Full speed ahead at the India Art Summit

It is unusual to be peering at a work of art through the gap between two burly, uniformed policemen’s shoulders, your nose only inches away from the business end of a large gun. But at last weekend’s India Art Summit, Delhi’s modern and contemporary art fair, this was how it had to be: security was out in force to guard three canvases by MF Husain, the veteran Indian artist who fell foul of Hindu extremist opinion several years ago. Since then, whenever his work has been shown in India, threats of violence hokave come in by phone and e-mail from as far afield as Switzerland and the 95-year-old artist himself now lives between London and Qatar.

Neha Kirpal, the fair’s eloquent 32-year-old director, has a way of turning a potential disaster into a triumph. Although the works were taken down from the Delhi Art Gallery booth on the first day of the fair, Kirpal appealed to senior figures in the police force. Their agreement to provide the necessary help to put the pictures back was, says Kirpal, “a great breakthrough. That they helped us shows a real difference in the official attitudes.”

For the ensuing days of the fair, queues formed to view the (apparently perfectly innocuous) canvases: if the Art Summit had needed more local publicity, this would certainly have provided it.

It seemed, however, that the extra press attention was hardly necessary. The four days of the event, which is now in its third edition, attracted an astonishing 128,000 visitors to the 84 galleries, roughly equivalent to the footfall at Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach put together. Even allowing for the fact that, whether it’s a bus or a birthday party, there are always more people in India, this figure seemed to amaze everyone, even the organisers. “This shows,” Kirpal tells me, “that people are thirsty for art. Some had never even been to a gallery before.”

Perhaps not; but many certainly had and there seemed to be no shortage of sophisticated buyers. People came, Kirpal told me, with her seamless command of facts and figures, from 67 cities around the world, including 17 in India. Galleries reported 60-70 per cent sales, across all price ranges, but particularly in the $500,000+ bracket, with most of the star attractions (Picassos, a Dalí, works by Souza) all sold. The Indian diaspora was well in attendance, with non-resident Indian (NRI) buyers coming from New York, California and elsewhere. The younger galleries did well with photography and video; there were sales to museums in Israel, Monaco, Australia, Shanghai and elsewhere. Most significantly, perhaps, some galleries reported that as much as 80 per cent of their sales were to first-time collectors.

By the end of this impressive roll-call of statistics, when Kirpal tells me that such figures “challenge the preconceptions of the market potential in India”, I can hardly disagree. Since every one of these figures is at least double, and sometimes four or five times, greater than those of the previous edition of the fair, there is undoubtedly a sea-change taking place in the Indian contemporary art scene.

Around Delhi, too, the effect was felt. Anish Kapoor’s first full retrospective in his native land spreads impressively across New Delhi’s National Gallery of Art, and it seems that you have to know Delhi to realise how groundbreaking such a government-backed initiative is. Kapoor was born in Mumbai in 1954 and moved to London in his early 20s: since his work is all made in Britain he is considered a British sculptor rather than an Indian one, but in Delhi last weekend he was feted as a homecoming king. At the fair’s discussion forum, his session with Professor Homi Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, was packed to the rafters; afterwards, eager photographers jostled each other to snap these two prominent NRIs. And at the party to celebrate the Skoda Prize for Indian contemporary art, also awarded last week to the young Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen, the pair were again among the feted guests.

“In this country, if you want to do something you have to do everything yourself.” This comment was from the artist Bharti Kher, whose studio in “new-New Delhi”, the satellite city of Gurgaon, holds work in preparation for her next international solo show, at Perrotin in Paris in the spring. Everyone, everywhere, echoed her. Beyond the problems of bureaucracy (the mountains of paperwork required to bring work in and out of the country) and taxation, there were complaints about lack of government support for the arts across the board from art schools to exhibitions.

India’s wealthy individual collectors are, however, moving to fill the void and last Friday saw the opening of India’s first philanthropic private museum, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA). Wife of the head of HCL, the IT conglomerate, and herself a former advertising professional, Kiran Nadar decided to open her collection of modern and contemporary Indian work to the public not in some aloof mansion but in a mall – albeit a glamorous one – where she wants accessibility, for a public unused to gallery-visiting, to be a priority.

Art and business are close bedfellows in today’s India, and not only because the latter funds the collectors of the former. Nadar’s museum is aimed partly at the 65,000 employees of HCL, acting as a way of teaching people about art and “enriching the employees’ creativity and overall work experience”, as its mission statement has it.

At the Devi Art Foundation, too, the collection of Lekha and Anupam Poddar – hundreds of varied works including painting, sculpture, interactive installation, video, photography, tribal and village art – is spread over the office walls of a gleaming steel and glass building in the futuristic business district of Gurgaon. Transformed on Sunday night for the closing party of the fair, with open-air bars and thumping disco music, its opulence (and the surrounding moonscape of half-built luxury offices) made an ironic contrast to some of the work from India’s remote village cultures. The foundation is open to the public but can hardly be central enough to draw much in the way of passing visitors: its mission, though, like that of the KNMA, is partly educational.

Elsewhere in Gurgaon, leading Indian sculptor and painter Subodh Gupta has an airy purpose-built studio where assistants are busily working indoors and out on his huge new projects, while his latest painting stands in the upstairs office. His studio is half an hour away from that of Bharti Kher, his wife: together, they are Indian art’s power couple, represented around the world by galleries such as Hauser & Wirth. Gupta’s show at Nature Morte, gallerist Peter Nagy’s Delhi space, displayed some new work in marble as well as recent oils on canvas – like Kher, Gupta works in an impressive range of media. Much of it is distinctly Indian-themed – cooking pots, rickshaw bicycles, figures from Indian mythology – but his huge black bronze head of the Mona Lisa complete with the goatee and moustache with which Duchamp adorned her, about to go on display in London, reflects his standing as an internationalist.

Internationalism is important: India will have a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the first time this year. Mumbai-based art critic, curator and writer Ranjit Hoskote will curate the exhibition, which eschews the big names – no Gupta or Jitish Kallat – to showcase several young talents. It’s a line-up that will include The Desire Machine Collective from Assam, in India’s often-neglected north-east, who make experimental works including a “sound map” inspired by a sacred forest. New-York-based minimalist printmaker Zarina Hashmi will also represent the country, as will Kerala-born installation artist Gigi Scaria and Praneet Soi, who spends part of his time in Amsterdam. All these artists “stretch the idea of India”, according to Hoskote, tackling transcultural themes of history and migration.

As Neha Kirpal had succinctly put it: this is a country “thirsty for art”.

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