The scramble for India

Thursday was Republic Day in India, and in the spruced-up streets of New Delhi thousands of bandbox-perfect troops in fantastic costumes, their scimitars and bagpipes offset with more modern trappings of war, did a proud and proper job of celebrating getting rid of the British. This country still boasts a mounted cavalry regiment – glorious creatures in silks and silver. The horses are also fine. They may do little more than play polo to scare an enemy, but they and the equally awesome Camel Corps parading up Lutyens’ mighty avenues make a link with an important ceremonial past. And I don’t mean the huge durbahs staged by the British – those in turn were cribbed from the more ancient customs of Indian rulers. No, it’s about the fact that this country understands the power of gesture.

But there’s nothing like the scream of fighter jets overhead to bring you sharply back to the modern world. There has been plenty of sabre-rattling on the cultural front this month, with the much publicised absence of Salman Rushdie from the Jaipur literary festival. Islamic extremists were his threat – but it can come from the other side too. Just this time last year in Delhi, I was peering at paintings by the Muslim artist MF Husain through the burly shoulders of heavily armed policemen: threats to the organisers of the India Art Fair from Hindu extremists had meant that some perfectly innocuous works were first removed, then replaced under heavy guard. It was a delight to imagine how furious the would-be troublemakers must have been when they learnt of the great queues of people who then assembled to gaze at these apparently explosive works. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

This year, as the fourth edition of the India Art Fair opened its gleaming tents to the public, such churlish behaviour seemed distant. International galleries are here in force, and perhaps most pleasing for India is the way the cultural tables are turned: the scene here is one of westerners chasing the bulging wallets of India’s middle classes. History has done a loop: a hundred years ago, entire cabinetmaking factories turning out fine Art Nouveau and Deco in Birmingham and Belgium depended almost solely on the so-called Maharajah Market.

The FT’s sister company Penguin India used the Jaipur festival as a launchpad for its own assault last weekend, with a marketing campaign as retro as the Camel Corps. Take India’s best-loved piece of nostalgia, the Ambassador car, and link it with bookish Britain’s sweetest old memory, the orange and white colours of pre-Pearson Penguin fiction, and you have an irresistible flagship. The painted car’s roadshow is designed to persuade Indians to splurge on that ultra-retro technology, the book. Who knows whether Penguin India’s star author Vikram Seth is amused by other marketing props, such as A Suitable Mug and A Suitable Bag. The company’s new publisher, Chiki Sarkar, neatly continues today’s military metaphor by promising a publicity “Blitzkreig” for important new titles.

At the Art Fair, meanwhile, retro does not rule. The great majority of the work is paint, and some of it feels barely dry: many labels have 2011 as their dateline. Didn’t artists use to make their work and after a while gallerists and dealers might come along and sell it? Well, in fact there’s a long roll call of artists making work in response to demand (think of Picasso). This is obviously happening here: the fair’s growing success is creating a scene that gallerists and artists rush to be part of. From Melbourne and Moscow, South Africa and Singapore, New York and Norwich they are here in force, hoping to coax the new Indian collector. This year director Neha Kirpal has partnered with Angus Montgomery, the experienced fair organiser that owns a sizeable chunk of Art Hong Kong, among others.

That the scene in Delhi is growing fast is evident from the likes of Abadi Art Space, established just a year ago by the Spanish-born adopted Delhiite José Abad, and risking its neck at its first art fair with engaged photographic and video work by Vineet Kumar, among others.

The presence, for the first time, of some big-ticket galleries adds lustre. White Cube has a beautiful stand offering unthreatening examples from its powerhouse stable: a Damien Hirst gold cabinet and a neon Tracey Emin among them. Hauser & Wirth make a magnificent display of big, showy installation pieces by the Wills & Kate of Indian art, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, but have also brought along some gentle drawings by Henry Moore. This shows a strong new trend – taking important western names to the Indian marketplace. Online specialists in Indian art, Saffronart, have announced their first auction of Impressionists next month, and in preparation for that are touring some big works – by Van Gogh, for instance – to Delhi and Mumbai. It’s another sort of roadshow new to the subcontinent, which will test the market in a new way – just as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala in late 2012 will mark yet another first for India.

But perhaps the new departure that most cheered me was news from the British artist Marc Quinn, grinning broadly as he told me that next year will see a whole solo show of his in Delhi, under the wing of the British Council. To put this in context, there’s only been one such contemporary show ever before, and that was by Anish Kapoor, last year. Marc Quinn will be the first non-Indian: no pressure then, Marc.

India Art Fair ends on Sunday,

Peter Aspden’s column returns in two weeks

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