Call of the Indian art market

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Feb 1 2006, 05:30am hrs
On February 6, Picasso comes up for sale in India. We have had works of his on exhibition here before. Our artists, from Souza to Paritosh Sen and even younger ones, like Swapan Bhandari, have been influenced by him. And Picasso himself was influenced not only by African sculpture, but also by Kolkatas famous Battala prints, which he had been introduced to by Krishna Riboud.

So, when Vadehra art gallery of Delhi and the Grosvenor art gallery of London get together to sell Picasso in India, one understands that he is the best product the European art market has to sell. And, if they are bringing him here, it is because they feel a discerning clientele has emerged in India.

Why are they doing that One reason is that Europe has become outdated and its artists are losing touch with the brush and chisel, creating a taste for things other than art, like dead flesh in formaldehyde, computer graphics, camera images and assemblages. So, perhaps the market for Picasso needs a broader global base. And India, with its burgeoning art market dominated by painters and sculptors is as good a place to sell Picasso as any.

The other reason is that the West has become the home of both neo-conservative revivalism and Christian fundamentalism. So, it is evident that despite an individual sale or two of Picasso, at over a million dollars, there is a need to look for greener pastures. And the Indian market provides these.

The radical perspective that has emerged with our freedom movement and carried on beyond as Nehruvian socialism and a non-aligned (read independent) world view still prevails, so the works of a former member of the communist party, who began his greatest work, Guernica, on May Day and refused to live in or exhibit his works in fascist Spain, can be expected to have an appeal in the Indian market that is more enduring than that for the gimmicky art of Andy Warhol and his ilk, that has found its way to T-shirts and the like.

Picasso is an artist and exhibiting him on the Indian market reflects its strength. Behind this strength, we have a powerful tradition of those sections of Indias population who never made peace with imperialism, be it British, French or Portuguese, the peasantry and the tribal people. Their art attracted our best artists, like Jaimini Roy, MF Husain, FN Souza and Ram Kinkar Baij, to name only a few. In fact, it was the last of these revolts, the Mumbai Naval Mutiny of 1946 that finally got Britain to leave, that inspired an artist like Chittaprasad to immortalise the event in one of his paintings, just as he immortalised the Telangana peasant uprising of 1948-51.

Where Europe retreated from radicalism in the post-War years under a perceived threat from communism and its post-War art suffered a trivialisation as a result, the Indian propertied classes retained an element of radicalism from their confrontation with the British. A general climate arose that gave support to not only Indian democracy but also to an ongoing modernism in our art. This is evident from the fact that the most rebellious of the artists of the Mumbai group, FN Souza, recently had one of his works sell at Rs 6.5 crore.

Others who generally sell above the bracket of Rs 1 crore, like MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, SH Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Ram Kumar were close associates of his in the Progressive Artists Group. Even younger artists, like Paritosh Sen, Arpita Singh, Manjit Bawa, Krishen Khanna, KS Kulkarni, Arpana Caur and Anjolie Ela Menon, though their prices vary from between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 50 lakh, share this common radical approach.

But more than that, these artists have inherited the craftsmans powerful commitment to his skill and a pride in it, which is often found lacking in Euro-American art. India, today, has perhaps the largest number of skilled contemporary artists. There was a time when they had to emigrate to find a market and a living. Today, a number of them, the most famous being Padamsee, are back. Others, like Sakti Burman and SH Raza, make it a point to hold exhibitions here. This is not surprising, as the

Indian art market has seen a 200-fold increase in the past couple of decades.

One element that had an impact on the development of this market was the fact that these works were selling at prices that were a fifth of what they were worth. Today, the situation has changed and they sell at a third to a half of their worth. That is the reason why their home market has been so buoyant and they have been able to break into the NRI market in New York, London and Hong Kong.

This is another reason why one is not worried at European contemporary art coming to India. True, it can be dumped. But then, dealers can buy works cheap here and resell these in London and New York at a premium. This is especially true today, as the most paying investment in art are canvases and these are easy to roll-up and transport.

But still, the best bet for Indian art dealers is to tie-up with galleries abroad and sell there. They are doing so already and there is scope for much more activity in that direction. The coming over of Picassos works here for sale should give us the incentive to sell more works of similar quality there and far more cheaply. This is likely to increase the buoyancy of the home market. So, we are in very good times for our contemporary art indeed.

The writer is a Delhi-based art critic