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Value and contemporary art in India July 10, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Jim Masselos

Every week a handful of notices from commercial art galleries in India hit my in-box. They’re invitations to the opening of some exhibition or other – usually of paintings by artists whose work I haven’t seen and whose names are unfamiliar to me. They would seem to be highly rated, given the kind of price the galleries set for their work even though sometimes, according to the gallery blurb, it is the artist’s first exhibition. In other instances I know the work of the artists on display – they have established reputations and track records for memorable past work – and prices to match. The notices I get are only from a small proportion of the enormous number of commercial galleries that have mushroomed in city India, especially Mumbai and Delhi. When I first went to India as a student a long time ago there were only two or three commercial galleries in each of the cities – those days are now long past – and the newspapers list dozens of them each week. It is good to see that there are places for artists to be exhibited, there is a chance that quality will be recognised relatively quickly and that artists won’t have to starve for too long in the zopadpatti equivalent of a garret before their achievement gets recognition and reward.

Here in Australia our institutions have had a reasonable record over the years in letting us see contemporary art from the subcontinent and in allowing us to experience emerging new voices. There is the three yearly event, the APT (the Asia Pacific Triennial) at the Queensland Art Gallery, which consistently seeks out the best – or the most provocative – of the art of the subcontinent as well as from elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. Otherwise our direct object-based knowledge has depended on specific exhibitions. Some years ago Chaitanya Sambrani curated a grand survey of recent Indian art that travelled from the Art Gallery of Western Australia to New York’s Asia Society, while earlier Victoria Lynn in ‘India Songs’ had pondered over the interface between urban and tribal contemporary art at the Art Gallery of NSW. There have been smaller exhibitions – one of Pakistani painting at the College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW, another of contemporary Indian and diaspora artists at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the masterly work of Shahzia Sikander at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. During Mardi Gras month a few years back recent work from Bhupen Khakar was on display at the Art Gallery of NSW. Also, on occasion commercial galleries in this country have showcased Indian artists both from India or the diaspora, though whether they have been profitable is not clear.

So here in Australia we have been able over the years to see examples of some of the work of recent and innovative artists working in India or elsewhere in its diaspora. Our galleries and curators have been innovative in presenting such artists to us – and we should be grateful for what they have been able to do with the resources available. In consequence we have been able to get a glimpse of some of the creativity and ferment in contemporary art in India.

In future blogs it might be interesting to explore the new kind of viewpoints emerging in Indian art. But what prompted me originally to write about this subject is the way Indian art has over the past decade become a marketable and highly desirable commodity. The parallel is with contemporary art from China, which has really hit the market big time – though Indian artists have not quite yet reached the dizzy heights that Chinese canvases have attained. Behind all this is astute marketing. As the large establishment auctions houses, Christies, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, run out of antiquities to auction, they have moved to handling contemporary Asian art, first the Chinese and then the Indian. Suddenly over the past decade there has exploded an international market in Indian painting of the 20th century – something that had not been there before.

Anita Jain, in her memoir-fictional account of a diaspora Indian going back to live in Delhi and play its party scene, puts her finger on the change on p.4 of her book, Marrying Anita (London: Bloomsbury, 2008): “After decades of being ignored, modern Indian artists could now see their paintings sell in heated auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York and London for six or even seven figures. In 2005, three paintings by contemporary Indian artists crossed the one-million-dollar mark. Before that, the highest amount fetched for a canvas of modern Indian art had been just over $300,000.” She, like many others, focuses on art as price and money: the implication is obvious – the higher the cost, the better the piece.

So Indian art has become a valuable commodity, but its value goes beyond the simple cost of something like stocks and shares. The price which the auction houses get for these paintings is not only a cash quantum but it sets up a measure for the standing of Indian artists, both as individuals as well as collectively. So by extension the auction prices measure the standing of India in the art world. Here, though, I want to point out that the artists who now get high prices in the auctions were not, as Anita Jain asserts, ignored for decades. Rather, in India before the boom they were leading artists whose work was well-known to anyone interested in Indian art at the time. And the prices were sufficiently high then to require sacrifice for the ordinary middle class purchaser to think long and deep over whether they could afford them. The people who have now discovered the painters are those outside India who use them as an additional commodity to play with on the market. Many of the new purchasers, apart from the odd foreign museum and occasional western collector, are likely to be Indian – perhaps a successful NRI combining a punt on the market with acquiring a little piece of India, or else a successful business executive wanting to use modern Indian art for corporate display purposes. As elsewhere in the world, possession of art is thus used here to assert status and standing but also national worthiness – and national esteem.


1. Bhupen Thakker - July 14, 2009

As you say- at last the threats of starvation for Indian artists subside. The quality of the work is fabulous too

2. Geeta Kirpalani - June 14, 2010

hello Jim,

How lovely to see an article on the vibrant Indian arts scene. We in Singapore are fortunate to have some of the best established and emerging artists visit from the sub continent.
keep in touch

warm regards