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Delhi contemporary art fair transformed

India Art Summit deemed a success, with strong sales of Indian art

Delhi. The India Art Summit, held in Delhi from 19-22 August, may prove to be a key moment in the evolution of Indian contemporary art. The transformation of the summit from last year’s rather parochial affair was remarkable, and the result was a sense of exceeded expectations from the start. Despite a concurrent programme of talks, panels and other peripheral events, the summit is nothing more or less than an art fair, albeit one that is now taking on the trappings familiar to the international circuit. Similarities to Art Dubai were widely remarked upon, particularly in the layout and design. Until now, the Gulf fair has been the leading international marketplace for Indian contemporary art, a situation seemingly now rectified by the India Art Summit.

“It is important that this fair brings Delhi to the fore as India’s culture capital,” says Renu Modi, whose Gallery Espace is one of the city’s leading contemporary art spaces. “I think everyone was just hoping it would be a bit better than last year, but I don’t think anyone expected such a transformation.” Some credit must certainly be due to the partnership with Sotheby’s, a deal done even before the fair’s debut last year.

While the idea of an auction house partnering a major art fair raised a few eyebrows, in India a sense of realism prevails when it comes to the ever-changing and frequently blurred relationships in the commercial art world. It is an often uncomfortable state of affairs, but in a country where auction houses, art funds and galleries merge with little or no legislative control from an administration almost entirely oblivious to the arts, and where so many cultural initiatives come from the commercial world, conflicts of interest remain an inevitability.

Collector and consultant Amrita Jhaveri, who as a panellist was heard grappling with such issues, says that despite boasting heavyweights such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, the attempt to generate real and necessary debate was not entirely successful, just as last year. "The International Speakers’ Forum was among the most anticipated aspects of the summit, attracting several high profile speakers,” says Jhaveri. “Its success was limited though, as each speaker had no more than 15 to 20 minutes to communicate a very complex idea, while the high registration charges were also a deterrent for many."

As with last year’s fair, all works by India’s most prominent living artist, M.F. Husain, were excluded as a potential security risk, due to ongoing threats from Hindu extremists who have forced him into exile in the Gulf. It is perhaps a testament to the all round success of the fair that the issue seemed quickly eclipsed. Nevertheless, it is rightly one that arouses passionate feelings in an art community that owes so much to the 93-year-old artist. “It is still an outrageous state of affairs,” says Modi, whose Delhi house was designed by Husain.

Official figures for the Delhi fair were impressive. Organisers claimed that over four days it was seen by 40,000 visitors, with more than 50% of the works sold, totalling INR260m ($5.3m). The total value of all the works on sale was stated to have been between 40 to 50 crores ($8.2m-$10.2m). Like all official art fair sales figures, the latter sum has been received with some scepticism, but whatever the reality the message is clear—the fair was a resounding success, and a much needed boost to a market that has struggled to find its footing after plummeting from the heady prices seen little more than a year ago.

Outside the fair, visitors were greeted by a small sculpture park dominated quite appropriately by a bright red-faced and black-haired Ravinder Reddy head of considerable size, one of the most iconic works of the past decade and a real symbol for Indian contemporary art. On the second day of the fair it took quick work for this and other sculptures by the likes of Navjot Altaf, G.R. Iranna and Ved Gupta to be saved from a storm of such ferocity that in less than an hour much of Delhi was left under a few feet of water, with fallen trees and debris causing traffic chaos that brought the city to a virtual standstill. More secure inside the front lobby were Subodh Gupta’s giant bronze heads—Gandhi’s Three Monkeys, 2008—part of a display of large-scale works curated by Gayatri Sinha but somewhat overwhelmed by the surrounding hubub.

Out of more than 54 galleries, the fair boasted a significant contingent of 17 from outside India. Of these, most attention was focused on London’s Lisson Gallery, and in particular two mirror works by Anish Kapoor—both Untitled, 2009—which exerted a magnetic attraction on visitors throughout the four days of the fair. Both were sold to Indian collectors, and while it is rumoured that one was already a done deal, the other was snapped up on the first day for a sum reputed to be in excess of INR10m ($200,000) by Kiran Nadar, wife of Shiv Nadar, the head of technology giant HCL. The Nadars are substantial collectors with plans to open a private museum in Delhi.

Despite such a substantial international roster, many of the foreign galleries were still focused mainly on Indian artists. The stand of Dubai’s 1x1 Art Gallery was given over to Bengali artist Chitravanu Mazumdar's dark industrial works, not quite as effective in the art fair setting as they were in his powerful multimedia gallery installation during Art Dubai. Rob Dean Art (London) and Arario Gallery (Beijing, Seoul and New York) presented works primarily by Indian artists. Rob Dean's new discovery Princess Pea wandered around disguised as a pea handing out candy, looking like a character from a Thukral and Tagra painting, while Arario's impressive display of contemporary A-listers reflected a longstanding relationship with artists such as L.N. Tallur and Jitish Kallat.

With the older, more conservative galleries rubbing shoulders with the more avant-garde newcomers, the art on show ranged from Souzas and Razas to video and installation art. Realistic that walk-through buyers would not be likely to be picking up works by Subodh Gupta or T.V. Santosh, galleries including London- and New York-based Aicon offered affordable editions. There were also new arrivals announcing their presence on the Indian scene. Bhavna Kakar's Delhi gallery Latitude 28 was offering an eclectic array of works by the likes of Bhupen Khakhar and Nasreen Mohammedi that blurred the lines between generations.

One reason for the focus on Indian artists may well have been the stringent bureaucracy faced by galleries importing works, and many of these foreign galleries were selling works that had never left India. This arises from a customs agreement specifying that galleries bringing art into the country have to furnish bank guarantees for 100% of the value of the works. From this the government takes a 2% tax regardless of whether or not the works are sold. The result was that foreign galleries, many clearly there for the profile and side business as much as booth sales, had fairly sparse displays.

Modi, whose Espace stand was tasteful as ever with works by the likes of Zarina Hashmi and Rina Bannerjee, feels that such is the strength of Indian culture at present that the Indian market does not need to look towards western art, but conversely international interest in India is ever increasing. “The forthcoming show at the Pompidou in Paris is an exciting prospect and will take things a step further,” she says.

Art consultant Farah Siddiqui from Mumbai believes that while the fair may not have been heaving with new collectors, it is providing exactly the kind of stimulus needed to bring new faces to the market. “Next year is really when we should be hoping to see a new generation of collectors emerging,” she says. “Events like this are so important and furthermore prices are now returning to more reasonable and affordable levels.”

The distinct absence of Pakistani art was inevitable, but at the same time something of a shame. One of the few galleries showing Pakistani work was Aicon, which sold Farida Batool’s lenticular print Line of Control, 2008, on the first day of the fair. “When you see the Indian and Pakistani art shown together at Art Dubai, even with the differences in subject matter, the close cultural relationship is still palpable,” says Siddiqui. “And artists like Rashid Rana are very much part of a South Asian art community that is divided only on the sub-continent itself.”

Talk of new museums arises with such regularity in India that few take much notice of anything they cannot walk through already. To date the only person to deliver has been Anupam Poddar, and the opening of the latest exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon outside Delhi was not only the party of the week but another reminder to others that it can be done.

There are clearly questions of identity that the fair needs to confront. It is still not certain whether it is playing to the insiders or the outsiders—and to what extent it will cater to the inevitable conservative taste of many Indian collectors, or continue as a curated event hoping to educate taste and show the kind of works otherwise very hard to see in India.

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