Where the Art Was

The 15th edition of India Art Fair dazzled as much with the art as it excelled in quality

It was hard not to take Neha Kirpal seriously. Sunil Gautam, chairman of the public relations firm Hanmer & MSL, had sought an appointment, and the two wanted to discuss an exciting new project they were to launch in August 2008: the India Art Summit, at Pragati Maidan. Gautam lent the conversation gravitas, but it was Kirpal—whose brainchild it had been—who was its enthusiastic voice and votary. Ever since India’s economic liberalisation, art galleries had been proliferating and art sales booming. The Summit hoped to provide a platform for galleries from around India, and some from overseas, to come together to offer collectors a taste of what the modern and contemporary art world had to offer. It would end up legitimising the art industry too, growing it into a force to reckon with as it chases a turnover target of Rs. 3,000 crore this fiscal ending.

It’s another matter that 2008 was also the year the boom went bust with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the economic recession that caused ripples even in faraway India, and burst the bubble of the Indian art market. Rains played spoilsport too. When the exhibition halls at Pragati Maidan weren’t leaking, they were playing host to pigeons whose droppings on artworks posed a potential hazard. Outdoor installations suffered the calumny of gale speed winds.

It wasn’t a propitious start but by the second edition in 2009, the number of participating galleries had increased from 34 to 54, and the number of visitors who attended the fair had gone up from 6,000 to 40,000. Sunil Gautam divested his share, Kirpal picked up a majority 51 per cent, while the founders of the Hong Kong Art Fair, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsay picked up the rest. By the third edition, the Summit had been renamed the India Art Fair, and everyone wanted to see India-born British artist Anish Kapoor’s dizzying sculptures alongside Damien’s Hirst’s butterfly-mounted paintings and diamond-encrusted skulls and Marc Quinn’s refrigerated heads that explored “what it is to be human today”. Instead of the rainy season, the calendar was shifted to end January-early February, and by the fourth edition it had relocated to the NSIC Grounds in Okhla where it has since continued to be held despite the crowded access that leads to traffic jams and chaos during art fair times.

In the years since, the fortunes of the art fair have waxed and waned. While the number of visitors has continued to rise, international art galleries moved out (chiefly because of customs regulations regarding duties), and though as many as 91 galleries participated in 2014 and 2015, the number has since been curtailed to enhance the visitor experience. In 2016, the owners of the popular Basel Art fair acquired 60.3 per cent of the controlling stake, with Angus now retaining 29.7 per cent and Kirpal 10 per cent as part of a bid to grow regional art fairs around the world. That changed soon enough and the company changed hands again with Kirpal too divesting her stake and moving on.

London’s Jagdip Jagpal took over as fair director from her in 2017 and brought in a sense of leisurely informality. When she moved back to London in 2021, Jaya Ashokan took over as the fair director, ushering in its 14th and recently concluded 15th editions. Ashokan’s major contribution this year was the introduction of design to complete the art experience and included designers Gunjan Gupta and Vikram Goyal (my favourites) as well as Karishma Swali of Chanakya School of Craft that was responsible for creating the giant tapestries of Madhvi and Manu Parekh’s works for the Dior catwalks in Paris and Mumbai. The launch, in November 2023, of Art Mumbai—co-founded by Saffronart’s Dinesh Vazirani, Chawla Art Gallery’s Nakul Chawla and Grosvenor Gallery’s Conor Macklin—added a competitive edge to the 2024 edition of the India Art fair, if only to see which is the better alternative.

The art fair, for those not in the know, consists of three large, weather-proof hangars which are split into booths where galleries vye to show the biggest names in South Asian (and some international) art, sourcing the greatest historical treasures especially to build their reputations, competing for the most popular contemporary artists, and participating in a four-day fiesta of talks, launches, openings, exhibitions, art performances, auction previews and after-parties. Exhibition venues outside the fair location, such as Bikaner House,  are sold out a year in advance for major shows and city-based galleries reserve their best exhibitions to coincide with the fair. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art opens a new exhibition to kick off the celebrations and its founder Kiran Nadar’s lunch for the movers and shakers of the art world is a litmus test for who counts (or doesn’t) in the rarefied world of art appreciation or promotion. (This year, the Museum opened a retrospective of the photographer Raghu Rai’s works.) Artists turn up on most days to see and be seen, to be admired by collectors, swooned over by art lovers and wooed by galleries. Finally, of course, it is the collectors and curators, the museum directors and critics who show up who count for most.

There is no doubt that the quality of the art fair is world class, even though access and exits from the venue remain problematic. Both participants and audiences would be greatly pleased with a change in location with many hoping it will return to Pragati Maidan’s vastly improved infrastructure in the shape of the recently inaugurated Bharat Mandapam. More importantly, the quality of art shown at the fair has improved too. If, previously, commercial transactions were important, most galleries that participate have now learned to rein in the commercial instinct to inform and educate audiences about better art in the hope of introducing them to newer artists and more avant-garde art. Yet, many boasted strong sales on the first day itself, some booths selling out the bulk of their inventory by the end of the fair.

Well-known collectors were seen coasting through the booths on the VIP day led by that great doyenne, Kiran Nadar. Mumbai’s Kumaramangalam Birla and Kavita Singh, Dubai’s Kito de Boer, New Delhi’s Sunil Munjal and Vivek Burman mingled with newbie collectors who came from the big cities and from small towns. The Congress Party’s Sonia Gandhi dropped by too, as did G 20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant. Of artists in the melee, one could hardly keep count: Paresh Maity, Jayasri Burman, Satish Gupta, Sakti Burman, Maite Delteil and Maya Burman, V. Ramesh and Veer Munshi, Manu Parekh and Madhvi Parekh, Vibha Galhotra, Jagannath Panda, Manisha Parekh, Seema Kohli, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, Kavita Jaiswal and Kanchan Chander—a who’s who of the Indian art world. Museum teams came in singly and in groups including Max Hollein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tasneem Zakaria Mehta of the Bhau Daji Lad in Mumbai; the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s Bose Krishnamachari marked his colourful attendance, Chandigarh’s Diwan Manna herded a group of art students from Punjab.

The fair management had announced ‘art tours’ that were led by specialist interns who pointed out the highlights at various booths among which DAG was a major pitstop with its Thomas Daniell landscape of Benares, Company Paintings and other rare masterpieces. Indian modern masters—in short supply and high demand—were represented at the DAG, Dhoomimal, Grosvenor, Aicon, Vadehra and Crayon booths by F. N. Souza, M. F. Husain, K. H. Ara, Himmat Shah, J. P. Gangooly, S. H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Nandalal Bose and that perennial, crowd-pulling favourite, Jamini Roy. Ravinder Reddy’s heads, K. S. Radhakrishnan’s figures of Musui and Maiya, and Thota Vaikuntam’s vibrant men and women of rural Telengana were crowd-pullers. If Paresh Maity dazzled with his sizes, Manu Parekh was a compulsive draw with his colours. At Berlin-based gallery Neugerriemschneider, the huge panorama, a riff on Monet’s Water Lilies by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, was a massive draw and selfie point.

There was as much air kissing as there were serious conversations. Veer Munshi’s work consisted of ‘miniature’ style paintings on wood that resembled Kashmiri carpets, reflecting the loss of homeland of the Kashmiri Pundits; Subodh Gupta’s bartans were a nod to hunger in a time of plenty; others concerned themselves with gender, economic or class marginalisaton; Prayag Sonaghare’s compelling, large portraits were as realistic as photographs and addressed issues of loneliness in an ageing population. Artists were at pains to explain how their work was not static but experimental.

If there was too much art to take in, there was respite to be had on those cold February days over a drink or two at the various pop-up bars and restaurants that were nearly as popular as the booths and thronged with people who didn’t mind queueing up or sharing tables as long as there was a gin-and-tonic to be shared, or a kebab roll to be enjoyed. Chetan Seth’s daughter Ambika Seth-founded Caara and Elma’s are now staples but a food court made it a little easier to dispense food more efficiently to the thousands who wanted coffee and a bite of something. Even when the fair wound up nightly at 7:00 pm, the food court buzzed with diners and tipplers till much later while visitors decided where they wanted to go next. CMYK’s book stall showed off the range of art books published in India and overseas and was the venue for book launches including Seema’s Kohli’s much-awaited Restless Line in the Art of Seema Kohli that was launched at the Jaipur Literary Festival a day ahead of its debut at the art fair. Presenting partner BMW’s VIP Lounge was the venue for scintillating conversations, while other partners included JSW, Stir, Tarun Tahiliani, Rado, Chandon and dozens more.

At the end, though, an art fair isn’t just about experiences and exhilaration. For the serious viewer, this is Indian art at a glance, linking the past with the present, a mega-mall of known and lesser-known names whose works, seen together, provide a bird’s-eye view of the moment’s best on offer at prices both reasonable and exorbitant. If there were signed prints worth a few thousand, there were paintings worth several crore each in a marketplace brimming once again with exuberance and confidence. That art is an appreciating asset was also a point to note as the term “investment” kept popping up time and again.

But investment or not, the India Art Fair remains one of the best forums in which to view, admire or buy art, and the recently concluded edition proved its vitality with a display and quality that deserves to be recognised for its own heritage and legacy.

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