Mutual Art Indian Art on the Rise
August 25, 2010
Mutual Art

Has Indian Art stepped out of the shelter of the Asian Art category onto solid legs of its own? With specialized sales and a growing body of collectors, it seems the genre has achieved a sense of maturity, now enjoying a very exciting incubation stage. This summer, works by Indian artists met with success on the auction house floor, and stellar shows by both new and established artists captivated critics. What’s in store for Fall 2010? Experts Hugo Weihe, Peter Nagy, and Kishore Singh discuss the state of modern and contemporary Indian art, and offer their thoughts on what to expect next.

The recent sale of Bharti Kher’s elephant sculpture - which fetched a striking £993,250 ($1.5 million) at Sotheby’s on June 28th -- is a clear indicator of the genre’s rising popularity. Other stunning South Asian record-setters were seen earlier in the month, with Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale totalling an impressive £12.4 million, making it the most valuable sale for that genre in history. Another crowning achievement came for modern Indian art with the sale of Syed Haider Raza’s Saurashtra, 1983. The piece set a new world auction record when it sold to a private Indian museum for nearly $3.5 million.

As a testament to the genre’s staying power, Christie’s has plans to schedule more South Asian sales at several of its sites in the future. "The fact that we have added more sale locations for this category clearly shows the increasingly global demand for Modern & Contemporary Indian art,” says Hugo Weihe, Christie's International Director of Asian Art. "Christie's has three international sites for this category, with sales now scheduled for New York, London, and Hong Kong.” According to Weihe, since the auction house’s launch of its Modern and Contemporary Indian Art sales in New York a decade ago, the category has grown from $656,000 to achieve a staggering $45 million in 2008.

New-Delhi based Indian art expert Kishore Singh is confident that the genre will continue to prove successful in the market. As he views it, "It is true that Chinese art took the world by storm much earlier and has a stronger market, but analysts see Indian art as more sustainable, independent, better contextualized, and with a collecting base that is both Indian and increasingly, global."

Singh, who writes a weekly column on art in India's largest business daily Business Standard, believes modern Indian art is well established. Within it, he says, the artists of the ‘progressive’ artists' group command the market and bag the highest prices, while the younger contemporary artists are considered more experimental, barrier-breakers. Singh explains that despite the fact that the contemporaries are more akin to global movements, in India they have to fight to be seen and acknowledged.

Peter Nagy, however, still views Indian art as an emerging market. The artist, curator and owner of Nature Morte, has galleries in Berlin, New York, and New Delhi, where he has been living since 1992. "There are still gaping holes in the infrastructure of the Indian art world that keep it from maturing and competing properly on an international platform. Also, it is still very much a niche market outside of India. While we are seeing ‘mainstream’ collectors from Europe and other parts of Asia starting to collect Indian art, the market in the United States seems pretty much stuck only with the Indian community that lives there,” he told

How did the 2008 financial crisis affect this burgeoning art enterprise? "Our market inside of India is relatively healthy because the Indian economy is strong,” Nagy says. True, the demand for Indian art had initially cooled following the crash, but for the most part, the market has stabilized considerably and the recent sale successes point to a steady recovery. In fact, both Nagy and Singh agree that prices preceding the downfall in 2008 were grossly inflated, hinting that perhaps the crash was necessary in order for the market to re-stabilize. "Things went a bit nuts during the boom and prices did go too high, so things have slowed down somewhat and come back to a more reasonable level,” Nagy says.

According to Singh, by 2008 "...The pace had been hotted up to such an extent that it is possible there would have been a crash in India irrespective of what was happening in the world,” he explains. "There was too much money-chasing, too little art, or at least too little good art. People were willing to pay anything, artists had become greedy, gallery owners had stopped thinking and were just middlemen.” Nagy concurs that the Indian art bonanza prior to the crash caused considerable grief. "A lot of people came into the milk it for all it was worth during the boom, and fleeced quite a few people in the process. So confidence in contemporary art in general is low and many buyers have backed off and are waiting to see what happens."

Despite these setbacks, most experts are tentatively optimistic regarding the future of India’s art market. Even though it may take some time, Both Nagy and Singh expect a complete recovery. "The crash and the fact that many have been singed has resulted in soul-searching, and while the market for contemporaries will take a little longer to revive to the strong 2008 levels, the moderns have recovered well,” says Singh. "There are some interesting shows planned for the rest of the year and we will definitely see a hardening of prices.” Singh predicts, "The next two years will see the markets bounce back and penetrate newer segments, show more experimental art, and create an even stronger identity around the world."

To help further develop the Indian art market, Nagy seeks new contexts to present Indian art to the European and American markets, such as Phillips' BRIC auction. "Usually, the contemporary art of India is seen in hermetically sealed museum survey exhibitions (and often mixed with ethnographic or even folk-art material!) or tagged on the end of sales of Indian Classic and Modern art. Everyone involved needs to think out of the box and make the connections between contemporary art from India and other parts of the world more visible and evident."

Nagy is enthusiastic about up-and-coming-artists such as Bangalorean artist Abhishek Hazra, whose work he describes as "extraordinarily smart but also sexy in its use of images and materials.” Currently on display in Nagy’s New Delhi space are two works in a group show, " taking off from the body-prints of Yves Klein and another about the performance work of Valie Export. Highly unusual for India! I'm also continually impressed with the work of Amar Kanwar, a filmmaker who has moved into the art world. A large multi-channel, multi-faceted work of his about Myanmar is currently on view at the Guggenheim in Berlin. On the painting front, Ramakrishna Behera is a young guy from the eastern state of Orissa who splices together very traditional landscapes of the temples and jungles of his home with scenes of galaxies and star nebulae.”

Other than the established artists, Singh mentions "some hidden gems who in years to come will be recognized as masters” such as Gulam mohammed Sheikh, Neelima Sheikh, Ved Nayar, Gogi Saroj Pal, Bhupen Khakar and G.R. Santosh. According to Singh, "We also need to recognize that photography, largely sidelined, is possibly going to grow in a huge way (my favorites: Dayanita Singh and Pushpamala)."

Wiehe, in turn, points to future sales with lots by prominent South Asian artists, all with high estimates well over the hundred-thousand dollar mark. Of special note is Francis Newton Souza’s Untitled (Large Head), which Christie’s expects to sell for $1.2-1.8 million. Other lots in the spotlight include Manjit Bawa’s Untitled (Durga), with a high estimate of $250,000, and Subodh Gupta’s Densely Packed, predicted to sell between $250,000-300,000. Gupta, who is married to Bharti Kher, is no stranger to successful sales; typically his pieces are pricey, often surpassing $500,000. Some of Gupta’s new sculptures will be showcased in December at Nagy’s own Nature Morte in New Dehli. Nagy is thrilled about the upcoming event. "I'm very much looking forward to [the show],” and Gupta, he says, "is exploding with new ideas."

Weihe is even more enthusiastic about what lies ahead for the South Asian art market, as he claims, "[the] demand [for Indian Art] will continue to expand exponentially, the market has matured in that it focuses increasingly on quality, and significant works or masterpieces have very limited supply, so this combined provides an excellent base for prices to rise."

According to Weihe, when Christie's began sales in this category, the clientele was primarily comprised of Indians residing outside of India or of Indian descent, purchasing 95% of the works with 5% going to Western and East Asian clients. "Today,” he adds, "we are seeing that more and more clients within India are much more active due to deregulation in foreign exchange restrictions and a significant decrease in the customs duties. We are also seeing much more interest from our Western postwar and contemporary art collectors who have become more aware of the works of Indian artists in fairs, museum exhibitions, and biennials."

What does this say for investors? According to Weihe, "Actually, this is the best time to come in as a collector.”

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