Food cafe by Sharan Apparao: State of the art

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Published: March 5, 2015 12:19:35 AM

The Chennai-based gallerist and curator shares with Sushila Ravindranath how the art scene has come a long way. What was a non-existent market in 1982 is serious business today, with big money exchanging hands

It needed a certain recklessness to start an art business in 1983. “There was art, lots of it, but it was not anybody’s except the artist’s business. There were few art lovers and fewer collectors in India. Sometimes people bought paintings because they felt sorry for the artists. Antiquities were collected and revered but contemporary art was not. It was considered bohemian,” says Sharan Apparao about her early days when she decided to start an art gallery in Chennai. Both Apparao and the art scene have come a long way in the last 30 years.

Apparao and I decide to try the relaunched Italian restaurant, Prego, at the Taj Coromandal, as it is close to her gallery and we want to check out the new chef’s menu. The restaurant is contemporary chic, with earth-toned upholstery and interesting flooring. We ask for potato beignets (goat cheese cream and tomato coulis) among the vast array of appetisers and vegetable broth with cannelloni beans and herbs.

After earning her bachelor’s in arts, Apparao had to decide what next. “All I knew was that I had to do something with the arts.” Then she got a break. Grindlays Bank in Chennai wanted somebody to run their gallery. “The chief general manager asked me to do it. They didn’t know how to run it. I too didn’t know how to run a gallery. He saw something in me and trusted a 22-year-old. My regret was that I didn’t do an MBA. But I learnt on the job. I learnt to align with the right people to make the right choices. I managed to give Grindlays a lot of visibility.” Apparao subsequently did courses at Smithsonian and Harvard.

This stint at Grindlays made Apparao plan an art gallery. There was really no standard to live up to in Chennai. Apparao, at that point, did not quite see a gallery as a business, but more as an adventure. “I was not afraid. I was not inhibited about approaching artists.” She met Amrita Sher-Gil’s husband to hold an exhibition of her paintings. He did not have any of her works. MF Husain being as quirky as Apparao took the risk and agreed to exhibit with a young girl.” Among others, I exhibited Souza, Sabavala, Husain, Raza, Anjolie Ela Menon and Laxma Goud.”

“I loved styling the shows, creating a mood and designing unusual, offbeat invitations. I just enjoyed the entire experience, since I did not know if it was going to last beyond the current show. There were very few buyers in the early 1980s. I had a lot of support from my family and friends. Some actually bought paintings for a few thousand rupees.”

After debating for a few minutes we decide not to have either pasta or pizza, but to order the main course. Apparao orders mozzarella chicken with Sicilian lemon and caper sauce. I decide to try hand-rolled purple gnocchi with asparagus sauce. Apparao likes her dish and I find mine has an interesting taste.

The 1980s was spent in furiously putting together shows, travelling, buying, selling, persuading and promoting the artists Apparao worked with.

I ask her about taking shows to Delhi and opening a gallery in that tough market. “Delhi happened casually. For about 12 years I used to do winter shows in Delhi. I set up a formal gallery much later. Delhi is really a nightmare. People are tight with money. Delhi doesn’t respect the sanctity of the artist.” Although she has a lot of Chennai-based clients now, she concedes that the great big spenders are really in Delhi and Mumbai.

The art market opened up in the 1990s after liberalisation. That is when Apparao decided to open the doors herself to sell Indian contemporary art in the US. “I made a presentation to my class at the Harvard where I was pursuing a writing course and gave them a glimpse of what was happening in India. Vishakha Desai, the former head of Asia Society, acquired two Vaikuntams from me. I realised that I could introduce contemporary visual art to audiences outside India.”

This was when Sotheby’s and Christie’s, among others, started looking at contemporary Indian art. “It was good that they stepped in. It helped stabilise and validate the prices.” By the 1990s, Apparao had gained enough experience to be known as a gallerist and a curator. This was when she realised there is money in art. “I put money back into it. Consequently, I acquired a substantial collection.”

Our server wants to know if we are ready to order dessert. We choose chef Luca’s deconstructed Sicilian cassata. I want to know is art really a good investment? “A Raza went for R3 lakh in the 1990s. Today it could be anywhere upwards of R3 crore. I picked up a Souza nude for R80,000. My mother was worried what would the servants say. Today it is priceless.”

Blue chip art is bought by big collectors and big businesses. “Younger collectors should learn to pick the right art dealer and develop trust. They should not go for anything which looks derivative. If it says something to them, they should go ahead.”

Apparao is now looking at interdisciplinary art. Technology, sound, craft and intelligence mixed with art, which has a feeling of newness about it. “If what it is saying makes you smile and creates the ‘ah’ moment in you, then you should go for it.”

What was a non-existent market in 1982 when Apparao started out is serious business today with big money exchanging hands. The art market is entirely dependent on a booming economy. How does Apparao survive downturns? “I owned my space.

I had sufficient stock. I had to make enough only to pay salaries. Between 2008 and 2010, the market really crashed. It is now slowly picking up.”

Over espresso, Apparao says art is a very difficult business. It is only possible if one has a lot of financial muscle. “You can no longer have a mom-and-pop operation in a garage. You have to package and present it as you would a luxury product. I have built up my business over
30 years. I have the knowledge, collection, real estate, system and a client base. If I start today, I will need at least R100 crore.”

She says online sale of art is the way to go. “One should invest in technology platforms, as real estate and warehousing costs are prohibitive.”

Apparao wants to explore art further. “Mixing disciplines excites me. I am not a gambler. I believe in backing the right horse.”

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