On Indian Collectors

This article was published in the June issue of Wallpaper*.

The Great Pretender

Standing outside Gallery Maskara, in the belly of Mumbai’s art district in Colaba, you’d never guess you’re standing in front of one of Indian art’s most avant-garde galleries. Since 2007, the gallery has had inflatable babies, dust sculptures and other odd objects that can only belong in an art exhibition. One of the most memorable shows at the gallery was Shine Shivan’s debut solo in 2009. Titled “Sperm Weaver”, it made Gallery Maskara’s previous exhibitions look tame. His gender-bending works looked at sexuality with a dark mischief and brutal frankness that is rare in Indian contemporary art. One installation was titled “Used Dicks” and was made of empty nests of weaver birds and Shivan’s mother’s hair. “Psycho Phallus” was a site-specific installation comprising two enormous, 11-foot towers made of grass, wood and cow dung patties. It created quite a buzz, literally. Along with viewers, the cow dung attracted a swarm of files. But “Sperm Weaver” established Shivan as one of the most promising young artists in India today. His work used elements that were intrinsically Indian, like the cow dung patties that can be seen all over rural India, but Shivan’s concerns and practice were not limited by his nationality. Of course the question that hovered in most visitors’ minds was, who would buy something like “Psycho Phallus”?

Exhibiting unsaleable shows has been a cross frequently borne by most Indian galleries of repute. The artists who receive critical acclaim are rarely the ones who are popular among Indian buyers, much to the frustration of gallerists. While bland landscapes and paintings of doe-eyed women, Buddhas and Ganeshas have a steady market, only a few collectors are willing to put their money into the innovative contemporary art that respected galleries showcase. “India-based commercial galleries, especially those based in Mumbai, are the driving force for the Indian contemporary scene,” said Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Mumbai gallery Chatterjee & Lal with his wife, Tara Lal. “It is they that represent the tastemakers as of the present moment,” he said. “We await a new generation of collectors to emerge.”

In comparison to the art markets of America and Europe, the subcontinent is a minuscule cog in the global machine of art. The habit of buying art is a new one in India and most contemporary art galleries complain that those who buy art are mostly speculators, not collectors. Rather than judging a work for its aesthetic value, the question that is regularly asked is whether the financial value will appreciate. “The market is still very conservative and fixated on painting,” said Peter Nagy, who came to India as an American tourist in the early nineties and became so fascinated with the country that he returned to stay and opened the gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997. Today Nature Morte is one of the leading contemporary art galleries in India, with a branch in Berlin and a tie-up with Bose Pacia in New York. Nagy’s list of artists include superstars like Subodh Gupta, Anita Dube and Raqs Media Collective; all of them known for making the kind of avant-garde art that few would consider suitable for the wall space above the living room sofa.

“If you take someone like Subodh Gupta, Indian collectors are more likely to pay the amounts that his works are worth for a painting,” said Nagy. “But Subodh is primarily a sculptor and the international market is interested in his sculptural work.”

While many Indian contemporary art galleries are heavily dependent upon foreign collectors and institutional buyers, there is a select set of Indian collectors who are more interested in the present than the past. Hotelier and co-founder of the Devi Art Foundation, Anupam Poddar, for example, is one of the most revered collectors of Indian art precisely because of his collection has a strong emphasis upon the contemporary. The Poddar collection was begun in the 1980s by his mother, Lekha. Lekha Poddar put together a noteworthy collection of Indian art, mostly paintings, from the early twentieth century. It was Anupam Poddar who broadened the scope when he began buying unconventional works in the 1990s when the current luminaries of Indian contemporary art, like Subodh Gupta and Anita Dube, were young upstarts.

“My love for Indian contemporary art developed through my deep friendships with artists who were making courageous works at that time when I started collecting,” said Poddar. “But it is also about a desire to possess those objects, images, moving images that affect you at a gut level, and how they grow on you over time at living spaces.” His collection today includes every Indian contemporary artist of note and has some of the most bizarre pieces that have been shown in India, including Sudarshan Shetty’s large-scale sculpture titled “Love”, which shows a metallic dinosaur skeleton simulating sex with sports car. The Devi Art Foundation, which opened in 2008 in a suburb of Delhi, is the first attempt at a private museum for contemporary art in India. It shows exhibitions curated out of the growing Poddar collection.

For Rajshree Pathy, an entrepreneur who bought her first painting at the age of 17 (it was by M.F. Husain and set her back by Rs. 17, 000, which is peanuts compared to what any Husain painting is valued at today), the works of contemporary Indian artists resonate in a way that art from other time periods and countries cannot. “I only collect Indian contemporary,” she said. “I visit most international museums and the major art fairs during the year, but I’ve decided to focus on what we have here. I collect any medium — painting, sculpture, installations and more recently, digital art. Whatever is strong, edgy and perhaps controversial. Contemporary art is nothing but a visual expression of the issues that confront society today, so it’s a bit ugly, a bit macabre, and not so pleasant!”

Pathy’s complete commitment to Indian contemporary art is rare. Most collectors have chosen to include art from other time periods or countries in their collections. “When you collect across a wide range, you filter better and you’re creating a dialogue between the various artists that is interesting,” said businessman Anurag Khanna, who lives in a small town in Gujarat and has over the past nine years amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art, with an emphasis on video. Khanna is not interested in artists born before 1960 and while he has a few paintings in his collection, he doesn’t care much for the conventional canvas. “Paintings around our house to me are like clothes in a cupboard,” he said. “They’re there and it’s all around you. You stop noticing them and you don’t really stand in front of the work and think about it. Video art requires you to make an effort. Putting on the dvd, the darkened room, it all pushes you to watch it and think.”

Like most collectors in India, Khanna travels within the country and internationally to keep abreast of what is happening in the art world. This wider perspective has led to him turning increasingly to buying works by foreign artists. He feels video in particular is handled ineptly by South Asian artists whereas the same medium in the hands of international artists like Keren Cytter and Jane and Louise Wilson can give a viewer goosebumps. “Indian contemporary art is not exciting right now,” he said bluntly. “I find it expensive and Indian artists are not pushing boundaries and prices are still absurd. To me, if I have Rs. 40 lakhs, there’s enough I can do with it internationally. I don’t have to spend it on Indian art that isn’t of that high a standard.”

Khanna’s sentiment is echoed by Poddar, who is widely regarded as one who is ahead of the curve so far as the Indian art market is concerned. When asked if contemporary Indian art excited him as much as it used to earlier, Poddar replied, “Not always!” He said he was now looking at art from “regions like Central Asia and Iran, which are more exciting for me at the moment.” His criteria for art that he considers worth buying is demanding : “I respond to those works which are original, honest and more importantly courageous. There is no one particular medium that I exclusively collect, but I am drawn towards those works that challenge mediatic conventions.”

Given his waning interest in Indian contemporary art, this would suggest he isn’t seeing these qualities in the works of most upcoming artists. While there are Indian artists that he is “curiously following”, Poddar doesn’t feel that Indian contemporary art has developed a distinctive character. “Although Indian artists have been trying to play out Indianness through culturally specific content, it is too early to say if Indian contemporary art has a distinct character,” he said. “For example, Pakistani contemporary art is deriving a lot from the miniature painting traditions and even while abandoning that mode of representation towards more inter-media works, their practice is still animated by rigorous traditional training. That kind of a national identity is lacking in Indian contemporary art.”

The question of whether Indian art has a national identity is one that irks most gallerists. “Indian contemporary art is marked by its very diversity,” said Chatterjee. “Unlike the Chinese contemporary art scene, India has never really been afflicted by identikit artists.” As far as Peter Nagy is concerned, the question is irrelevant. “I don’t know why there is a demand that Indian art have a distinctive character,” he said. “Do we do this with American art or French art? I think it’s a bit of a disservice.”

Whether or not Indian contemporary art is distinctive becomes relevant with galleries and artists from the subcontinent stepping on to the international stage. Artists like Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Shilpa Gupta (no relation of Subodh) with their innovative practices have got foreign galleries representing them (Hauser & Wirth, Haunch of Venison and Yvon Lambert respectively) and this has helped generate more international interest in art from the subcontinent. Over the past five years, an increasing number of Indian galleries are participating in art fairs. They’ve showcased the talent in their stables alongside the best galleries of Western Europe and America at Basel, Hong Kong, Dubai and elsewhere. There’s been greater access to foreign buyers, both private and institutional. Also, the participating Indian galleries have been able to rub shoulders with their brethren in other parts of the world.

“As a gallerist what I enjoy most [about art fairs] is that I get to meet gallerists from all over and they are all at work,” said Sunitha Kumar Emmart, who runs GallerySKE in Bengaluru. “One gets to meet people from all over the world — collectors, curators, museum directors, artists, and many more.

It is also a space where one can initiate collaborative projects with other galleries.” The world of art fairs has removed what gallerist Prateek Raja, who runs Experimenter in Kolkata, describes as a sense of “geographical alienation”. The question is, can Indian contemporary artists hold their own and stand out next to their peers from other countries or are they remarkable only within the South Asian niche?

The gallerists are confident their artists can. The diversity in Indian art practices today is its greatest strength, they argue. “The most exciting thing about Indian contemporary art is its ability to capture this mega-nation’s multiplicity and to do this through mediums that are challenging and at the same time representatives of the times,” said Raja. Galleries like Chatterjee & Lal, Experimenter, Gallery SKE, Project 88, Photoink and Gallery Maskara should know. Over the last few years, they have been consistently showcasing new talent whose works have not succumbed to predictable tropes and have received critical acclaim. Some of their artists have won over even doubting collectors like Poddar and Khanna. When asked which upcoming Indian artists had interested Poddar in recent times, he gave the following names: Sakshi Gupta, Shreyas Karle, Baptist Coelho, Minam Apang, Kiran Subbiah and Susanto Mandal. Khanna’s list had many of the same names, as well as Pakistani artist Bani Abidi and Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen. All these artists were discovered and are represented by the galleries listed above.

“The missing link in India are the legitimising institutions,” said Nagy, “Abroad, all big institutions, such as Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have a small gallery that focuses upon experimental contemporary art. They play the role of validating and legitimising a selection of the contemporary artists. That, in turn, makes the collectors more confident about this type of work. We have nothing like that in India.”

It has fallen upon galleries and collectors to fill the space created by the absence of museums, and they have. Today Poddar doesn’t simply collect for himself but for Devi Art Foundation. Collector Kiran Nadar opened up her personal collection to the public in 2010 when she set up the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in a Delhi suburban mall. The galleries that have been championing contemporary art continue to do so, even as they struggle to find a happy balance between earning enough from the business of art to keep nurturing art practices that have a limited market within the country.

Despite the absence of infrastructure and frustrations, there’s a determined confidence the country’s gallerists that Indian contemporary art isn’t a bubble but rather a nascent scene. “There wasn’t a market for Richard Serra in the New York and London of the 1970s,” Nagy pointed out. “He didn’t have a market till the ‘80s and ‘90s so why complain about India and its market today?”

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