Indian contemporary art thrives in a booming economy

Indian contemporary art thrives in a booming economy


Mumbai: Artist Atul Dodiya is feted at galleries in New York and London where his paintings sell for six figure sums. But it’s in Mumbai where he chooses to create art reflecting the tumultuous changes his native India is undergoing.

Cacophonous neighbours, choking traffic and the bustle of daily life provide a fertile playground of ideas that feed Dodiya’s prolific creativity in his studio in a squalid quarter of Mumbai, where monsoon floods prompt an annual struggle to keep storm water out of homes.

“I enjoy the people around me, the daily life problems and their joys and sorrow are all part of my oeuvre," Dodiya, 48, told Reuters.

“Life is tough for these people, but they still smile and soldier on. Why should I look anywhere else for inspiration?" he asks.

Dodiya is riding high on a wave of success. His “Three Painters" sold for $541,000, more than triple its pre-sales estimate, at a Christie’s auction in New York last week.

The sale confirmed Dodiya’s reputation as a leader in a generation of contemporary Indian artists whose canvases fill with the colours of a country on the boil, drawing from a range of issues like rapid development, a growing income gap between rich and poor and politics and violence.

“A poor family saves 2,000 ($50) a year so that they can buy a new television. And then you see people spending 200,0000 on a single party," Dodiya said. “How will this dichotomy not affect a creative mind?"

The artists themselves are part of the economic boom that has led to a mushrooming of art galleries and prices skyrocketing, making contemporary art as sought after as a badge of affluence as luxury cars and branded jewellery among the newly rich.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly hold auctions of Indian contemporary art and the works can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars amid an international boom in Asian art.

But Dodiya says it’s the recognition, and not the money, that is the main driver.

“Yes, true, the money has lifted the artist community from a lifetime of aesthetic and financial struggle," he said, reminiscing about a time when fathers refused to marry their daughters to artists. Though the ultimate satisfaction comes from seeing your work being sought after.

Artistic voices

The cultural reference point for this generation of Indian artists is as diverse as their choice of medium, although there is a preoccupation with politics. For a different kind of inspiration, some turn to garish Bollywood musicals.

Artist Subodh Gupta recasts cow-dung patties, kitchen fuel for millions of Indian country homes, in brass.

Baiju Parthan’s multi-panel pieces use digital code. Eleena Banik addresses women’s issues using sanitary napkins splashed with tomato ketchup.

But it’s not all fun -- contemporary Indian art is both a reflection of a society in transition and a biting commentary on what vexes India.

“Every creative mind will sooner or later recognize that their responsibility to the outside world is interlinked to being true to their inner voice and its expression," said Neville Tuli, head of Indian art auction house Osian’s.

Indian cataclysms, particularly spasms of Hindu-Muslim violence, have influenced the works of figurative painter Anjolie Ela Menon. Others have explicitly political concerns, their works imbued with a deep sense of anguish.

The 2002 religious riots in the western state of Gujarat that killed about 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, became the fodder for many anguished works of art.

“I did paint a few paintings," Menon, who was recently conferred with France’s Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, told Reuters recently. “There was one painting of a woman lying dead and her child trying to wake her.

“There is a painting of a man with a notice around his neck trying to trace a missing child. I think that has meaning even today."

The violence troubled Dodiya into producing one of his most acclaimed works called “Broken Branches" -- a series of tall showcases carefully arranged with used artificial limbs, rusted construction tools that belonged to the artist’s father, tinted photos, human bones and representations of birds.

Dodiya says the work refers directly to the religious massacres and maiming that occurred in the 2002 riots in his native Gujarat.

“Artists today are quite aware of the socio-political situation they are located in," he said.

“Lots of them today address, raise questions about the goings-on in this country. Contemporary art is certainly not calendar or poster art."