deity into a universal image of strife, estimated at $400,000-600,000 (pictured). Also featured are a lusciously coloured canvas by Bose Krishnamachari and “The Child”, a haunting painting by Yusuf Arakkal. It is hoped that KMoMA will at last give these artists a proper shrine—and pulpit.
Sotheby’s auction to benefit the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art is in New York on July 17th.