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Indian art to emerge from shadows

08/26/2009 10:31 – LIFESTYLE-INDIA-ART – World News (ASI) – AFP

by Rupam Jain Nair

For the past two decades, Indian artists have had to watch in envy as foreign buyers showered recognition and cash on their Chinese peers.
But after years of institutional neglect, they finally seem to be getting the support they need to push their work on an international market that has traditionally focused on established artists in East Asia.
Last week saw the biggest-ever gathering of contemporary galleries in the country with the four-day India Art Summit, which aims to establish itself alongside other shows such as the now well-known Shanghai art fair.
"This is just the beginning. The summit is still growing, just like Indian contemporary art," said Neha Kirpal, associate director of the event.
Like other experts, Kirpal concedes that China is "way ahead" of India in terms of the development of its art market.
Visitors to the summit were struck, however, by the broad range of contemporary art on display, the interest of foreign galleries and the professional organisation.
Last year, the first edition of the summit had three international galleries. This year 17 participated despite the economic slowdown, Kirpal said.
But for Indian artists to reach a bigger audience, industry insiders say the supporting infrastructure must be improved – a common problem in all areas of life in India.
Art schools, galleries, museums and public funds are all lacking.
"Can anybody enlighten me about the government's role in promoting art?" said Dadiba Pundole, owner of the Pundole art gallery in Mumbai, one of India's oldest galleries.
"They have failed miserably and it is only the private players that have kept the scene alive."
The country has a legacy of artwork going back 9,000 years but there are just a handful of prominent galleries in India for thousands of artists and only a few crumbling museums, built between 1910-1920 by the British.
"The total number of art schools can be counted on one's fingertips," said Kirpal.
Yamini Mehta, director of modern and contemporary Indian art at the Christie's auction house in London, says the Indian art business is gathering momentum but the absence of institutional support is a problem.
"There has not been much institutional support and resources for the visual arts in India as there has been in China," Mehta told.
She says the Chinese authorities have promoted the arts heavily since the 1980s to compensate for the loss of creativity during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
The Cultural Revolution tried to annihilate previous art practices, the sort of disturbance that India has never experienced.
Unlike Chinese art, however, much of the work by Indians is still bought by Indians, making the market inward-looking and limiting its development internationally.
"Most Indians buy indigenous works, which is a good way to start collecting art but gradually Indian art has to step out of its own borders for wider acceptance," said Stefan Wimmer from the Beck & Eggling art gallery in Germany, which had a display at the art summit.
The rise of India's business elite is also creating a class of people ready to splash cash on domestic art, promising a brighter future for local galleries and artists.
"There are the fixed [established] clients and there are the new clients who have invested in houses, cars, jewellery but are looking for more. Art is their preferred choice," says Shilpa Dugar of krishala arts, a gallery based in the southern Indian city of Chennai.
For now, prices for Indian art are off the highs reached in 2002-2008 when international auction houses recorded record sales for the country's celebrated artists M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza or Satish Gujaral.
The market has fallen sharply, spelling bad news for some Indian galleries, particularly those that overstretched themselves during the boom years such as Bodhi, which has shut many of its international spaces.
"Indian art had become too pricey till last year. This year everyone is happy to reduce the prices by 25 to 30 percent," an Indian art buyer who refused to be named told AFP.
Indian artists must also contend with constraints on their freedom of expression, a right guaranteed under the Indian Constitution but one which has been under attack from religious extremists.
The country's most acclaimed painter was conspicuous by his absence at last week's event because of fears for his security.
M.F. Husain, 94, has angered hardline Hindus by portraying Hindu deities in the nude or in a sexually suggestive manner and his work and home have been attacked.