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Framed
July 19, 2017

What Does The Future Of Art Look Like For India?

Text by Riddhi Doshi

Although the overall sentiment towards contemporary works is low, a lot is expected out of them in the future

Men in crisp jackets and women in cocktail dresses collectively sighed as soon as they walked out of the heritage wing of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Their heads were held high but their shoulders drooped. Unwilling to talk, unless out of earshot. But a clearly dismayed young collector found it hard to bottle up his disappointment: where were the new contemporary works? He shrugged and moved on as well while the Christie’s staff prepared to talk to the media about 20 unsold lots of the total 73 and the overall lukewarm response to the contemporary and modern art section of their fourth annual sale in Mumbai, in December last year.

Soon after in March this year, the international auction house announced the discontinuation of its annual auctions in India. A few months later, Saffronart’s auction on February 16 couldn’t sell 14 per cent of its works including three paintings by M. F. Husain and one each by F. N. Souza, Jamini Roy, Akbar Padamsee, Anjolie Ela Menon, Sakti Burman, Ram Kumar, Manjit Bawa and Somnath Hore.

Market in flux
The Indian art market has experienced a tumultuous few months. While on the one hand galleries have been pushing for contemporary works in their exhibitions, fewer such works have featured in their sales records or at auctions. Moderns continue to be the money-spinners in primary and secondary sales ever since the Indian art economy crashed around 2009, following the short boom in 2007-’08 when contemporaries were in great demand. One still remembers the heydays —  of opening soirees, held not at galleries, but in opulent palaces around the country….

The glory days ended soon and the market hasn’t fully revived since. Experts believe that this is a period of transformation. One sees fewer investors, more serious collectors and a growing interest in antiquities. The good news though is that these are signs of a maturing space that could only go upwards from here.

Recent trends show an increased curiosity and maturity among buyers. The segment is seeing a healthy resurgence and stability with a stronger base, says Gaurav Bhatia, managing director, Sotheby’s India. “Initiatives such as the India Art Fair, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and new emerging private initiatives have created a small but wonderful ecosystem invigorating and shaping the collectors’ minds and giving them confidence. There is a realistic optimism and excitement today.”

Curator and advisor Farah Siddique seconds Bhatia. “In India, art sales forces have come into play only since the mid ’90s. Earlier, it was merely artist-driven. Hence, for a new ecosystem, India is doing quite well,” says Siddique. “It’s only growing just like any other international one such as China.”

“The market has quickly reached a clear understanding of what are good works,” says Hugo Weihe, chief executive officer of Saffronart. The arc of modernism is clearly defined now — we know what an outstanding work of F. N. Souza or S. H.  Raza is. Weihe believes this is very helpful for general awareness. “Modernists are very much in demand and that’s perfectly understandable as their works stand up and hold up against time, as they have already. That offers collectors a high level of security.”

Moderns on top
“Right now there is increasing connoisseurship in this area so if the works are among the best in the artist’s career, they do well. You can see a range with Husain or Souza’s works appearing from 25 lakh to 10 crores,” says Bhatia. Indian modernists are still considered very reasonable for the quality they offer. Moreover, their appeal tends to be universal, with themes that relate to history and religion.

Even galleries that mainly focus on contemporary art have been selling modern masterpieces to financially sustain themselves, believes collector Vishal Vora. “I am keen on both, but am more secure about the works of the moderns because I know I will enjoy them for the rest of my life and also know that I’ll surely get good returns if I wish to sell these in the future.”

Siddiqui urges collectors to be careful about provenance, authenticity, period of the artists’ career and quality of work. Apparently the feud between M. F.  Husain’s children and the practice of unregulated authentication has led to suspicion and fall in demand of his works. Despite that, his and other moderns like Tyeb Mehta, F. N. Souza and S. H. Raza are high in demand.

Paint by numbers
“The varied price points are to be blamed,” says Vora. “I recently bought a work by Reena Saini Kallat from an auction house for one lakh including the customs and taxes. A similar creation, made in the same year and of the same size, would have been hard to come by in the primary section. The gallery would have asked for a lot more.” This practice is disheartening for collectors. Vora also thinks that many contemporary artists have been repeatedly producing the same kind of works, perhaps those that are more popular among collectors. “One expects variety and novelty from them. That seems to be missing.”

Solo shows by the younger talent have become a rare phenomenon. Primary section forces don’t want to commit to long-term promotion of the unestablished lot. “These artists then are just one-show wonders. They are in the limelight for a while and then sort of disappear. This further discourages an investor,” adds Vora.

Contemporary is the future
Works by Amar Kanwar, Nikhil Chopra, Gauri Gill and Nilima Sheikh are being exhibited at Documenta this year, indicating that certain contemporary artists are well-received on the international circuit. But here too moderns are in the majority, with Ganesh Haloi, Amrita Sher-Gil, K. G. Subramanyan, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and Benode Behari Mukherjee being featured alongside them. From October the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris will host artist Nalini Malani’s retrospective until January 2018. “I always remind people that all art was once contemporary,” says Weihe. “We are now looking out for artists who will be the modernists of the future.”

Bhatia concurs, adding that now is the time to buy contemporary. “The Indian art market is on the verge of transformation, it is well-supported and diverse in its buyer base.” Collectors are more discerning, they are not in a rush to buy and are looking carefully and researching what they want to acquire. This is all going to lead to a more stable market — a good future for contemporary works on the international stage, comparable with others such as China. “There is a latent consciousness to collect and a need to know how to collect,” he says.

Age of Antiquities
The market is also warming up to antiques and ancient artefacts such as bronzes, a trend which emerged about three years ago. “I would credit education and more awareness for the growing interest in this segment,” says Siddiqui.

Though there is a lot of room for expansion here, Weihe finds it remarkable to see antiquities valued at such low prices. Not so much material has yet come to the market and it’s an area which needs to develop. “These are the extraordinary achievements of the past and the prices are far too low compared to the top prices in modernism. Dealers still don’t know too much about antiquities and the right prices.”

But this is slowly changing. The market’s rigour online has attracted many new collectors. The second wave of NRIs in India and buyers from South East Asia and other parts of the continent are showing more interest in India’s artistic creation now. “Technology has propelled sales and the local clientele bidding online in worldwide sales has increased by 100 per cent over the last five years,” says Bhatia. “Anecdotally one hears of a new major collector very often now.  A collector that is curious, travelling to fairs and biennales across the world, buying via galleries, at auctions and through private sales.”

Our young collector at the Taj is surely one among them and must be happy to know that though the present looks bleak, it’s only prepping up for a better future.

Inside Notes
The time to buy contemporary is now as you can build a good contemporary collection for a relatively small amount of money. Here are some tips….

“Go look, look and look.

Mix it up. The Indian contemporary home is no longer restricted to age-old cliched buckets like ‘minimal’ or ‘opulent’ but instead speaks a complex language of history,modern art and design.

The trend that is global is to collect cross-category — modern and contemporary works, interspersed with antiquities, classical like miniatures, colonial and mid-century modern furniture along with decorative.”

Gaurav Bhatia, Managing Director, Sotheby’s India

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