“Perhaps due to the diversity and depth of Indian culture, people carry many different images of India. Contemporary art can act as a common language to reveal the India beyond the images and to lead us to a greater understanding within, for there is something that transcends the diversity of images, a spirit that is contemporary and a presence that is universal, even in its Indianness, above all there is a sense of creative adventure that reaches out to something beyond the image, through the image, be it figurative or abstract.

This, I feel, is what captivated me – the glimpse of a window in the image, opening to a space beyond.”    Masanori Fukuoka, Collector and Director, Glenbarra Art Museum

In a complex time when the numbers of currents affecting Indian society seem to multiply Indian art is confidently coming of age.  Artists evince a deep awareness of globalization as the technology of communications makes mountains of data available, while they negotiate a unique, personal esthetic vision that strongly reflects their Indian cultural heritage.  They grapple with the issues of how to express their Indian ethos; how to relate to international art idioms; and how to evolve an original “voice”.

Maitreya from the Thikse Monastery

Maitreya from the Thikse Monastery in Ladakh, 1970

Contemporary Indian goddess by Ravinder Reddy

Ravinder Reddy’s contemporary Indian “goddess”

One of the superstars of Indian contemporary art, Ravinder Reddy explores the traditional and the contemporary in both theme and material.  Made from fiberglass and enamel paint rather than traditional materials such as clay, plaster and gold leaf, Reddy brings to his sculptures an eclectic mix of folk and kitsch, whilst thematically addressing the issue of maintaining reverence and adherence to tradition.

Every key private collection I visited during my stay had a Reddy or two.  Even the superb Aman Hotel in Delhi greeted me with a Reddy head.

A Ravinder Reddy at the Aman Hotel Delhi

A Ravinder Reddy head at the Aman Hotel in Delhi (cheek to cheek with me for scale)

The high-impact work I saw around India was proof that if art is powerful enough in its form and substance it doesn’t quite matter where it comes from.  And that is exactly what the quote at the beginning of this post from Masanori Fukuoka was describing: the enchantment of finding the universal in the particular, as in all good art.

Two Cows by Subodh Gupta

Subodh Gupta – Two Cows 2003-2008 (bronze, chrome, variable dimensions)

Grabbing attention internationally are husband-and-wife Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher who reinvigorate everyday Indian subjects and materials in eye-catching sculptures.

Describing himself as “the idol thief”, Subodh Gupta is one of the most exciting contemporary artists to have emerged in recent years.  The man dubbed by The Guardian as the “Sub-Continental Marcel Duchamp” trained as a painter and went on to experiment with a variety of media.

His strategy of appropriating everyday objects ubiquitous throughout India and turning them into artworks that dissolve their former meaning and function, reflects on the economic transformation of his homeland, and relates to his own life and memories. Gupta transforms the icons of Indian everyday life into artworks that are readable globally.

Subodh Gupta -  Doodhwalas (milk sellers)

Subodh Gupta - Doodhwalas (milk sellers) 2003 (oil on canvas)

Bharti Kher was born in 1969 in London. Relocating to New Delhi after studying painting in Newcastle, England, she likens herself to a well-intentioned ethnographer investigating her Indian culture.  She is committed to exploring cultural misunderstandings and social codes through her art practice and delivers a very forceful reinterpretation of modern India.

Her work encompasses painting, sculpture and installation, often incorporating bindis, the forehead decoration worn by women in India. “Many people,” she has explained, “believe it’s a traditional symbol of marriage, but actually it’s meant to represent a third eye — one that forges a link between the real and the spiritual worlds.”

Barthi Kher sculpture

Bharti Kher - The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, 2006 at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

In “The skin speaks a language not its own” a slumped, life-size she-elephant’s considerable surface courses with white sperm bindi, and it took Bharti Kher 10 months to make.  It was auctioned at Sotheby’s London last June for a record $1.2m and can be seen now at Delhi’s new private Kiran Nadar Museum.

Sotheby’s deputy director of contemporary art, James Sevier, called it an “icon” of contemporary Indian art. He said: “It is India’s identity in all its glorious complexities that is the hero of this masterpiece and the sculpture remains a beacon of India’s avant-garde scene at the beginning of the 21st century.”

To be continued:
Art and culture tour of India – Part 8:
Private Museums and Art Hotels

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N.S. Harsha Nations installation

N.S. Harsha – Nations 2007 (installation)

Collecting art and investment in art have always been regarded in India as the rich man’s hobby.  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, the late Chester Herwitz in the US (many of his works are now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts,) and Masanori Fukuoka, the Japanese food processing tycoon who is believed to own over 4,000 works, many housed in a three-story museum near Kobe, and who is still actively involved buying and supporting Indian art.

Much has changed in the past two decades, driven by new wealth, initially among NRIs, the non-resident Indians in the US and 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. The era of greater entrepreneurial opportunity gave rise to a generation keen to strut its stuff and the number of collectors of Indian modern and contemporary art is growing – though gallery owners estimate there are “only” perhaps 500 serious collectors in India and internationally, out of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 potential buyers.

Rameshwar Broota Nature Tapestries

Rameshwar Broota - Nature Tapestries (large scale photography)

One way to increase awareness and make art collecting more accessible is through art fairs and events.  Marking the growth of a ‘culture of art events’ centered on the display of new art, already two happenings took place this year:  the evermore important India Art Summit and Art Chennai 2011.

India Art Summit held in New Delhi is the largest and most diverse showcase of contemporary art in India and is viewed as a key player in the evolution of this dynamic young market.  Now in its third phase, with supporting partner Sotheby’s, it is helping to create a larger body of collectors and to introduce Indian artists on the global stage.  According to the organizers, India Art Summit 2011 this past January represented 500 artists, 84 galleries and had 128,000 visitors – which put it above Frieze and ArtBasel Miami Beach together.  This record attendance was proof that there is an audience, and not just a market, for art in India.

Alongside the fair, there were exciting collateral events around the city with twenty art exhibitions, the launch of a private museum, curated art projects, live performances, a sculpture park, a video lounge, Speakers’ Forum, and an art store.

Art Chennai 2011 in March was a city-wide festival of modern and contemporary art in Chennai, with 27 art shows in various galleries, anchored by informal discussions and talks by nationally and internationally known artists, collectors, critics, and curators.

Stretched Bodies by Bose Krishnamachari

Bose Krishnamachari - Stretched Bodies 2008 (acrylic on canvas)

Helpful, ground-breaking anthologies such as Amrita Jhaveri’s A Guide to 101 Modern and Contemporary Indian Artists, and the comprehensive catalogues issued by the major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as the lavish publications of Saffronart Online Auctions, all became part of the essential infrastructure of a healthy market for contemporary Indian art.

For a select group of artists, the Indian art market experienced one of the most dramatic rises of all during the art boom of 2006 to 2008.  According to ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm that monitors the progress of emerging markets, average prices for contemporary Indian art at auction rose by 140 per cent between March 2006 and September 2008.  However, between September 2008 and September 2009, they fell by 75 per cent.

ArtTactic, which measures the confidence its subscribers have in the future of particular markets, says that its confidence indicator for modern and contemporary Indian art has showed a respectable uplift in its last reading since it fell to its lowest point in May 2009.

Ranbir Kaleka video still from "Cul-de-sac in Taxila" 2010

The collecting expansion of contemporary Indian art could not have happened at such a speed and scale without the internet which has vastly widened the potential art-buying public, providing instant access to images and historical data.

A decade ago, when the world wide web surfaced as a just-a-click-away-mart, few thought that it could become a platform for selling art.  Today the web is finding its place in the art market spearheaded by Saffronart, the world’s largest fine-art online auction house with gallery spaces in Mumbai, Delhi and New York, and offices in London.

Launched in 2000 by Dinesh Vazirani, 44, and his wife Minal, 38, with funding from Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley firm that had also put money into Google, Saffronart rapidly elbowed its way onto the Indian art auction scene, alongside established veterans like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and successfully cornered the market for online auctions of Indian contemporary art.  It repots a reach of 60 per cent of sales to buyers outside India, with the vast majority being overseas Indians, and an abundance of first-time buyers.

Years ago, as aspiring collectors, the ambitious and forward-thinking couple, both MBAs - he from Harvard and she from INSEAD, France – found it frustrating to try to obtain information about Indian art.  I mentioned their ages because it is impressive how so young they took their vision and turned it into a global reality.  They were first to introduce downloadable mobile applications for bidding in auction (including versions for the iPhone and BlackBerry) and coinciding with Saffronart’s March sales this year they announced a new mobile version of their website that allows for easy viewing of artworks, jewelry and prime properties from any internet-enabled mobile device.  They also publish the prices of the works on the site, an idea considered practically heretical in India 10 years ago. “It allows for a transparency that hadn’t existed in the Indian art market before” says Minal.

The Vaziranis captured the momentum of contemporary art in India as it was just emerging as a substantial public culture.

Taj Mahal by Sudarshan Shetty

Sudarshan Shetty – Taj Mahal 2008 – detail (Mixed media and video)

Responding to the flourishing art scene in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, Christie’s had a pioneering auction in London in 1995.  In 2001 Tate Modern had an exhibit focusing on Mumbai’s art scene, and independent curators Peter Nagy, Julie Evans, and Gordon Knox, organized an exhibition focusing on contemporary art from India for the 2005 Venice Biennale.  Last spring (February through April 2010) self described “artoholic” Charles Saatchi, one of Britain’s most influential art collectors, had an exhibition in his 70,000 sq ft Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea titled “The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today.”

This year will mark India’s debut at the 54th Venice Biennale as an official entrant sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.  The contemporary showcase “Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode” will feature mixed media artworks by four leading artists: India-born New York-based artist Zarina Hashmi, Gigi Scaria of Delhi, Guwahati-based Desire Machine Collective (DMC), a multi-media art intervention collaboration between Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya; and Praneet Soi, who works out of Kolkata and Amsterdam.

”Indian art is an incredible force in the international art scene today.  There is good art coming out of all the big cities across India…  Like the sudden 16th-century shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, this is a similar big shift, and there is going to be ever-increasing dynamics in China, in India, and in the Middle East. I think collectively they will eventually change the art world” said Hans Ulbrich Obrist, renowned curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, in an interview recently.

To be continued:
Art and culture tour of India- Part 7:
More on the contemporary art scene in India

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